Richard Kelly, the genius behind cult hit Donnie Darko is back with another twisted tale of tangent universes that stars Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Rock, Stiffler and JT, and quotes liberally from Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and the book of Revelation. It’s a sprawling, maddening film that entertains and confounds in equal measure – a mystery waiting to be unravelled.
“This is the way the world ends,
this is the way the world ends,
this is the way the world ends,
not with a whimper but with a bang.”
— an adapted section of “The Hollow Men” by T. S. Eliot,
as it appears in a new film by Richard Kelly.
Initial box-office figures for the science-fiction period film Donnie Darko weren’t exactly stellar, but a few months after it was declared a flop, director Richard Kelly noticed posters popping up around Manhattan for midnight screenings of the film. It would go on to screen theatrically for 28 consecutive months in one case, stopping its run only to be replaced by the 2004 Director’s Cut. The film made more than US$15m on DVD sales alone – it had attained a cult following. Of Donnie Darko, the New York Times reviewer Robert Levine wrote, “Mr. Kelly took a genre usually seen as disposable and worked in a philosophical undercurrent.”
With Southland Tales, his ambitious new film, Kelly works in philosophical, religious and political communiqués and enlists the help of a number of friends – including Kevin Smith, of Clerks and Jay and Silent Bob fame – to create yet another tale of mystery and intrigue, peppered with vague references to the end of the world and overt social commentary. Southland Tales makes many direct references to its predecessor and other standard sci-fi conceits, working in time travel paradoxes, wormholes, and a ‘rift in the space-time continuum’ – conveniently located somewhere in the desert; and it is with a nearly-deserted terrain that this film begins.
The film opens with a bang: in Abilene, Texas, on Independence Day, 2005, a mushroom cloud signals the detonation of a nuclear bomb – America’s Hiroshima, declare the news reports – which ignites World War III. During this first sequence, we see several frames from comics created by Kelly and Smith; these form the Southland Tales prequels – the film is parts four, five and six in the series. Hereafter Justin Timberlake, in the guise of “Private Abilene”, narrates over the top of a FOX News-style exposition; we learn that in the wake of the attack, the US government has strengthened its abilities to control citizens, implementing inter-state visa controls and creating US-IDent, a ‘colossal think-tank’ combining the powers of the NSA, CIA and FBI to enforce newly created elements of the PATRIOT Act. One such element is full federal control of cyberspace. It’s interesting to note that the phrase “ident” has a number of meanings: in computer terms it is an Internet protocol designed to identify the user of a particular connection; in the world of broadcasting – and US-IDent controls all broadcasting – it is shorthand for station identification, and it also has a similar meaning in the field of aviation. Through US-Ident, all of the Southland – a name given to the southern portion of California by its residents – is under surveillance 24/7/365.
The main plot of the film concentrates on the story of Boxer Santaros (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), an actor with political ties who disappears mysteriously in the desert outside Los Angeles. He wakes up and wanders back home, only to find he has amnesia and is somehow involved with Krysta Kapowski (alias “Krysta Now”, Sarah Michelle Gellar), an ersatz Paris Hilton and host of a current-affairs-reality-television show. Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne) is the Deputy director of the NSA, and his wife, Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), is the head of US-IDent: a woman surrounded by plasma screens with the ability to see anyone, anywhere, anytime – much like the Architect in the Matrix films. Intent on finding Santaros, they begin by monitoring the underground society known as the neo-Marxists, a loose affiliation of civil liberties proponents who faithfully adhere to the philosophy of Karl Marx, and who live by the maxim “Destroy Capitalism; Dethrone God.” Together, Krysta Kapowski and Boxer Santaros have written a screenplay entitled “The Power”, which “foretold the tale of our destruction” – and this is where Southland Tales becomes both ridiculously self-referential and complex, and completely engrossing, because the film itself is about a potential future apocalypse.
“With the ‘war machine’ running out of gas, and without an alternative – an alternative fuel, that is,” the government looks for a way out. They find it in ‘fluid karma,’ the invention of one Baron von Westphalen, a ‘renegade scientist’ who has found a way to tap the energy created by the ocean tides – a theory he calls “quantum entanglement”. A new kind of war is being fought, one between the neo-Marxists and the US government, each using espionage and surveillance to keep tabs on the other, and planting moles in the other’s organisation.
Along with the narrative of Boxer Santaros’ supposed amnesia, there is another story developing: the neo-Marxists have taken hostage a racist cop, Ronald Tavener, and his identical twin brother, Roland. Veronica Mung (alias Dream, Saturday Night Live’s Amy Poehler), along with another neo-Marxist, stage a murder by Roland impersonating his brother. The idea is to have it captured on tape by Boxer Santaros and fool US-IDent into thinking that it’s real. Their ploy is interrupted by the arrival of another cop, Bart Bookman (Jon Lovitz), who murders the neo-Marxists, ruining their hopes of infiltrating US-IDent and bringing it down from the inside. In a subplot, the neo-Marxists support Proposition 69 – and, yes, that does carry with it the sexual innuendo you’re think it does – which sets out to limit the powers of the government under the PATRIOT Act; public service announcements for and against the proposition appear throughout the film and add to its sense of plausibility.
As strange and confusing as this already sounds, it gets more bizarre. A scene occurs near the middle of the film, where our narrator, Private Abilene (Timberlake), meets with Martin Kefauver (Lou Taylor Pucci, Thumbsucker) to exchange pot for fluid karma, and after injecting himself we are propelled into his dreamspace where he proceeds to perform a musical number in time to the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done,” the lyrics of which may or may not be significant. Oh, and he’s wearing a t-shirt stained with blood in the pattern of Frank the Bunny from Donnie Darko. Kevin Smith plays Simon Theory, a wheelchair-bound Iraqi war veteran who works for Baron von Westphalen, and in preparation for the apocalypse, he, along with a rag-tag troupe of outcasts who look like extras lost on their way to the set of a David Lynch film. Beth Grant appears as the woman behind the creation of a modern-day zeppelin – made by Treer, the same company involved in bringing fluid karma to the masses -aboard which is hosted a high-society ‘evacuation’ party. At the same time, Ronald and Roland Tavener, the latter having been freed from captivity, float above the Southland alongside the zeppelin in an icecream truck which inexplicably contains a portal to an alternate time-space dimension. One of the two – it’s easy to get them confused – has been shot in the eye: yet another nod to Frank the Bunny. Aboard the zeppelin, Madeline Santaros (Mandy Moore) is reunited with her husband for the first time since the film opened, and she, along with Krysta Now, perform a slow-motion “SparkleMotion”-like dance for the crowd. While all of this is going on, neo-Marxist cells converge on downtown LA and incite the first riots since 1992.
Although it might be unbelievably confusing, Kelly has created one of the most realistic sci-fi films of all time; this is due mostly to the overt political overtones and the fact that he peppers the film with ubiquitous pop culture references – both current and historic – alongside props like mock-up WIRED magazine covers. The phrase “The New York Times said God is dead” reverberates throughout the film, and is both an oblique reference to the Elton John song ‘Levon’ and a subtle nod to the famous declaration by Nietzsche. The dizzying combination of regular Super35, handheld DV, CGI and news-graphics makes for an experience a bit like watching someone play a heavily narrated, über-realistic version of GTA 4 – if the person at the controls was on the P. It doesn’t help that Moby was called in to write the score, either – although the Pixies track “Wave of Mutilation” is used to great effect, and it is used as the interstitial title for the third and final act of the film.
Kelly began writing the film shortly after he wrapped production on Darko, and modified the story significantly in the wake of 9/11. It played at Cannes in 2006 to a chorus of booing from the audience, although that’s not necessarily any indication of a bad film – Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was also booed, as was Darren Aranofsky’s The Fountain. An intense re-organisation of the film – including completely eliminating a sub-plot and adding an expository opening sequence along with a million dollars’ worth of special effects – resulted in a two-hour theatrical print which was almost universally panned by critics except for a few; Manohla Dargis of the New York Times praised the film, calling it “[a] funny, audacious, messy and feverishly inspired look at America and its discontents.” Set mostly in 2008, this is a contemporary work of science fiction unlike anything that has come before it – and it is something unlikely to be repeated any time soon.
Southland Tales is, just as the tagline says, “a journey down the road not taken.” It is at once inane and utterly engrossing, and although those two may seem at odds with one another, Kelly has crafted a spectacular, perplexing, puzzle of a film that presents his views on everything from religion to war to the current political climate and the US occupation of Iraq to global warming and the oil crisis, to the moral decrepitude of modern society. Any film that’s able to remain funny – at one point Kelly pays homage to Steve Martin’s Bowfinger – while still managing to do all that is surely worth a shot. It’s difficult to put into words how or why this film is so interesting until you’ve seen it, but as a friend recently said to me by way of recommendation, there’s one line of dialogue that is the key to unlocking the mystery of this film: “I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide.”
Southland Tales is available now on DVD.