He's baaa-aack. Richard Kelly, the director who gave us the inimitable Donnie Darko a few years ago, has out-Donnie'd himself tenfold (maybe elevenfold) with Southland Tales, a mostly incoherent jumble that nonetheless offers the same mesmerizing quality that hooked so many Darko fans. As my wife recently said about that film, "I didn't understand it, but it's stayed with me like few films I've ever seen." That same surreal, semi-dream state quality is part and parcel of Southland Tales, ostensibly a post-apocalyptic sort of Short Cuts with several overlapping and intersecting stories. Your tolerance for Tales will depend mostly on your ability to sit through a film with far more questions than answers, something you probably will go in well prepared for if you've already seen Donnie Darko.
I will just state up front there is no way in hell I can properly summarize the plot of Southland Tales. Suffice it to say that after a 2005 nuclear attack on the United States, we have a country that is run by a Patriot Act gone amok. The film actually takes place in 2008 in the midst of a hotly contested presidential election (one of the bigger laughs of the film, already obviously out of date, is the "Clinton/Lieberman" bumper sticker). Populating this darkly satiric world are an amnesiac action star (Dwayne Johnson, who with this and my recently reviewed Get Smart, is quickly and quite surprisingly becoming one of my favorite film presences) who happens to have forgotten he's married to the daughter of one of the vice presidential candidates. He's hooked up with a porn actress cum reality television star (Sarah Michelle Gellar, all but erasing any vestiges of Buffy with her portrayal here) who is part of some sort of blackmail conspiracy to bring down the government. There's also an oil crisis which is being countered with a new superfuel called Liquid Karma, a probably insane Iraq war vet (an amazingly impressive Justin Timberlake, and believe me, you couldn't be more surprised reading that sentence than I was writing it), and twin brothers (Seann William Scott), one of whom is a captured police officer and the other of whom is impersonating him. If it sounds confusing, trust me when I tell you that's not the half, or even the quarter, of it. Southland Tales is one of those films that you're either simply going to surrender to and go along with, enjoying the ride for what it is, or else you're going to throw your remote through your sparkling new HDTV in a fit of pique.
It's obvious that Tales has been reworked massively, and indeed stories were rampant both during production and then after the initial release of the problems Kelly was having mustering the forces, both financial and perhaps storywise, to successfully manage the huge canvas on which he attempts to paint this picture. It's just as obvous that Kelly is aiming for the sort of scabrous black humor that Stanley Kubrick mined so brilliantly in Doctor Strangelove. Unfortunately, Kelly has none of Kubrick's more literal screenplay chops that ground the surreal elements in a framework that allows most viewers an easy "in" to the more absurd goings-on. Kelly is ambitious--there's no denying that, but there is such a surfeit of information, both visual (the screen is literally bursting with "news crawls," multi-screen effects and other hoo-hah that makes it hard to know where to focus at times), and character-wise, that it's simply too jumbled for its own good. Donnie Darko, by contrast, seems a model of restraint and focus. Darko at least had a relatively small cast of characters, all of them well defined, if caught in a mysterious world that seemed to well up out of the collective unconscious.
Southland Tales is also a jumble of performance styles--you get some really incredibly solid work from Timberlake and Johnson, with some great bits from Gellar and SNL alums like Nora Dunn and Cheri Oteri, but then there are completely buffoonish portrayals by the likes of Wallace Shawn (obviously never really a model of actorly conservatism). The film veers wildly in tone from sci-fi to drama to comedy, so that you never know quite where any scene is coming from, literally and figuratively. A straightforward dialogue of political intrigue can suddenly devolve into a long riff on bowel movements, just to give one example, and, no, I'm not joking.
All of this said, Southland Tales has that same weird hypnotic power that captivated so many people when they found Donnie Darko. This is a long film (almost two and a half hours), but it is never dull. While it doesn't have the relatively small scale appeal of Darko, it shares the same strangely humorous pessimism that made the earlier film so appealing to disaffected types. Southland Tales virtually requires multiple viewings to help make it make any semblance of sense, so the home video market may be its ultimate triumph, much as it was for Kelly's earlier work. It will be interesting to see if this patently bizarre mélange passes the test of time as forcefully as Donnie Darko has.
Southland Tales' 1080p AVC transfer in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio is nicely sharp and detailed, with excellent color and contrast. Some of the outdoor shots seem purposefully overexposed, with a resultant loss of contrast, but my sense is this was Kelly's choice in helping to make the film even more unsettling. There's not a lot of opportunity to really show off the Blu-ray medium here, other than the extremely "busy" use of the screen that Kelly indulges in repeatedly, but what's here is of extremely high quality.
The DD True HD 5.1 mix is quite excellent, though not as slam-bang as it might have been. Directionality is well handled, with some above average use of ambience, though overall there's not a completely immersive quality to the mix. That said, fidelity is superb, and the underscore is extremely well reproduced. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
This is one Blu-ray where I highly recommend you actually start with at least one of the extras, "The Prequel Saga," a group of graphic novels that gives the backstories leading up to the film's opening. It really helps provide some much needed context. Kelly's commentary track is also quite excellent, though I wish he would have concentrated more on the meaning of certain scenes and interrelationships than the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking. A making of featurette, the theatrical trailer, and an animated short called "This is the Way the World Ends" round out the bonus features.
Southland Tales needed a dramaturg somewhere along the way, someone other than Kelly who could have come in, seen the mosaic, and assembled it into a more cohesive portrait. Kelly is a visionary filmmaker, there's no doubt about it, it's just that his vision in this case may be a bit too hallucinogenic for the public at large. My advice is to Rent It first to see what your reaction is--you may love it enough to want it in your permanent collection. If not, you're not out $28.95.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet