Review for Southland Tales
In 2001, a small, practically independent movie slipped beneath the radar, and snuck up on the world to become a cult classic that broke through into the mainstream, and made a star of its lead actor, Jake Gyllenhaal. That movie was Donnie Darko, and made such a splash that people talk about it still. It turned out to be the breakthrough feature of writer director Richard Kelly, and I certainly would have expected it to be the springboard to an epic career in Hollywood, that people would be waiting eagerly for each subsequent new movie, critics would be debating the finer details of his latest work. Donnie Darko had all the hallmarks of the kind of calling card that Christopher Nolan made with Memento, or M. Night Shyamalan with The Sixth Sense. Except that since 2001, Richard Kelly has directed just two movies, written just three according to IMDB. There’s got to be a reason for such a rapid exit from the limelight, and the reason might just be the film he made after Donnie Darko, this Southland Tales, which came out in 2005 after a disastrous Cannes debut. It’s another of those films that I’ve always wanted to watch, but never found the time for, especially given the confused reviews it got at the time; critics just didn’t seem to know what to make of it.
This Arrow Video release has two discs, with disc 1 containing the theatrical release (144:54) with extras, and disc 2 with the longer (more complete?) Cannes version (158:32).
In 2005, a nuclear attack on Texas presaged World War 3, and the collapse of the United States into anarchy. The states closed off their borders and instituted visa controls, and as the Middle East erupted in a conflagration, the fuel started to run dry. Now it’s the year 2008, an election year. It’s also a problem for the Republican vice-presidential candidate when his son-in-law and famous Hollywood actor Boxer Santaros vanishes. He turns up in California with amnesia, although with porn star turned talk show host, Krysta Now, he’s got an epic screenplay, The Power to sell. With gasoline running out, a wealthy industrialist, Baron Von Westphalen is promising to resolve all that with Fluid Karma, energy derived from a perpetual wave machine. As the election race heats up, the radical right and the radical left resort to increasingly lethal means to get their messages across, and caught up in the middle is policeman Roland Taverner, who’s looking for his twin brother. And The Power could turn out to be a remarkably prescient movie, if anyone is left to film it.
Southland Tales gets 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfers on both of these discs, with DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo English with optional English subtitles. Southland Tales’ transfer is clear and sharp, with strong consistent colours. The image is suitably filmic with natural film grain, and the occasional light flicker, but there is no sign of damage or age. Southland Tales gets the same kind of contrarian look I saw recently in A Million Ways to Die in the West, opting for a cool colour palette, with red colours almost de-saturated, all at odds with a California setting during a heat wave. The audio is excellent, with the surround really immersive, making the most of the action, and the Moby music soundtrack.
The discs boot to animated menus. I haven’t seen the packaging or collector’s booklet that comes with this release.
On disc 1 you’ll find these extras, beginning with the audio commentary by Richard Kelly, writer director. It was recorded in 2008 for the first Blu-ray release (released in the UK in 2012), and makes mention of the prequel graphic novels, included on the disc in slideshow form. Alas, those comics aren’t part of this Arrow release, so you’ll have to rely on the preamble on the Theatrical Cut to set the stage.
It’s a Madcap World: The Making of an Unfinished Film is a new retrospective with the director and crew, shot over the Internet to be Covid safe. It’s here in three parts.
Through the Looking Glass (18:46)
This is How the World Ends (21:31)
Have a Nice Apocalypse (10:37)
USIDent TV. Surveilling the Southland lasts 33:48 and is the original making of featurette.
This is the Way The World Ends is a 9:12 Archival Animated Short set in the Southland Tales universe.
The Theatrical Trailer lasts 2:31.
The Image Gallery is a 24:11 slideshow gallery.
For once, I’m glad there are two versions of a film here, as Southland Tales is not a film that you’ll get your head around with just one viewing. Alas, a second viewing with the Cannes Cut didn’t help. It may take a little more time to develop the characters, and fleshes things out with the Teena MacArthur and the Simon Theory story arc, but it strips out the intro montage that recaps the prequel comics and also sets up the world, leaving first time viewers a little out to sea with the story. Basically, watch the Theatrical Version first before the Cannes Cut. But either way, this isn’t the film that I was hoping it would be. It does fulfil that cult movie definition where you either get it or you don’t. Southland Tales certainly has its fans, but I’m not one of them.
You can certainly see the thematic evolution from Donnie Darko to Southland Tales. Both films have a sci-fi twist in the tale, and both immerse the viewer in a cultural zeitgeist. Donnie Darko had the nostalgia of the nineteen-eighties, while Southland Tales creates an extrapolated near future culture in a post-apocalyptic USA. Made in 2005, it’s set in a 2008 America resulting from a terrorist attack and the consequential World War on terror.
I do recall just how the film was originally received and it didn’t exactly thrill the critics, but it might just be that this film has come into its own in the intervening years. Southland Tales was a commentary on the USA post 9/11 and how the war on terror had developed, but you could say that it’s far more representative of the United States today; certainly Arrow Video are stating as much in their promotion of the Blu-ray. Indeed a United States split politically down the middle, radicalised to the left and to the right is more recognisable now. Celebrity and politics blending, corruption and violence, racist police, constant surveillance, control of the internet, flamboyant mega-industrialists with world changing inventions; Southland Tales is in many depressing ways so prescient that it’s uncanny.
It’s a film replete with characters and story arcs, all jammed together in a seemingly haphazard fashion or rather two haphazard fashions given the differences between the Theatrical and Cannes versions. There is a whole lot going on here, and it’s pretty hard to hold onto all of its pseudo-complexities. Ultimately, a lot of the narrative feels like padding to give the viewer a journey from A to B, and the actual story is really quite simple. It’s artificially stretching the gap from the puzzle to the dawn of realisation, and that manipulation can feel obvious. It’s also not helped by some really quite bizarre albeit consistent performances from the actors, particularly Dwayne Johnson, and that will ultimately be down to the director and the editing process.
Southland Tales is a mess of a film, which makes it all the more apropos to the current US political situation. The last 4 years in the US has been a weird and incoherent mess of a history, with a cast of bizarre characters and a series of daft events. Quite frankly if you look at Trump’s four years in power, you’d have to say that if they were a movie, no one would believe it. Enter Southland Tales, a movie so off kilter that I just can’t believe it, and quite frankly when it comes to escapist entertainment, I don’t want to watch anything that reminds me of the bizarre reality in which we now live.
Arrow Video’s presentation of the film is top-notch, with great image and audio quality, and a nice selection of extras too. It’s a shame that the prequel comics aren’t included although the first Blu-ray release is still available and the comics are on there, although finding the books in print right now isn’t easy. It is definitely a Marmite movie though... and I don’t like Marmite!