At its Cannes 2006 inception, Richard Kelly's Southland Tales was plagued with walkouts that, reportedly, rang close to triple digits. The follow-up to Kelly's post-millennial, Reagan-era-set cult hit Donnie Darko, Tales seems destined for the same cult bin: a film maudit with a cast best suited for the WB or for the next slate of romantic comedies to hit the multiplex. If Darko was post-9/11, Southland is post-Republican justification. It makes sense that they would end up in roughly the same nebula.
A terrorist group has just set off a bomb in Texas that, while killing hundreds, has also created a parallel universe unbeknownst to the general population. Not too long after, the Republicans have an eye on everything, the Democrats have turned into militant twits under the banner of Karl Marx, and action superstar Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "The Rock Johnson) has gone missing. Though his wife (a brilliantly bitchy Mandy Moore) is the daughter of prez-to-be Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne), Santaros appears in plain sight with his current flame, porn diva Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). It's to Kelly's credit that almost every shot of them together is framed to look like it was taken by the paparazzi.
Santaros and Now have written a script called "The Power" that is ostensibly the script for Tales but with more "acting." To prepare for the film, Boxer does a ride-a-long with a racist cop named Taverner (Seann William Scott). That cop is actually Taverner's twin brother, a veteran of Fallujah, who is doing reconnaissance for the left. The script grabs the attention of Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shaw), the creator of a wave-generated source of energy known as Instant Karma and a friend of Boxer's father-in-law. All the while, Pilot Abilene (a gloomy Justin Timberlake) casts his wisdom, the Book of Revelation, and the history of the Southland into the fray through voiceover.
That's not the half of it. There are so many ideas sliding into Kelly's swirling vortex of pop culture overload and apocalyptic forecasting that it's understandable not to find coherence in it. The voiceover, a doppelganger of Martin Sheen's work in Apocalypse Now, was added by Kelly to shorten the Cannes runtime by 19 minutes but it's hard to image a bigger version. The phantasmagorical and metaphysical collide at every turn; intimations towards Warhol ideology drift around David Lynch and Philip K. Dick references with the swooning tide of Moby's score pulsing in the background against Jane's Addiction's epic "Three Days." By the time Timberlake does a jaw-dropping performance of the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done" in an arcade with nurse-attired babes chorus-lining around him, your mind will have properly landed in the ether.
Everything about Kelly's vision connects to pop culture in one way or another. The filmmaker recruited most of his cast from Saturday Night Live, cult films, and cheesy sitcoms; the pinnacle is Christopher Lambert's gun runner who sells from an ice cream truck. The MTV-approved cast aside, the script never dares to make things hard-nosed; the film's most quotable catchphrase: "I'm a pimp, and pimps don't kill themselves." Even the cinematographer, Steven B. Poster, is best known for commercial fluff like Daddy Day Care and Stuart Little 2. Frost's wife (Miranda Richardson) is the head of USIdent, a splinter of the Patriot Act that monitors the internet at all times. The film's constant return is to the wife's office where she watches a myriad of newscasts and reality television shows along with Krysta Now's The View-ish talk show where she refers to pre-pilgrim Native American society as "the Indian orgy of freedom." Hearing Star Jones say it would be cause for riot, but Gellar, a bracing comic presence, laces the line with dynamite.
As the end of the world comes to a close with a bang (not a whimper), Kelly leads it all into a last dance on a hyper-blimp between Boxer and Krysta as a drafted rich boy (Lou Taylor Pucci) aims a rocket launcher at the zeppelin. As if already engulfed by it, Kelly sees where Bush, the occupation of Iraq, and our listlessness about it will leave us in the end. His only hope seems to be that we'll get the joke and find it fatally unfunny; he's an optimist after all. Anywho, have a nice apocalypse!
Way down south.