There’s a thin line between madness and genius, and similarly between great, complex art and pretentious, overcomplicated bilge. After the release of Richard Kelly’s cult classic Donnie Darko, it seemed clear to all comers that a great new voice in cinema had arrived. Hollywood dutifully rewarded this success by letting Kelly off the leash, with a bigger budget and far less oversight. The result was a semi-spiritual, satirical passion project, touching on everything from Hollywood and LA culture, to religious and political extremism and American foreign policy.
Southland Tales tells the story of Boxer Santoras (Dwayne Johnson), a movie megastar who woke up in the desert one day with a severe case of amnesia. The film picks up in medias res where Boxer and his porn actress turned reality TV starlet girlfriend, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) are researching a film script they’ve written together. This throws them into the path of Neo-Marxist terrorists who have kidnapped the identical twin Taverner brothers (Seann William Scott) to blackmail Senator Boxer’s father-in-law via a complicated scheme.
From there, the plot grows even more labyrinthine and excessively convoluted, with a cast overflowing with extraneous characters and interwoven storylines. This isn’t helped by the story also being set in an alternate USA where a terrorist nuclear attack in Texas has brought about a fascistic right-wing takeover, and the Big Brother-esque government is trying to close down and control the internet. Toss in side plots about a free perpetual energy device, psychedelic army drugs, Time-travel, the birth of a new messiah, and a musical number from Justin Timberlake as a PTSD-ridden Iraq War veteran, and you’ve got a beautifully unwatchable mess on a biblical scale.
What’s genuinely fascinating about Southland Tales is that, while it’s objectively a terrible sprawling disaster of a movie, as time passes, it become only more intriguing. Particularly now in 2021, the parallels drawn in the story between the fascistic future, and themes of racist cops, and reality TV and internet taking over seem shockingly prescient. Although prescience doesn’t forgive woefully messy storytelling. The film was rightly castigated for its bloated excesses at Cannes, and similarly critically lambasted in the drastically recut theatrical version. But still, almost fifteen years later, the film has started to acquire a strange charm, in the same manner as movies like or Ishtar or John Boorman’s Zardoz. But it’s not without any merit. The cast are almost uniformly playing against type but giving it their all, the cinematography is mostly excellent, and the overall concept, while badly delivered, is a neat thematic inversion of many of the themes of Donnie Darko. Thus, rather than simply being a horrible unwatchable film, Southland Tales does have an undeniable logic to it; unfortunately it’s a logic that only really becomes clear if you force yourself to watch it repeatedly.
Luckily for such bloody minded people, the new Arrow release contains not only the theatrical release of the film, complete with director’s commentary and various supplementary extras, but also the infamous ‘Cannes cut’. Ironically, despite the critical reaction, the Cannes version of the film is actually a far more comprehensible version of this story. That’s not to say it actually makes a whole lot of sense, however.
The other tragedy besetting the production was that it fell into the same trap as The Matrix Reloaded, where the cross-media fad of the time was to split the story across a film, cartoon, video game and various comic books. Similarly, Southland Tales is actually the latter three chapters of a six-part story. The first three were released in Southland Tales: The Prequel Saga, a comic book now so long out of print it’s almost impossible to get hold of, if you would ever want to. Although ironically a previous Blu-ray edition of the film actually contained the comic as an extra, but that is sadly missing here. However, that could also be because Kelly reportedly plans to rework that story into an animated film, if he can ever get financing.
As a package, this new release of Southland Tales is probably the most comprehensive and best looking edition of this bizarre cinematic creation. In many ways it actually is worth watching, particularly just to marvel at a very strange film, the likes of which will almost certainly never be seen again.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 25 Jan 2021