Southland Tales

Director: Richard Kelly
Screenplay: Richard Kelly
Stars: Dwayne Johnson (Boxer Santaros / Jericho Kane), Seann William Scott (Roland Taverner / Ronald Taverner), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Krysta Now / Krysta Kapowski), Mandy Moore (Madeline Frost Santaros), Justin Timberlake (Private Pilot Abilene), Nora Dunn (Cyndi Pinziki), John Larroquette (Vaughn Smallhouse), Bai Ling (Serpentine), Jon Lovitz (Bart Bookman), Holmes Osborne (Senator Bobby Frost), Cheri Oteri (Zora Carmichaels), Amy Poehler (Veronica Mung / Dream), Lou Taylor Pucci (Martin Kefauver), Miranda Richardson (Nana Mae Frost), Wallace Shawn (Baron Von Westphalen), Kevin Smith (Simon Thiery)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2007
Country: U.S.
Southland Tales Blu-ray
Southland Tales

Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s insanely ambitious fever dream of a science fiction/political satire/anti-fantasy, roars at you with unapologetic gusto, inflaming the senses with its rich tapestry of post-millennial visuals and assaulting the mind with its skewering of the Far Right and the Far Left, thus all but ensuring hatred from both ends of the political spectrum since neither tends to like being caricatured and mocked. The film’s own journey is almost as strange as the one it depicts: After being roundly booed at its disastrous 2006 premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in a 160-minute cut (which has finally been made available via Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray), Kelly retooled it by slicing away 20 minutes, recording and re-recording voice-over narration for the expanded opening exposition, and adding more special effects. It was all to little avail, though, as the film quickly sank at the box office when it finally debuted in limited release in October 2007, already doomed by rumor and bad word of mouth. As with Kelly’s directorial debut, the apocalyptic teen satire Donnie Darko (2001), Southland Tales has gone on to become a cult item, beloved by those get its ambitions, forgive its flaws, and embrace its narrative conundrums, political grandiosity, and all-around weirdness. As Kelly himself has noted, Southland Tales is effectively an “unfinished” film, whether you are viewing the longer Cannes cut or the retooled theatrical cut, because both versions were made with limited resources and a stretched-thin budget that simply could not provide adequate canvas for Kelly’s ever-expanding vision.

The majority of the film takes place around the Fourth of July weekend in an alternate 2008 (which, at the time of the film’s release, was the near future), although it begins three years earlier with a truly frightening sequence in which home video footage of a neighborhood party in Abilene, Texas, is rocked by a nuclear explosion. In response, the U.S. government cracks down, curtailing civil liberties, launching offensives in the Middle East, and assuming control over the Internet using a private corporation called USIDnet, which has also assumed control of all other forms of law enforcement. The state is in a state of panic, paranoia, and complete confusion, which, the film argues, is not a far leap from where we have been since 9/11.

To try to summarize the exact mechanics of the plot would take about as long as the film takes to play, so I’ll just sketch in the bare minimum. Our protagonist is Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), an action movie star who is married to the daughter (Mandy Moore) of vice-presidential hopeful Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne), whose wife (Miranda Richardson) runs USIDnet. Boxer is kidnapped and emerges from the desert with no memory, after which time he falls in with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a free-spirit porn star with her own View-like reality talk show.

Meanwhile, two radical groups are vying to manipulate Boxer to their own ends. One group, led by filmmaker Cyndi Pinziki (Nora Dunn), wants to blackmail Senator Frost into curtailing USIDnet’s powers. At the same time, a group of self-proclaimed neo-Marxists (who don’t seem to know anything about Marxism except its antagonistic stance toward capitalism and God) led by a violent beat poet (Cheri Oteri) want to frame Boxer for a racist murder. To do this, they have kidnapped a police officer (Seann William Scott) and plan to replace him with his twin brother. All of this is being orchestrated by a German inventor named Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), who has developed an unlimited source of energy called Fluid Karma, which also leads to the development of a powerful drug. Oh, and the film is narrated from the margins by a disillusioned Iraq war veteran named Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake).

There is more—oh so very, very much more (including Kevin Smith in militaristic Orson Welles drag)—and how it all fits together is something of a mystery, even after the final credits are rolling, which is likely why audiences rejected the film so violently. Part of this is due to the fact that Southland Tales is not meant to stand alone. The three “chapters” comprising the film (each of which is named after a song) are actually the final three parts of a six-part story (some strange wink to Star Wars?), the first three of which are told in a graphic novel series. Thus, the film is but one piece of a larger multimedia universe, which is fitting given the film’s visual obsession with overloaded cable-news-style multimedia presentations of plot points and backstory.

However, ambiguity and confusion are not the real problem. The film isn’t nearly as incomprehensible as it would seem, although parts of it are certainly befuddling and its tonal shifts are radical to the point of being ethereal. This is a film, after all, that toys with conspiracy theories, action movies clichés, and avant-garde density—and did I mention that it quotes heavily from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and the Book of Revelation and that it’s also a remarkably funny comedy? Rarely has a film not produced by Lorne Michaels contained so many Saturday Night Live personalities both past and present (in addition to the aforementioned Nora Dunn and Cheri Oteri, Amy Poheler has a small role, as does Jon Lovitz as a violent, racist cop).

In fact, if Southland Tales doesn’t work, it may be because it comes too close to working, too close to making sense. Many of the same critics and audiences who fall over themselves praising the anti-narrative conundrums offered by David Lynch were critical of Southland Tales, most likely because they confused it for a film that was trying to make sense but failed. In fact, Kelly’s film, which he describes as simply “a political satire about an alternate future,” is not quite weird enough. For too long it dangles before you the carrot of clarity, only to jerk it away again and again. Just when you think you may be grasping what it’s all about, you’re suddenly confronted with some kind of visual or narrative non sequitur, such as when the film veers into bizarro music video territory with Timberlake drunkenly lip-synching to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” while dancers in tight nurse costumes high-kick on top of skee ball lanes.

And frankly, despite having seen the film at least a dozen times, I still haven’t quite decided whether the film’s does-it-or-doesn’t-it-make-sense divisiveness is the key to its unappreciated genuis or the lynchpin to its demise. Even after finally getting to see the fabled Cannes cut, which is free of the ponderous, CGI-enhanced opening exposition via the “Doomsday Scenario Interface” and expands on many scenes in the theatrical version, I still struggle with exactly what to make of the film and its ambitions, which I suspect is exactly what Kelly wants. Should it have gone straight into pure Dziga Vertov-era Godardian counter-cinema, or is its playful skewering of abstract pretensions with daggers of coherence its weapon of choice against both arty Leftists and literal-minded Righties? Or was Kelly trying to please both and just pissed them all off? One thing we can say for sure, though: After you’ve seen Southland Tales, you know you’ve really seen something.

Southland Tales 2-Disc Limited Edition Blu-ray
This two-disc set includes both versions of the film: the 145-minute theatrical cut and the 160-minute “Cannes Cut,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006

Aspect Ratio2.40:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Linear PCM 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary on the theatrical cut by Richard Kelly
  • It’s a Madcap World: The Making of an Unfinished Film retrospective documentary
  • USIDent TV: Surveilling the Southland making-of featurette
  • This is the Way the World Ends animated short
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Image gallery
  • Limited edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Peter Tonguette and Simon Ward
  • DistributorArrow Video
    Release DateJanuary 21, 2021

    Arrow Video’s new two-disc limited edition Blu-ray set features both the theatrical version and, for the first time on home video in Region 1, the 2006 Cannes cut in new 2K transfers approved by director Richard Kelly and cinematographer Steven Poster (who also shot Kelly’s Donnie Darko). Both transfers give us an impressive presentation of the film’s ambitious scope, which has a wide array of visuals and spaces, from the sun-drenched beaches of California, to the antiseptic, monochromatic blandness of the USIDnet office. The high-def image boasts strong color saturation, amazing detail, and deep, strong black levels that bring out the nuances of the film’s last half hour. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack offers a strong, effective mix that makes good use of the surround channels to immerse you in the environment, especially near the climax when things start getting more explosive. Moby’s beautifully haunting electronic score also benefits from the surround mix, which enhances its ethereal qualities to great effect.

    The supplements are mostly the same as we had on the Universal Blu-ray from 2008, although we do get a major addition in It’s a Madcap World: The Making of an Unfinished Film, a 50-minute three-part retrospective documentary that includes new interviews (all conducted remotely) with Kelly, Poster, production designer Alec Hammond, and producer Matthew Rhodes. It offers significant insight into the film’s troubled production and reception from the hindsight of nearly a decade and a half, especially from Kelly, who talks about how the film grew in scope and couldn’t be contained by the limited budget they were able to assemble. One of the best bits he shares is how they shot the “All These Things That I’ve Done” musical sequence without having secured permission from The Killers, which is a kind of nutshell summation of Kelly’s gonzo approach to the film. We also get the same feature-length screen-specific audio commentary by Kelly that appeared on the 2008 Blu-ray (it’s too bad they couldn’t include Kevin Smith, with whom Kelly recorded a commentary for the Director’s Cut DVD of Donnie Darko and who plays a role in Southland Tales). Kelly’s commentary is quite informative, even if it mostly takes the form of him narrating the story and explaining various plot points and character arcs. In another film that would be boring, but Southland Tales is so thematically rich and narratively complex that it virtually requires a scene-by-scene explanation to make sense. Kelly offers some behind-the-scenes bits and elaborates on some of his inspirations, but he is extremely coy in avoiding the disastrous Cannes premiere (which is not the case in the new documentary). You have to give him respect, though, for stating flat-out at the end that he has no regrets and he hopes new audiences find the film. Also included on the disc are the 33-minute making-of documentary titled USIDnet TV: Surveilling the Southland, which is actually quite good and covers a lot of ground, including interviews with the cast and crew, plenty of behind-the-scenes photography, and insight into the special effects, and an oddly compelling, crudely animated short film titled This is the Way the World Ends in which a grandfatherly jellyfish explains to his grandson jellyfish how humankind wiped itself out. There is also a trailer, an image gallery, and an insert booklet with new essays by journalist Peter Tonguette and science fiction writer Simon Ward. Unfortunately, one thing that is not included from the older Blu-ray is the entirety of the three-part graphic novel series that serves as a prequel to the film.

    Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Arrow Video

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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