SOUTHLAND TALES (Richard Kelly, 2007)

When I’m asked what I consider to be the most original film of the past ten years, it takes me no more than one second to give my answer. Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales” is the only contemporary film that I think holds its own chain in terms of baring hardly any similarities to other films post-Generation X. In fact, its blatant originality is composed of so many genres, themes, morals, twists, turns, and confusion, that it spins the viewer’s head around multiple times until it explodes – thus explaining why there are a select few that can’t make their way to the film’s ending. But if opened up, and if given time to take in its multiple strains, “Southland Tales” not only makes sense, but it also becomes much easier to watch.

Director Richard Kelly’s sophomore film is completely different than his 2001 cult debut “Donnie Darko”, and since that is Kelly’s only pre-glimpse before “Southland”, it remains obvious that you’d expect it to be similar in terms of atmosphere and mood. But “Southland Tales” is so off-kilter to Kelly’s first feature, grasping onto its own mood, its own atmosphere, and its own overall palette of style. While “Darko” held the moods of a coming-of-age drama mixed with spots of humor, science fiction, fantasy, and horror; “Southland Tales” is a full-blown satirical drama fueled with campy and sitcom-ish dialogue, an unconventionally eyebrow-raising cast, self-aware and sometimes sexually perverse humor, colorful musical sequences, and a futuristic setting that is as dark and sinister as the very best utopias in science fiction. And everything is blended together, many scenes echoing one or more of these things, and every scene holding onto the fact that, while there is a variety of genres in the making here, this is still satire and this is still a drama, and this helps the film build up to its surprisingly moving resolution.

The film has incredible edge and its contrast of an array of emotions is completely jagged. “Southland Tales” uses all it has to give off the messages it feels are important to tell. (Whether those be political, sexual, scientific, or whatever.) Actors seem to be playing patterns with their characters (most of which shade the actor’s actual celebrity image) and they play off each other as if they are in a screwball comedy that feels the need to not take itself seriously. But at the bottom of many scenes are dark, evil, and twisted circumstances that ‘deserve’ to be taken seriously, and while this can come off as just a bad direction, you have to understand that Kelly’s intention is obviously to over-exaggerate the moral he is trying to teach. His moral is valuable and important, but why act on it in a bland, conventional manner when you can have your fun?

And yes, you can have fun if you place what Kelly’s multiple layers of genre are. You can embrace and laugh at its humor, all while embracing the undercurrent of heartbreak and drama that exists at its core. The best example of Kelly’s storytelling canvas is a musical sequence involving Justin Timberlake. Timberlake’s character is a man who watches over Los Angeles with a gun in hand, his job to watch out for the politically violent bigots that wonder the beaches and streets of the city. He’d been assigned his job as a watcher after being injured during a war in Iraq, where his best friend accidentally shot him in the eye, giving him a scar that ultimately ruins the success of the pop singer he was before the draft. Timberlake now watches the city by day, and deals drugs by night. When he passes out after shooting up the film’s fictional drug Fluid Karma, Timberlake engages in a fantasy sequence. A three-minute scene in which Timberlake wears a blood-stained shirt, drinking a beer, and lip-syncs The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” while looking directly into the camera. Notice the many layers Kelly has in the sequence. The political undercurrent (war), the social inconsistencies and hypocrisy (drugs, celebrity expectation), an actor satirizing his own personal image for the sake of the character (Timberlake being an actual pop singer), and the level of drama underlying that satire (Timberlake, an actual singer, lip-syncing another artist’s song to symbolically show that his character is a man that has lost his voice both socially and personally.) This is the kind of layering that goes on throughout the film, it just needs to be separated to actually be understood.

And while Kelly constructs his scenes based on this layering, the overall depth of the film has its bookends. On the surface, Kelly likes to insert his personal favorite art to mix and clash with his own devices of storytelling. Many examples include a soundtrack composed of contemporary music including The Killers’ song used in the Timberlake number, scenes that obviously pay homage to films (such as many reconstructions of moments in “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Mulholland Drive”, and also a scene in which a character falls into a dumpster filled with a bunch of movie posters), and even the use of time travel and the parallel universes examined in Kelly’s “Donnie Darko”. And then, at the deepest part of the film, Kelly echoes the whole narrative on the Christian book of Revelation. Each character ties into the story, just as each moment is a clever retelling of another moment from it. This could be seen as another of Kelly’s personal additions; but unlike the many homages and tributes he follows through, the religious notions run throughout the entire film. This not only gives the film its spiritual backbone, but it also fits into Kelly’s social comment that exists throughout the picture: the comment on society and its denial that everything will eventually come to an end.

“Southland Tales” is a colorful assembly of so many things, that on a first viewing, I felt as most of the critics who reviewed the film did. I was confused, I was angry, I was bored, I felt cheated, and I hated it with a passion. But I refused to believe that there was nothing there. I knew there had to be ‘something’ there. And on multiple views, more and more became clear; and I began to realize the power in Kelly’s concoction. It may seem like a mess, but its only messy because its the painting of an eccentric man with an important thing to say. And he did so with fun and intelligence.


~ by jerkwoddjh on May 11, 2009.

4 Responses to “SOUTHLAND TALES (Richard Kelly, 2007)”

  1. As we’ve talked about before, it knocked <>Magnolia<> out of the #1 spot in my all-time bottom 5. Still, nice review.

  2. Gotta completely agree with you on this one. Southland Tales is one of the most Overlooked films of the decade. But it’s a film that needs at least 2 or 3 viewings to be truely understood. Unfortunately, most people will never give the film that chance.

    Oh well, there loss.

  3. God damn its a great move I think. Anyone know where to find that blood stained shirt? I highly doubt it was created just for this movie as it’s status is what it is. I think all the retards who overlook this movie will regret that in the coming decades.

  4. Kyle:

    Seeing how Magnolia is also one of my all-time favorites, I’m just going to assume we are on two different levels. Haha.

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