Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language, Violence, Sexual Material and some Drug Content
Directed by: Richard Kelly
Written by: Richard Kelly
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, Miranda Richardson, Wallace Shawn, Bai Ling, Nora Dunn, Kevin Smith, Jon Lovitz & Amy Poehler
Richard Kelly has become a low-rent M. Night Shyamalan. He blew a lot of people away with DONNIE DARKO (similar to how Shyamalan blew everyone away with SIXTH SENSE) and was hailed as an interesting new filmmaker. However, he quickly squandered this reputation away by making crappy overblown movies (that looked good) and not realizing when his stories were in drastic need of a rewrite. The difference between Kelly and Shyamalan is that Shayamalan made three good films before disappointing audiences and Kelly let them down with his second feature. SOUTHLAND TALES premiered at Cannes 2006 to horrible reviews and booing (which isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary as even Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION was heckled at the festival). It took a year for the studio to release this film afterwards to which I can only imagine their discussions were something along the line of “Just do it quickly…like a Band-Aid and then this pain will be over.” SOUTHLAND TALES is a colossal, mind-boggling failure of a film on every conceivable level. This isn’t so bad it’s good, this is so bad it will make you question what anybody on the set was thinking.
Set in an alternative history, the United States has been forever changed since 2005 nuclear attacks on Texas. This led to a military regime taking over America, states being treated like individual countries, and harmful alternative fuels being created. It is now 2008 and the USA is on the brink of chaos. Boxer Santaros is an actor, suffering from memory loss, who has been sucked into a group of neo-Marxist extremists. Alongside another neo-Marxist (impersonating a police officer), Boxer finds himself in a confusing tangled web of conspiracy, power struggles, and all sorts of craziness. Oh, he’s also aided by a psychic ex-porn star and there are other sub-plots weaving in and out of Boxer’s journey. That’s the condensed version of this plot, because I really think Richard Kelly didn’t know what the hell he was doing while writing/filming this epic-length mess of a movie.
I should have known that I was in trouble from the get-go as the story begins with a 10-minute-long prologue that spews exposition like it’s going out of style. Usually science-fiction films will introduce the world in a few short minutes and then incorporate the crazy technology and profound concepts into the story in an effective (sometimes, subtle) manner. That’s not the case in SOUTHLAND TALES as the lengthy prologue is just the tip of the iceberg. Justin Timberlake (who was fairly new to the acting scene at the time of this film) pops in and out to guide us through the story as best he can. His efforts are all in vain as this is entirely nonsensical and confusing. Some may argue that there’s a deeper meaning to everything in the film (right down the repeated phrase of “pimps don’t commit suicide”), but I’d argue that Richard Kelly didn’t have anyone to reign in his ambition on this project. He tried to cram way too many concepts, ideas, and plots into the space of one film. It backfired and the result is somehow simultaneously chaotic, stupid, and boring.
Arguably, the plot isn’t even the strangest thing about SOUTHLAND TALES. That would come in one of the weirdest mismatched ensemble casts to ever hit the screen. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson tries to deliver his lines in a semi-convincing manner, but he doesn’t really seem to understand who his character is (I can’t blame him either). Seann William Scott attempts to take a semi-dramatic role as twin brothers (one’s an undercover neo-Marxist and the other is a racist cop) and seems confused (again, I’m not blaming him for the faulty characters). Sarah Michelle Gellar is playing a typical ditz as the psychic porn star. Meanwhile, lots of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alumni show up for no discernible reason (including Jon Lovitz, Amy Poehler, etc.). Shawn Wallace is hamming it up as an oddball villain. Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake serves as a narrator who occasionally pops in for a pointless scene (including one baffling drug-addled musical number).
SOUTHLAND TALES is also supposed to be a satire. Though I can see it trying to make political points and mock the state of our country, it doesn’t do either of these things well. In fact, every ounce of humor (including one brief joke from Timberlake about a Proposition 69) feels forced or just confused. The futuristic setting could have made for a neat world being brought to life, but it’s not fully explored as Kelly seems to focused on linking together bland characters and uninteresting plot threads. I can’t even call SOUTHLAND TALES an interesting failure, because it’s far too long for its own good and feels even longer than that. This movie drags to an unbearable degree.
There are strange movies. There are weird failures of a film. There are also “WTF” moments strewn throughout many movies (just look at any David Lynch story). However, I think SOUTHLAND TALES takes the cake in being the ultimate WTF movie…and I don’t mean that in a good way. This movie is godawful and really makes you question how it got past the pre-production with a script this horrible and unfocused. This has made its way in my list of bottom three worst films that I’ve ever suffered through (right next to BRANDED and THE BLACK DAHLIA). The only possible way I could even recommend SOUTHLAND TALES on the tiniest merit is so people who sit through this epic-length failure will appreciate everything else they watch that much more.