Southland Tales Blu-ray Review: Strange but Strangely Compelling

Stepping in through the door right when the millennium was opening up and carrying with it a sense of doom and strangeness that would come to seem prescient as 2001 in all of its terror unfolded, Donnie Darko was one of the most intriguing cinematic debuts of the new century. At times inexplicable, defiant in being itself, the film was as easy to love as it was to hate, and it didn’t seem to mind as long as it got a reaction. Even critics who weren’t sold on that film’s mix of teenage angst, millennial tension, and serious sci-fi could look forward to an exciting and strange new voice in director Richard Kelly.

And then Southland Tales happened.

It was accepted into competition at Cannes in 2006, then screened to boos, walk outs, and the lowest scores in the entire competition. Still, it sold, and after losing 15 minutes and being pretty severely retooled in the editing room, it was finally released…and the disaster was complete. Despite an impressive cast of established and up-and-coming stars (including the soon to be biggest star of the first quarter of the century, Dwayne Johnson), Southland Tales was an incredible bomb. Never getting more than a severely limited release, the film made as little as a third of a million dollars on a reported $17 million budget, was laughed out of theaters, excoriated in the press, and, besides his okay sf thriller The Box (2009), Richard Kelly has been apparently out of the movie-making business.

Now, newly resurrected on a two-disc release from Arrow Video which includes not only the theatrical release, but the long sought after Cannes screening cut, the question before us is…does Southland Tales deserve the hate? Was the theatrical cut a film-breaking disaster that gutted a potential masterpiece, or was it a salvage job on a derelict film that was always destined for the junk heap?

The answer to both questions is…kind of. In any incarnation, Southland Tales is messy, jumbled, with an ambition that apparently had no intention of confining itself to a theatrical presentation and a story that was never made to be fully understood. It’s designed to be weird, and is about a weird time in American culture, so it could never fulfill its potential and be completely digestible. What the theatrical version did was attempt to streamline the narrative, and in so doing made it actually more confusing and less cohesive, rearranging elements into such a way that they made less sense and chopping up the pace so that, weirdly, the shorter film feels longer than the original cut.

And there is a story in Southland Tales, despite what many critics have written about its plotlessness or complete confusion. Set in a then-futuristic 2008, when the presidential election hinges on California, the intrusive USIDent intelligence service (basically the NSA on steroids with an aesthetic borrowed from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) is vying against a cabal of Neo-Marxists. These Neo-Marxists have an ace up their sleeve -they know the whereabouts of the disappeared Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), the vice presidential candidate’s son-in-law and acclaimed actor. He’s currently shacked up with porn actress Krysta Now, who is creating her own media empire and wants, as the linchpin, to create a science-fiction film starring Boxer.

Married Senator’s son-in-law with a porny mistress should be scandal enough, but one of the Marxists decides they need to up the ante, so they enlist a police officer’s twin brother to pretend to be the cop and stage a shooting in front of Boxer, that he will film. How this part of the plan is supposed to work is unclear, but it shares one aspect with every other scheme in this movie which is about schemes on top of schemes: it is extremely stupid.

So is Boxer’s screenplay. So are the machinations of the vice president’s aides, and the German Baron von Westphalen (played by Wallace Shawn with the worst comb-over in history) who has created a perpetual motion machine that uses the motion of ocean waves to generate an infinitely renewable source of energy. So is Krysta Now’s budding empire, the vice president’s wife taking direct control of USIdent. The central vision of Richard Kelly’s near future is not genius conspiracies, but a calamity of active stupidity from every source of power in America. Everyone is dumb. Most people are violent. And they’re all vying for power, and some of them will get it.

The story of Southland Tales is hyper-convoluted, and it is nothing like a well-oiled machine, but that’s the point. It’s messy, and rife with coincidence. But it isn’t incoherent. That’s harder to see in the theatrical release than in the Cannes cut. The theatrical release plays up the satirical elements, throws a number of story elements out of order, making some make absolutely no sense, and has significantly more narration, front loading the audience with a lot of information that makes the story stranger and harder to follow, not simpler.

But the Cannes cut being a better film doesn’t necessarily make it a good one. Southland Tales is very long, very strange, and has no trouble throwing the audience into the deep end with a strange world that seems a lot like a hyperbolic version of ours. This was ironically worse in the theatrical cut, which had so much exposition at the beginning that the material had no room to breathe, and the audience had no opportunity to learn about the characters by just watching them. It’s still a weird movie, one destined to be a “cult” film, but with the extra time and the better pacing of the Cannes cut, it creates a less confusing world. There’s still definitely plenty of fat that could have been shaved off the film and made it tighter without excising or minimizing characters into incoherence or cutting down plotlines until they make absolutely no sense.

Southland Tales was also going to be flabby and weird. Hell, the movie has chapter headings that start with Chapter IV, the first three apparently to be found in some comic books released before the films that, from what I can tell, were also pared down and never put out in their entirety. And if the tone of the film, with its unrealistic dialogue and intentionally false profundity, and the blatant stupidity of all the characters puts one off, no editing is going to save it. But the Cannes edit shows that the film isn’t drowning in quirkiness for its own sake and isn’t randomly weird: it’s odd with a purpose. It’s a compelling panoramic view of serious world-changing decisions made by very unserious people, complete with a couple of dance sequences and bizarre (but coherent in the story) sci-fi twists. It didn’t necessarily deserve to be a near career-ending disaster for its ambitious, if erratic, director, and this new edition will hopefully allow it to be reevaluated by people, like me, who initially dismissed it out of hand.

Southland Tales has been released by Arrow Video on Blu-ray. The release contains two discs, one with the 144 min theatrical cut and extras, the other with the 158-minutes long “Cannes” cut. The theatrical edition contains a commentary track by the director, a hold-over from the previous Blu-ray release. Video extras include the new “It’s a Madcap World: The Making of an Unfinished Film”, a three-part making-of feature Kelly and crew discussing the making of the film. The parts are titled “Through the Looking Glass” (19 min), “This is the Way the World Ends” (22 min), and “Have a Nice Apocalypse” (11 min). “USIDent TV: Surveilling the Southland” (34 min) is an archival featurette about the making of the film, and “This is the Way the World Ends” (9 min) is an animated short set in the film’s world. There’s also a trailer and image gallery, and a booklet with essays on the film by Peter Tonguette and on the film’s story-telling website by Simon Ward.

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Kent Conrad

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