Writer/director Richard Kelly’s first film, Donnie Darko, is quite simply one of the best movies of the past ten years. So how did he follow it up? By trying to fix it. In 2004 he released Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut, and proved he had absolutely no idea why his directorial debut worked by minimizing a lot of what had made the movie so great in the first place and replacing it with needless special effects and annoying, over-explanation. Now with his second film Southland Tales, Richard Kelly has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that, yep, Donnie Darko was just a fluke.
Southland Tales is an inexplicable mess, a muddled disaster of epic proportions. Even explaining the plot is difficult, not because it’s deep and complicated but because it simply makes no sense. In a near-future The Rock stars as an actor and conservative political activist named Boxer Santaros who has, rather conveniently, lost his memory. Even more conveniently, he only seems to have lost the parts of his memory that would let him, or the audience, figure out what the hell is going on. Even more conveniently still, he doesn’t seem to be aware that he’s lost his memory, so he keeps going through the motions of his life not realizing it’s not really his life. So because he’s basically brain damaged, he’s been tricked by a bunch of neo-liberalists into thinking that he’s researching a role for an upcoming movie by participating in a police ride-along.
His partner for the ride-along is a cop who is not a cop, named Roland Taverner… or Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott). Even he doesn’t seem quite sure which it is. Together they wander around the city bumping into celebrities pulling cameos and become embroiled in a complicated mess which an overbearing narrator played by Justin Timberlake tells us will lead to the end of the world. If only it had led to an early end for the movie.
Kelly’s characters all behave as if they’re brain damaged, which makes following the film’s already incomprehensible plot absolutely impossible. Southland Tales seems to be trying to make a bunch of grand statements about the future of the human race, the environment, politics, and the war in Iraq using blatantly obvious broad strokes but it’s like throwing a bunch of peanut butter at a wall and then watching to see how much of it sticks. In this case, none of it does.
The best way to explain what’s wrong with Southland Tales is by comparing it back to Donnie Darko. Darko works brilliantly because it tells the story of a completely bizarre kid with completely bizarre problems, but sets it in an ordinary world and surrounds him with ordinary people who challenge him with ordinary, relatable problems. We sympathize and understand Donnie because even though he himself is weird, the people around him are normal and that gives us something to latch onto. Now imagine an entire world without normal people and instead repopulated with millions of Donnie Darkos. That’s Southland Tales, and it takes only a few minutes for it to become completely unhinged..
The film drones on for more than two hours about special destinies while everyone in it seems to be suffering from unexplained pseudo-psychic delusions. The entire cast behaves if they’re on hallucinogens, perhaps the same ones Kelly was on when he wrote it. There are movies which are complicated and challenging because that’s simply the way they’re constructed. Darren Aronofsky is a master at this and his films, while they may not always behave in a linear, easy to understand fashion, are held together by unifying themes and punctuated with relatable, emotionally resonant elements which suck the audience in to convey some sense of an overall theme. Kelly’s movie is not that type of movie, though some are bound to excuse it as such. Southland Tales is simply a self-important disaster, made by a filmmaker who we’ve overrated beyond all reason because he once accidentally made a single, incredible film. With luck, this will be the last we’ll see of Kelly and we’ll all be able to forget this particular disaster and remember him as the guy who once made Donnie Darko. I look forward to twenty years from now when we can all ask “hey, whatever happened to him?” Southland Tales happened to him, and unfortunately it’ll happen to anyone unlucky enough to see it.