So a few weeks ago, a friend was talking to me on the phone, and mentioned that he was in the video store and had noticed that they had a copy of that film I'd been talking about with another friend recently, starring The Rock. I replied that somewhere, somebody was bugshit crazy, because I hadn't had any such talk regarding any film starring The Rock. "You mean Southland Tales?" I asked, knowing of no other recent film featuring The Rock, who now goes by Dwayne Johnson, but whom I still call "The Rock" on account of the fact that nobody knows the name Dwayne Johnson from a very medically dangerous hole in their liver. "Yeah, that's it," my friend replies. "Weren't you and Friend Number Two (who also has a real name you've never heard) talking about that a while ago? He said you were." I said that this alleged conversation must've taken place with some other person, because I'd not seen the film and had never had a conversation about it. A week or so later, I asked Friend Number Two about this, saying, "Hey, Friend Number Two, what do you know about us supposedly talking about this here Southland Tales flick?" He says, "Yeah, you asked me if I'd seen it, and I hadn't." And I thought, "Whoa. Losing my mind here, apparently," because while I had indeed been interested in seeing the film, I recalled not one word of any converstion with anyone about it. It was weird and confusing, and made my brain feel sick.
Kind of like this film, when I shortly thereafter did see it.
This is the long-belated sophmore directorial effort by writer-director Richard Kelly, who attained cult status of a sort from his debut film, the teen angst and murky sci-fi yarn Donnie Darko. I've no real accounting for that film's rabid underground popularity. It's okay. Not brilliant. Just okay. It has some good ideas and mood, but holds together about as well as a poodle with half of its bones removed. Still, there was enough good there that I felt some promise showing, and was interested in seeing his next project; sure, I wasn't buoyed by hearing that the film got booed at Cannes, but hell, that happened to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, too, and I love that film. But after seeing this incohrent, meandering mess, I can only offer one piece of advice: to quote one of those fake Grindhouse trailers, "If you are thinking of seeing this film (word 'alone' excised, as it makes no difference either way)...DON'T."
Things start off interestingly enough. A pre-Cloverfield handheld sequence of a backyard party interrupted by the sudden appearance of a mushroom cloud sets the stage: a nuclear bomb has exploded in Abilene, Texas, government power had increased, civil liberties are on the downslide, the Republicans are strongly favored in the then-upcoming 2008 presidential election, and an underground lefty group calling itself the Neo-Marxists is making plans to throw a monkeywrench in the works of USIDent, a new and powerful government surveillance arm run, apparently, by the wife of the Republican candidate, Senator Bobby Frost. Amidst this increasingly volitile series of events, film star Boxer Santaros, played by the aforementioned The Rock, has vanished into the desert and returned an amnesiac. Santaros is married to Frost's daughter, and has fallen into the machinations of the leftists, who produce compromising videos of the well-connected actor with an ex porn star with the professional moniker of Krysta Now, as well as attempting to possibly implicate him in a racially motivated double homicide which they plan to stage. The potential scandal, they hope, will give them leverage to force Frost to vote for a new bill that will limit the powers of USIDent. It's a bit convoluted, but not too confusing. But wait! There's more.
The "staged killing" is to be carried out by a man impersonating his actual cop twin brother, both played by Seann William Scott. It seems to go horribly wrong, but perhaps it didn't. Also, there's a dearth of oil imports due to the war, resulting in a new hydroelectric technology that for some reason also produces a hallucinogenic drug of the same name as the power source, "Fluid Karma." Oh, and the film is periodically narrated by Justin Timberlake, who plays a veteran of the Iraq War who came home scarred by friendly fire and now works as a gunner guarding one of the hydroelectric plants off the California shore, and who may also be a drug runner. And possibly a movie star. His last name is "Abilene," just to be pointlessly confusing, and his first name-not profession-is "Pilot," just to be be both confusing and stupid. Oh, and Boxer has written a screenplay with his porn queen girlfriend (who is, incidentally, launching a whole wave of signature products as well as a CD, which assuredly is all in this film for some reason) which predicts the end of the world as it may actually happen. Oh, and a copy gets out and an obsessed fan of Boxer's, who works at USIDent, begins phoning the amnesiac star and trying to play out scenes from the script, which he does, for some reason. And whether or not the world will indeed end with a bang, as the repeated and inverted Eliot quote reminds us, the film eventually is doomed to end with a whimper, which will undoubtedly come from the audience members who have just wasted their money and nearly three hours of their time.
Oh, yeah, and there's some time-travel. Again. And it's just as badly explained, i.e. not at all, as in Darko.
I scarcely know where to begin, which seems the reverse of Richard Kelly's problem. While there have been many films I didn't enjoy or which bored me, this is the first I can remember that's actively made me angry at it. This is like watching some video on YouTube of a guy shooting a cluster of bottle rockets at a distant target. They all shoot off at different tangents, they rarely cross paths, and none of them even get as far as the target, much less hit it. We then cut to a shot of the target with all the rockets stuck in it, as if to say that yes, the filmmaker really did achieve his desired end and the obvious fact that it didn't work out that way at all is irrelevant. I say so, I don't really have to pull it off to say that I did, fuck you, you just don't understand my brilliance. Well, fuck you right back.
If anyone reading this actually knows Richard Kelly, please explain to him that a wave-powered generator doesn't come close to fitting the definition of a perpetual-motion machine.
The plot fractures and goes nowhere, plot strands are abandoned rather than resolved, and are often replaced by new ones that meet similar fates. Does anything ever come of Krysta stealing the videotape of the murders? Not that I saw. Does the plot to take over the world via the new "Fluid Karma" drug get any further than the first sale? Didn't look like it. Was there any reason at all that Boxer's phone-stalking fan ends up just confronting him on a beach and demanding to suck his dick? No! There isn't! It's meaningless fucking around! Some time after seeing the film, should you do so, you'll be sitting there and you'll suddenly remember that bit with the Japanese Prime Minister getting his hand chopped off, and wonder "Why the fuck was that even in there?" And I won't be able to tell you, because this film is too full of itself to debase itself by letting you in on what it's trying to say, other than that "Pimps don't commit suicide." This assertion comes from The Rock about twenty minutes from the end, even though no one has implied that he would commit suicide, he's not actually a pimp, and since fucking when is it some kind of fucking truism that pimps don't commit suicide? What the fuck does that even mean?
Also, a few minutes later, The Rock gets up in front of a large group of people and threatens suicide. Pardon me while I go email Richard Kelly and tell him to go fuck himself.
As I write this, I find myself getting even more pissed off at the film, because re-reading my fourth paragraph makes me wonder if maybe I was wrong. It sounds like a description of a film I would find interesting. Then I look back over all the shit I cover in the following two, and the resentment comes right back. Right around the time that the "pimp" bit surfaces, I began to get the distinct sense that the film was simply made to mock audiences, laughing at their certain confusion while contemptuously giving them nothing to go on. Behind the celluloid, Kelly is flipping you off and telling you how stupid you are for failing to comprehend what he refuses to divulge in the first place. The narration device was apparently added after the disasterous Cannes screening, which makes the director's disdain for his viewers go beyond forgivable, as many plot points are only ever even cursorily explained by the narrator, including the "twin" schtick; without this revelation, and the subsequent explanation that the first explanation was incorrect, who the fuck could figure out that two characters who share maybe three seconds of blink-and-you'll-miss-it screen time prior to the climax, and who are played by the same actor, are even supposed to be two people, and not one guy who keeps popping around randomly and making no sense, much like every other character?
"Fortunio was on the Baron's payroll all along." All along when? All along the hour and a half since his one other scene in the entire film? Fuck you!
I said in my Donnie Darko review that I thought it was clear that its creator had a great deal of talent. I no longer think anything about Richard Kelly is clear, except that he was apparently told by too many people how brilliant he was in the intervening years. Well, fuck you. Fuck you, Richard Kelly, for starting an interesting story and then just complicating and adding to it without bothering to finish any of it. By the end of the film, nearly every character was dead and I didn't give a shit; I only regretted that the director wasn't going down in flames with everyone else.
Though at this point, his career might be. One can only hope that the actors whose time he wasted with this mess, none of whom are currently A-list as it is, find a way to recover.
-review by Matt Murray
(Apparently, there's a bunch of comic books and other supplemental shit to go along with this film, which supposedly explain things more clearly. I guess I just hail from that outmoded school of thought which states that I should be able to understand what happens in your movie by watching your movie.)