Re-edited to minimize such nuttier notions as infant flatulence’s triggering the Apocalypse, Richard Kelly’s wildly ambitious and widely loathed Southland Tales now seems among the most believable works of film futurism ever made in this country. Indeed, sci-fi satire hasn’t come so dangerously close to imagining reality since Terry Gilliam brought Brazil to a horrified Hollywood in 1985.
VIDEO: The trailer for Southland Tales
Like its real-world targets, Kelly’s epic American spoof — reduced from 163 minutes to 144 — has stupidity to spare. Lethal baby farts have been cut, the better for the young director’s doomsaying Donnie Darko follow-up to emphasize more-familiar threats to our national security — including Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore, and Kevin Smith, to name just three in the pointedly absurd, totally awesome cast. “Teen horniness is not a crime,” asserts the porn-queen-turned-chanteuse played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, and she’s right — though Kelly and his ensemble have been read the riot act by most adult reviewers. Leading the charge from Cannes, Variety deemed the film a “pretentious, overreaching, fatally unfocused fantasy” best suited to “gullible undergrads.” (C’mon, kids — are you gonna listen to Pop or pop?)
More knowingly juvenile than witty, Southland Tales is so similar to network “news” it’s not even funny — which is the joke, lost on plenty. Might the film’s proximity to current affairs help explain its misinterpretation as failed parody? Consider Kelly’s crystal-ball predictions. In the near-future an alarmingly buff action star (Dwayne Johnson, a/k/a the Rock) will govern the fate of California, if not that of the entire planet. Gas prices in wartime will escalate to the point where a European corporation can peddle ocean waves as alternative energy. Cops with SWAT-team outfits and itchy trigger-fingers will patrol US borders. Stars-and-stripes will be ubiquitous; ditto computer screens and cameras, even in airport toilet stalls. Scariest of all, perhaps: the leading Democratic presidential ticket will be Clinton/Lieberman.
Shot in 2005, Kelly’s movie is set in ’08, but aside from the terrorist nuking of Abilene and the reinstitution of the draft, its nightmares are already upon us. Only last month the Rock had the nation’s #1 movie (The Game Plan); here the star plays novice screenwriter and jittery amnesiac Boxer Santaros, a card-carrying Republican celeb perceived by the government to be a radical. As Kelly’s channel-surfing æsthetic introduces putative protagonists every 15 minutes, Boxer is forced to duke it out with other studs for control of the narrative. Likewise wandering the film’s graffiti- and flag-strewn police state, Seann William Scott’s “urban pacification” officer could be our hero — but once we learn he has a missing twin, all bets are off. And though voiceovers are periodically supplied by Timberlake’s scar-faced Iraq War vet, he’s an unreliable narrator at best: shooting “fluid karma” into his neck, Private Pilot Abilene hallucinates himself into a lurid Killers video wherein silver-wigged Red Cross nurses make like Busby Berkeley showgirls going down slow in the devil’s arcade.
Somber and ecstatic in equal measure, this brilliant scene is Southland Tales’ crowning spectacle — as well as its litmus test. What hollow man among us wouldn’t be moved by the sight of Timberlake’s poorly recovering grunt in a bloodstained T-shirt swilling Bud from a can and lip-synching “I got soul but I’m not a soldier” as the world burns? In the spirit of erstwhile teen-apocalypse king Gregg Araki (whose Nowhere belongs on Southland’s giant map of influences), Kelly compels unlikely sympathy for American Idle.