Southland Tales (2006)

Southland Tales first published by musicOMH

By the time Howard Hawks released his much-loved but notoriously confusing The Big Sleep on an unsuspecting public in 1946, he had already removed some 18 minutes of expositional scenes from his original version, now leaving entirely unresolved the question of whether the chauffeur Owen Taylor has turned up dead as a result of murder, suicide or accident.

This story may well come to mind as you watch Southland Tales, the latest film to be written and directed by Richard Kelly (of Donnie Darko fame). For like The Big SleepSouthland Tales is an LA-set film noir (of sorts), labyrinthine in its impenetrability (only much more so), and similarly re-edited and shorn by 20 minutes for public consumption (following the poor reception of a rough cut screened at Cannes). And here too it is difficult to distinguish murder from suicide from accident, not to mention life from death, past from future, and reality from illusion, in what must qualify as one of the most convoluted, head-spinning two-and-a-half hours of cinematic overdrive to have bewildered filmgoers since Tony Scott’s widely underrated and sorely misunderstood Domino (2005) – also, through no coincidence, written by Richard Kelly – or David Lynch’s sprawling LA enigma INLAND EMPIRE (2006).

Divided (like the first Star Wars trilogy) into Parts IV-VI, Southland Tales is set in an alternative universe (or two) in the three days leading up to Independence Day, 2008, three years after a nuclear bomb was set off (presumably by terrorists) in the Texan town of Abilene – which also happens to be the name of the film’s narrator, a one-time actor and scarred veteran of the Iraq War played by Justin Timberlake (and yes, he does at one point get to sing and dance). The main character (or is it characters?) is Boxer Santaros (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), an action movie star with links to the Republican Party, and with a bad case of amnesia after being mysteriously abducted to the Nevada desert and just as mysteriously returned to LA.

Unaware that his forgotten parents-in-law, clueless Republican VP candidate Bobby Frost (Kelly regular Holmes Osborne) and machiavellian NSA head Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), are desperately searching for him during their campaign against the liberal Proposition 69 (which would bring an end to their draconian inland security measures), Boxer has shacked up with Krysta (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a pornstar turned reality chatshow hostess, with whom he has co-written a madcap screenplay (“an epic Los Angeles crime saga”) that is not just a mise en abyme of Southland Tales itself, but is turning out to be alarmingly, impossibly prophetic.

In preparation for his lead rôle as a paranoid schizophrenic cop with supernatural powers, Boxer rides along with LAPD Officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), little realising that the real Roland Taverner has been kidnapped by a group of Neo-Marxist agitators who have recruited his identical twin brother Ronald Taverner (also Scott) to help in faking footage of Boxer in incriminating circumstances with a view to blackmailing the Frosts. Not that the Neo-Marxists, themselves divided into factions, are entirely sure of what each other is doing, let alone of who Ronald really is.

Meanwhile, a shady group of cult-like scientists, led by Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), claims to have discovered a true alternative to the world’s dwindling oil supplies but is their Fluid Karma an infinitely powerful energy source, a mind-altering drug, or the primer that will ignite the end of the world? And in the culture wars that have polarised America, just whose side is the Baron on anyway?

That’s just a brief sketch of the plot: Southland Tales is a veritable encyclopaedia of weird, self-consciously referencing the mannered filmic worlds of Kiss Me DeadlyThe Manchurian CandidateRepo ManJacob’s LadderThe Big LebowskiLost HighwayMulholland Dr. and Primer, as well as Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre of mind-expansion and paranoia, along with some of the stranger passages from the Book of Revelations.

There are also advertisements featuring SUVs that mount and hump one another like elephants, revolutionaries who spout poems on masturbation, television discussions of the peculiar effects of international date lines on contraceptives, and, in keeping with the film’s gutter sensibilities and shit-hitting-the-fan themes, lots and lots of scenes involving toilets.

Part scabrous satire, part Chandleresque thriller, part Dickian sci-fi, part postmodern Apocalypse, part pop-culture paradoxography, Southland Tales concerns itself, much like Krysta’s TV show, with issues as weighty as the War on Terror, homeland security, global warming and fundamentalism, and as light as “teen horniness”, while its criss-crossing storylines, multiple characters (several with their own multiple personalities), and carnivalesque irrationality ensure that it is so wildly open to interpretation that spoilers simply do not apply.

Sure, you might be left with the impression that only Kelly himself (and perhaps also the Baron) knows exactly what is going on, but Southland Tales deserves to be embraced with open arms (and mind) in a season otherwise filled with bland Christmas movies. No doubt some will dismiss it as an overlong, incoherent mess, but others (myself included) will emerge, bleary-eyed and brain-battered, just wanting to see the whole thing all over again.

© Anton Bitel