Southland Tales: "'Donnie Darko' for Grown-Ups?"
Updated: Jan 26
There’s a review quote on the UK DVD cover for Shane Carruth’s Primer (a cerebral-as-hell indie sci-fi) that proudly proclaims the film is “Donnie Darko for Grownups. A glorious rebuke to a dumbed-down movie world.” The quote, taken from The Guardian, has always bothered me for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, as a massive fan of Donnie Darko I’ve always held the film up to such high quality that I scoffed whenever someone said they thought it was bad (not liking it’s fine, but to say it’s bad?), and two, the quote lays down the groundwork that intelligent cinema was so absent in 2004 that Primer’s realist-based presentation of time travel was the antidote to it all. Not only that, but those who deemed Donnie Darko intelligent (three years old by this point) were no more than children or angst-ridden teens. It’s a very stereotypical view and one that feels oddly malicious, especially when placed on the DVD cover/poster.
Now, chances are you already have a firm opinion on whether or not Donnie Darko is in fact a smart or dumb film, but what about writer/director Richard Kelly’s follow-up? You know, the narratively disparate, thematically ambitious, genre-bending Frankenstein that is… Southland Tales. What if I were to tell you that the quote used to promote Primer is more appropriate for it? How so? Let me begin…
"Ladies and gentlemen, the party is over. Have a nice apocalypse."
The film was a critical and commercial failure, but like many of its kind has since achieved a small cult status among fans. Although it competed in competition for the illustrious Palm d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, audiences booed the film and critics were negative towards its bloated runtime and was even noted by some to be one of the worst films to have competed in the competition. The film managed to find distribution however and Kelly was asked to cut its three-hour runtime down as much as possible. Southland Tales ended coming in at 143 minutes in exchange for some extra financial support in order to complete the film’s visual sequences. And…it’s a lot to take in.
Southland Tales tells the tale of an alternate America during the 2008 election where, after a nuclear terrorist attack on Texas in 2003, the government threw the country into overdrive by putting more effort into seeking alternative fuel and monitoring the growing presence of the internet. The government creates a system called ‘USIDent’ which is the commonplace server used for all online needs and is constantly under the watchful eye of those in charge. Long story short, it’s a bit like a ‘more-hip’ (in an ironic sense) version of George Orwell’s 1984. It’s hard not to find the opening narration and exposition spew from our narrator Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), an Iraq war veteran with a huge disfiguring scar across his face, a bit daunting. Southland Tales delights in its gauche presentation of information via (poorly presented) news and computer screens that digitally orgasm over the footage of war under a terrifically-digital official ‘logo’ for ‘World War 3’ (roman numerals are so 1940s…)
Originally written in the aftermath of 9/11, Kelly’s script heightens America’s paranoia to ridiculous levels and deals with the political and economical aftermath of it. The government’s watchful eye and waning ethics have meant other factions and radicalism liberal movements run rampant, the most prevalent being the neo-Marxists. In a bid to discover alternative fuel Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) a scientist and republican ally (despite being the great grandson of Karl Marx) finds a way to convert constant oceanic movement into an energy source called ‘Fluid Karma’. The energy source is also being used to experiment on soldiers sent over to Iraq in order to gauge its effect on the human bloodstream, but that’s not important for the moment. This Fluid Karma allows all vehicles and machines to be self-sustaining and remote-controlled, giving the government more control whilst ensuring a healthier future for planet Earth.
Sounds like a lot, right? Well that’s all force-fed to you in the opening montage. That’s just the world Southland Tales takes place in. The film’s narrative followed the interlinked destinies between three parties as they converge during the end of the world: Boxer Santaros (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) a movie star married to the daughter of republican senator and presidential candidate Robert Frost (Holmes Osbourne) who is attacked under friendly fire whilst joining the war effort and wakes up with amnesia, Krysta Lynn Kapowski (Sarah Michelle Gellar) an adult film star who now heads a reality TV show, and twin brothers Private & Officer Roland Taverner (Sean William Scott) who get swept up in the neo-Marxists’ plan to overthrow the election at a huge public event.
*From here on there will be major spoilers for the entire film*
Comparing Dennis Kelly’s first two directorial efforts is daunting on many levels. They’re both awash with subdued themes that undercut character intentions, but Southland Tales often feels cornered by the weight of the points it’s trying to make. Kelly managed to product political discourse over a decade early by depicting the (majority of) neo-Marxist as left-leaning creatives desperate to make a change for the better but without the needs to do so. Officer Roland is enlisted to help frame the racist actions of cops by disguising himself as his twin brother in order to kickstart a movement similar to the ‘BlackLivesMatter’ campaign and get ‘proposition 69’ passed through (the take down of USIDent and give privacy back to the people - also the funny sex number lol). However, these leftists are intellectually shallow and incompetent, to the point where Amy Poehler’s Veronica Mung feels content at her deathbed simply by spewing an inconsequential beat poem against the cop who’s about to murder her. In an aesthetic nod to Phillip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, they’re treated as outcasts in the same way as replicants, dwelling within barren warehouses filled with broken down antique machines and surviving on scraps by connecting themselves to computers.
The republican party however, centered around Bobby Frost’s campaign for president and his connection to the Baron, are wealthy smiling faces with no sense of what’s right for wrong, leading them to put all their faith in the efforts of others. Those others are the Baron and his team responsible for Fluid Karma. Initially, this team and their silver, faux-futurist getup come across as Kelly’s take on spiritualists. A tech company first and foremost, there’s a sexually promiscuous allure to each of them and their car adverts feature detailed and passionate lovemaking between machines. This hippie-centric exterior signifies their apparent lunacy, when they’re the ones behind the Earth’s catastrophic situation. Basically…nobody is in the right, and in Kelly’s world each party is just as deranged as each other but insists on being the ones who point the fingers. It’s a lot like…well…politics.
The central duo of Boxer and Krysta Now (she added the ‘now’ as in ‘you want to fuck me, now’) makes for an interesting comparison to the modern-day zeitgeist. We’re living in a world even Richard Kelly couldn’t predict. A power-hungry, egocentric, reality-star/business man as the president of the United States is a step up the crazy ladder from Ronald Reagan. Therefore Krysta’s ties to the neo-Marxist movement by withholding and attempting to leak a sex tape between her and amnesiac Boxer in order to strengthen her fledgling career almost feels like an attempt to put herself in the running, which is strengthened further when it’s revealed she’s written a screenplay with Boxer (entitled ‘The Power’ – edgy) as an attempt to take down the fat cats in charge. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays Krysta as a Britney Spears/Paris Hilton hybrid (written in 2001, remember) and is traditionally vapid and blank-faced, with just a slight notion of what’s actually going on around her. Still, it’s her relationship with Boxer that allows her to rise up from the dim-witted pawn the neo-Marxists continuously see her as. Of course, she does also have a hit single called ‘Teen horniness is not a crime’ so, swings and roundabouts.
Whilst the central trio are arguably the least interesting characters in the entire film, it’s Boxer and Krystal who are mined for satirical comedy the most. Their screenplay is a perfect example of this. ‘The Power’ is about a paranoid schizophrenic LAPD officer named Jericho Kane (played by Boxer) with supernatural powers who realises the rising apocalyptic crime rate is due to global deceleration, which is disrupting the chemical equilibrium in the human brain. When Kane confronts those responsible, they tell him that ‘only God can stop it’.
“…but The New York Times said God is dead”
– Krysta Now
So Jericho kills himself in order to prevent the end of the world. Both authors present their concept with such pride over the intelligence of what they’ve written you’d think they solved world hunger. It’s fantastic and kickstarts Boxer’s ordeal as he shadows Officer Taverner (Scott) in order to research his character. Quickly he finds himself believing he is Jericho Kane, after an obsessed ISIDent employee downloads a pirated copy of his screenplay and bolsters him on through the narrative he’s created. Johnson tries to flip between the stoic bravado hero and jittering fool, but this was still in the early stages of his on-screen career and instead he tends to fall flat for most of the film.
Still, with USIDent searching for Boxer for the majority of the film it’s confusing to think that this global CCTV system which the neo-Marxists are so concerned about can’t even find an A-list action star who walks around uncovered across California (‘Southland’ stands for California, by the way). Nevertheless Boxer and Krysta both wind up on The Baron’s latest invention, a 900ft zeppelin on Election night, preparing for an ‘end of the world’ party. Under his Jericho Kane pseudonym he breaks into the private offices and discovers Simon Theory (Kevin Smith), an ex-veteran working for The Baron who runs a counter-USIDent site called ‘USIDeath’ and is live streaming three exclusive recent news stories (involving Krysta, Boxer and the Taverners) across the country to ensure people lose all faith in the government. At the same time riots break out across the city, prompting mass shootouts and random fires to pop up on rooftops like a videogame objective. Of course this is because the Baron’s machines he uses to harness the power of the ocean for Fluid Karma has caused the Earth to decelerate, just like in his screenplay (shock horror).
"Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted."
- Krysta Now
Not only that, but in a Donnie Darko-like way such planetary deceleration and transportation of Fluid Karama has started to rip holes in spacetime, causing rifts to appear (stay with me). The Baron wanted to see the effects of sending a human creature into the breach, but of course everybody knows that ‘the soul of a monkey can’t survive a dimensional threshold’… I’ll say that again. EVERYONE IN THE ROOM AGREES, AND ALREADY UNDERSTANDS WITHOUT QUESTION, THAT OF COURSE THEY CAN’T SEND A MONKEY THROUGH THE RIFT IN SPACETIME BECAUSE ITS SOUL CAN’T SURVIVE A DIMENSIONAL THRESHOLD. This is apparently base-education stuff in this universe and…stopped me in my tracks. But let’s continue.
Boxer is decided to be the first human test subject due to his celebrity and political ties, and a Iraq vet, fresh from committing an accidental act of friendly fire accompanies him. But, after being sent through the rift Boxer is merely sent back in time 69 minutes. His previous self is burnt to a crisp out of fear that two identical souls meeting will cause the end of the universe, and instead Boxer now contains two souls. He is a memory gospel – where multiple people live inside one entity, but they are held back by memory (please stay with me). The side-effect of amnesia is from the time travel. But what about the vet who accompanied Boxer to the rift? I’m glad you asked.
No, it wasn’t Justin Timberlake’s Pilot Abilene, he was the victim of accidental friendly fire from his best friend, Private Roland Taverner. That’s right, Sean William Scott’s identical twin brothers are really the same person, created when he went through the rift with Boxer and causing the two of them to fill the same world. However, whilst the riots are erupting across California, their amnesia wears off and the brothers meet during a shootout inside of an ice-cream truck. But their meeting will bring about the end of the world, and as they shake hands the truck rises into the sky and the Earth begins to crumble. The Baron’s zeppelin and all those on it are destroyed by a missile launched from a scared, drafted teenager and Boxer’s tattoo of Jesus Christ bleeds through his shirt in the moments before his death (STAY. WITH. ME.), symbolising his place as the saviour of the story – he is God and the only one who can stop this from happening.
It’s batshit insanity.
"Our mission is to destroy Capitalism, dethrone God."
- Baron von Westphalen
Obviously this is all what literally happens within the narrative, thematic implications and biblical/literary reference are scattered pretty much through every scene. Whether it’s Pilot Abilene’s scripture narration or the constant repetition of T.S Eliot’s’s theory on how the world ends, there’s so much at play within Southland Tales that it’s difficult to discuss. Hell, even the people in it still don’t fully understand what the film’s about. In 2011, Justin Timberlake explained he respects the film, but sees it as pure ‘performance art’. Kelly pitched it as postmodern, but I believe Southland Tales to be the epitome of that term. It is so inherently absorbed in the world it’s parodying and commenting on that it buckles under the pressure of its own ambition. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s admirable. But why would I ask whether it was a grown-up version of Donnie Darko?
Well, Darko’s themes of love, loss of innocence, the human condition and…time travel are all prevalent in Southland Tales too. The love between Krysta and Boxer is the only real relationship in the whole film and the climactic, music video-esque sequence as Moby’s Memory Gospel plays to them slow dancing is ethereal and haunting. The oncoming end of the world is dictated to be beautiful and celebrated, a cause for hope to end the disgusting world we’ve been watching for the past two hours, and once the characters have accepted that and lost their innocence then they can move on and start fresh. The human condition and time travel themes go hand in hand too, in the fact that it’s only through time travel and duplicating a soul that Boxer and Roland discover what it means to be human and how complex our identities and emotions are. But what makes it grown-up?
"Anyone who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without feminine upheaval."
- Fortunio Balducci
Well, I believe that as we age and become a functioning member of society, our childhood/teenage years (Donnie’s years) and the passions and ideologies we build during our adolescence are never really stripped away. Instead, they’re diluted from everything else we’re forced to deal with. It’s clear from the get-go what Donnie Darko is attempting, it wears its coming-of-age technique on its sleeve and promotes its themes intensely through the use of solemn music and heightened drama. Southland Tales is the adult version of this, merely by lacking such clarity. It has similar and brilliant ideas but is weighed down by the worries of tradition (in this case, appearing traditional) to successfully translate them. It’s a symbol of how complicated our thoughts become as we get older and still try to retain (what some may call) naïve simplicity.
All of this is just my opinion, of course. Technically Southland Tales doesn’t work as a narrative, but it offers such enthralling glimmers of something special that I can’t help but be swept up in it. There are characters and lines of dialogue that make no sense whatsoever, the phrase ‘a pimp doesn’t commit suicide’ is introduced as some kind of revelation twenty minutes before the end as if it’s been a constant rally cry for the characters. Whilst some of its references are clever (proposition 69 is not only named after the amount of time they time travelled but also because it’s two of the same number together – two identical souls), others are too on-the-nose (I’d like to think that a shop called ‘small world books’ is designed to be funny but I’m not entirely sure). Its scattershot humour is very hit-or-miss too outside the satirical worldbuilding, and the musical interlude of Timberlake miming The Killers’ ‘All these Things that I’ve Done’ in an arcade surrounded by scantily-clad, drug-induced hallucinations of dancers is remarkable, and the type of surrealist dream-scaping the film needed more of in connection to its protagonists.
Because Kelly was busy working on The Box (another interesting project) when the theatrical cut was released on DVD, he didn’t have the chance to stitch together a full Director’s cut (but has since expressed some interest in doing so). It’d be nice to see the film get an updated release, akin to the likes of Second Sight or Arrow Video’s releases. As of yet though all copies of the film are barebones. It’s not been over a decade since Richard Kelly has released a film, and although there’s been talk of a Rod Serling biopic (yes please) there’s an underlying feeling that his struggle to secure financial backing for his astoundingly-original concepts has damaged his passion. I hope that’s not the case. Everyone knows about Donnie Darko, but perhaps they’d find new merit within it after understanding the greater concept of a filmmaker who seeks to experiment within everything they touch.
"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."
It's a film that pokes fun at the Patriot Act and glorifies the burning of society with a twinkle in its eye and a song in its heart which was too ambitious with such a low budget. I can't help but respect it.
Southland Tales is now available on DVD & Blu-Ray, but both releases are barebones.
UPDATE: I take GREAT pleasure in letting you know that Arrow Video, shortly after I put this piece online, announced their release of not only the theatrical cut but of the original Cannes Film Festival cut too! It's available now so you have no excuse not to get lost in this brilliant, blisteringly-batshit world.
Remember that by doing just 10 minutes of research or petition-signing a day you can make a difference. Though it's not on the news anymore the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to fight for justice and anti-racism. Cops still aren't facing punishments for the inhuman murder of innocent black people across the world. The fight isn't over. We need to keep the voice up.
Not only that, but the disturbing images from Portland, Oregon of the private police force rounding people up off the street is barely being spoken about. So whilst you're flaunting the fact you can go to the pub or awkwardly tolerate some insane rapper's claims to the US presidency by trumping (ahem) the important heroes that came before him, remember that what's on the broadcast news is often meant as a distraction when the real atrocities are kept quiet. It's a bad world out there right now. Has been for too long. But it can't get better unless people continue to speak against it.
Here's a helpful link to a number of sources for different world issues at the moment:
Here's a Twitter thread on what's been going down in Portland:
Stay safe out there.
Wear masks. Don't be idiots. The virus hasn't disappeared.
Thank you for reading.
See you next week.
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