Have you ever woken up from a dream that you were certain was real, if somewhat surreal and nonsensical? And each second as you became more and more awake that dream slowly faded until you were left with the impression of the dream more than the dream itself? And the details of the dream receded to the corners of your memory and try as you might you couldn’t pull those pieces back together again? Well, that’s a Richard Kelly film right there and exactly how you feel as the moments pass just after you’ve finished watching Southland Tales. Fortunately, and thanks to DVD, Southland Tales can be viewed over and over again allowing you to uncover new details and re-examine its mysteries as many times as you like. And this film definitely requires and benefits from repeat viewings. Another valuable tool as a primer to the film and potentially a key to some of the mysteries is the Southland Tales graphic novel, which is a three “episode” prequel to episodes four through six as presented on the screen. A review of that is forthcoming, but, for now, read on about the film. Much like the film’s narrative, expect that this review may go all over the place.
“This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.”
This the way the story kicks in, not with a whimper, but a bang. A Fourth of July cookout in Texas in the year 2005 is interrupted by the unthinkable, a nuclear bomb exploding nearby. Then the first conceit to the nervous studio execs is made in the form of a narrated time line that brings us from the terror attacks of 2005 to an alternative to our 2008. Then follows a confluence of characters and ideas, characters as ideas and ideas as characters. The attacks in 2005 caused America to escalate its war in the Middle East. Eventually, the global energy crisis reaches critical mass and the US faces running out of fuel for its military complex. It is interesting that it’s at this point that the American government decides to find an alternative to petroleum-based fuel. Enter, conveniently, Baron Von Westphalen (portrayed by Wallace Shawn in an over-the-top, scene chewing, and stealing, performance) presents a way to broadcast all the energy the country needs by way of harnessing the perpetual motion of the ocean. The by-product of this process is a drug called “fluid karma” that various characters use throughout the narrative to either anesthetize others or themselves. Coinciding with this is implementation of a national ID card program called USIDent. Of course, USIDent turns out to be merely a means for the Department of Homeland Security to gain greater control of American citizens as the internet is brought under strict control and travel is closely monitored, amongst other things. This is the backdrop against which we meet our characters.
“Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted. “
Sarah Michelle Gellar does such an amazing job delivering this line as an apparently vacuous porn star trying to sound both wise and flippant that this scene becomes the defining moment of the first third of the film. Gellar’s liberating porn-Queen, Krysta Now goes a long way towards distancing her from being stereotyped as a vampire slayer as she spouts off hardcore porn lingo without so much as a twitch. Krysta goes from being a loathsome character to funny-girl prankster to in on the con to blindsinding her so-called “bosses.” All throughout the film you’re never really sure who’s side Krysta is on and sometimes you wonder if she isn’t sure either. It isn’t until her metaphoric moment of clarity at the end do you realize just how much she has known.
The other surprising role in this story is Justin Timberlake as Pilot Abilene. Pilot Abilene is one of those names that as soon as they saw it about sixty writers wished they had thought of it first. A perfect name and a perfect fit for the character, although I really couldn’t say why. It just is. Pilot is our narrator and our eyes, sometimes very near literally. I’m also pretty sure that he, like another character, knows what is going on and what is going to happen. He seems fairly unflappable, except for the one time he shoots up and then falls flat on his back, high as a kite. And then there’s the sequence where Timberlake in a blood-soaked t-shirt walks aimlessly through what can only be described as a music video while drinking beer after beer. The backing song is “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers. The lyrics are very appropriate to the character as is the way Pilot meanders around, half-mumbling along.
“Nothing an eight ball, a porn star and a tattoo parlor can’t handle. “
And then we are introduced to the rebels of the piece, the Neo-Marxists, lead by Nora Dunn’s Cyndi Pinziki…or possibly Cheri Oteri’s delightfully and psychotically unhinged Zora Carmichaels. It’s never really totally clear who exactly is in charge, but being a proto-anarchist group I suppose that may be the point. When things truly go chaotic and out of control it is very interesting to see how a group of would be anarchists is unable to handle things. It ‘s also quite the treat that the Neo-Marxist group is littered with several Saturday Night Live alumni as their actions do not always jibe with what you expect from them based on their comedic roots. And these characters often go to extremes personality-wise, often to dramatic, sometimes to darkly twisted effect. Jon Lovitz, in particular, plays things so restrained and understated that menace seems to walk before him clearing less hardened characters out of his way.
“I’m a pimp… and pimps don’t commit suicide.”
One of the main threads that weaves in and out of the entire movie involves action-star Boxer Santaros (also possibly Jericho Kane) played by Dwayne Johnson. The really cool thing is that I’m almost certain that Boxer’s story is really nothing more than that of a hyped-up MacGuffin. Johnson really gets to stretch his acting legs here and show us what he is capable of. I was very surprised to see him take Boxer from competent Hollywood actor to suddenly finding himself in over his head to paranoid schizophrenic all in one perception-altering sequence. He deftly changes his character’s facial expressions and body language depending on the frame of mind he is currently in. Quite the treat.
Then there is Seann William Scott, who nearly makes the movie his own. Scott plays Ronald Taverner, whom the Neo-Marxists have recruited to replace his twin, Roland, a cop (Scott plays both parts). Ronald’s introductory scene is especially surreal and a little bit unnerving. The paths the twins take to their ultimate destination as they cross paths with several other characters becomes the real backbone of the whole film and I got chills realizing at the end how they relate to each other and other characters. Their final scene together sums up all the themes, messages and allusions in the entire film in a spectacular fashion.
“We’re going to take the ATM machine with us to Mexico.”
There are many other performances in Southland Tales that are outstanding. Christopher Lambert plays an ice cream truck driving arms dealer. Miranda Richardson plays a sublimely sinister senator’s wife and Bai Ling plays…well, herself really. There are many more, but those gems are worth discovering for yourself. There is a point towards the end of the movie that you realize something that has been presented as one thing is revealed to be something completely different. Ok, actually, there are many moments of this throughout the film, but one in particular that, if you’ve been paying attention, makes your jaw drop open and starts wider implications start falling like dominoes into place. This may sound weird concerning this film, but there are ideas that are stated a few too many times that would have been better to have been said once or twice and this is one of them. I suspect these instances are part of what the studio demanded be added to the film. Regardless, the scenes are acted with enough surrealism to make them compelling enough to bear out being beaten over the head with information.
This is the the story of one best friend seeking the forgiveness of the other. This is the story of two star-crossed lovers attempting to make their mark on the world. This is the story of a group of rebels raging against the machine. This is the story of genius who solved one of the biggest issues of our time by damning the world. This is a story condemning wars while idolizing those who fight them. This is a story that sometimes forgets it’s a story. Southland Tales could be a retelling of the Book of Revelation in science-fiction clothes, but also draws from “The Road Less Traveled” mixed with heavy doses of Karl Marx. It could be a stinging indictment of the US war in Iraq, but portrays the veterans of a version of that war as strong-willed heroes. It also could be a surreal science-fiction story that stretches our, and the character’s, perceptions of reality nearly to the breaking point and sometimes past that. It’s probably all of those things at one point or another and sometimes simultaneously. Oh, but it does most definitely contain the best rendition of the “Star-Spangeled Banner” ever.
All in all, this is a DVD well worth purchasing, but mainly just to be able to watch the film multiple times. The extras are rather sparse with only a cleverly presented behind-the-scenes feature and an animated short showing a future Earth without humans. This bare-bones disc makes me wonder if there will be an inevitable “Director’s Cut” released down the road. If you’re like me, you’ll want to have both versions anyway and won’t care about the double dip in this case. For now, watch Southland Tales again and again and again (rinse, repeat) and savor each new layer and tidbit that’s revealed to you over time.
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