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Southland Tales: Not with a Whimper, but with a Bang

Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales finally hit DVD this week, and I’ve been soaking it up ever since. It’s a lot to take in and a lot to decipher (as Salon put it, “It’s filled with so many references and so much self-conscious irony that it’s nearly impossible to make sense of it all.”), but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s worth it. I agree with Steven Shaviro that it’s “not only a brilliant film, but an extraordinarily important one.”

Southland TalesLike Donnie Darko, this is another absurdist eschatological fairy tale, albeit on a much grander scale, with a Pynchon-esque sprawl and a large focus on politics. Where Donnie Darko shows remarkable restraint whenever the plot threatens to spiral out of control, Southland Tales just pushes that much further, reveling in its own chaos and spectacle. It’s a carnival, a war, an end to humanity, a social comment, a political satire, a science fiction romp, and a laugh-out-loud comedy — it bends and blends genres so much as to be “as radical as reality itself” (to borrow a phrase from several sources). Not that it doesn’t have a plot or a focus, it does, but a single viewing will not provide one with all the clues to its many secrets.

This is the way the world ends.
Not with a whimper, but with a bang.

The full story spills over from the film into three prequel graphic novels and borrows liberally from The Book of Revelation, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Jane’s Addiction’s “Three Days,” T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Man” (quoted in its adapted form above), Kiss Me Deadly, Repo Man, the writings of Karl Marx, and many other places. The full scope of the story is ridiculously vast. As Richard Kelly explains, “I spent the last four years of my life devoted to this insane tapestry of Armageddon,” adding that this was about “getting the apocalypse out of my system once and for all.”


The centerpiece of this “insane tapestry of Armageddon” is a drug-induced music video sequence featuring Iraq veteran Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) recontextualizing “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers (embedded above; runtime: 2:56). Like the rest of the movie, it’s over-the-top delirious, but its delirium eventually disintegrates into head-hanging melancholy and the beginning of Part VI, “Wave of Mutilation,” the final act, ridden by the motif of “friendly fire” and self-destruction. This movie must have the highest incidence of characters putting guns to their own heads in the history of film-making. It also must have the highest incidence of cameras: They’re everywhere. This movie is nothing if not panoptic.

Southland Tales is rich with metaphors and self-reference, and it breaks harshly with conventional story-telling and film-making. I think it is the latter that resulted in its wholesale dismissal by critics and abysmal box office performance. Southland Tales bucks the traditional narrative paradigm that audiences are used to, and in doing so, leaves viewers lost in its hallucinatory haze. This is not to say that I got it the first time through, because that certainly isn’t the case: I’ve watched it three times in as many days, and I’m just scratching the surface. I just think that the film is not only a bit too ambitious but also breaks with form to its financial detriment. Its layers of reality (e.g., a reality TV show, a prophetic screenplay, time-traveling doubles, the musical piece — all constantly surveilled and recorded) — often reminiscent of those in Scream 3 — only add to its surreal ontology and unorthodox narrative presentation.

The Rock

There are so many jarring non sequiturs throughout the film that when Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) dropped his signature line from the film (“I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide.”), I was surprised that I was surprised. Absurdity is the rule here, not the exception. In one scene, Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) makes Martin Kefauver (Lou Taylor Pucci) put on his seatbelt, just after stopping him from blowing his own head off! Some of the lines that seem to come from out of nowhere are a part of Southland Tales‘ “self-conscious irony,” as after “officer” Bart Bookman guns down two performance artists he utters, “Flow my tears.” On the side of his police car is the Latin phrase “oderint dum metuant”: “Let them hate, so long as they fear,” which was a favorite saying of the Roman Emperor Caligula. These are only a few examples of the film’s many references and absurdities.

With that said, I also think this movie is worth the investment it takes to unravel. Maybe, like Donnie Darko, Southland Tales will find its cult audience. Here’s hoping Richard Kelly is on his way to becoming the next Kubrick and not the next Gilliam, because with only two movies, he’s proven that he has the chops to share their company.