Released to howls of derision from the critics at Cannes, Richard “Donnie Darko” Kelly has been trying to make his sprawling story set in an apocalyptic 2008 make enough sense us laymen can understand what on Earth is going on in his head. It’s been to no avail. Months of work and the removal of subplots later, the two-and-a-half-hour results remain incoherent and indulgent. Lucky for him, there is a smackering of silky smooth style to make up for the lack of bite, but only just enough to put up with Kelly’s pompous thinking that he has sculpted a movie to be long adored like Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) or even his own Donnie Darko (2002). No chance.
Quite where we’re supposed to approach Southland Tales from is anyone’s guess. After nuclear attacks in America in 2005 render all but the state of California habitable, in 2008 things are far from simple. The government has control of almost everyone’s lives while technological advancements in perpetual motion have finally led to a sustainable source of energy that is causing the Earth to slowly stop spinning and also leading to public and private firms battling to prevent its introduction. Meanwhile, a Marxist underground movement is plotting to bring down the authorities, which is where the attention finally focuses after a news-style introduction.
A modern-day example of a hotshot young director getting too much freedom and money.
Boxer Santaros (Dwanye Johnson in his first role without ‘The Rock’ as part of his billing) is an actor famous for his role in action films with political connections. He’s trying to secure financing for a new movie he has been working on with former-porn-star-turned-talkshow-host Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). To research his film, he meets L.A. cop Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) whose identity has mysteriously split in two. When Boxer and Taverner’s part in a conspiracy plot goes wrong, Boxer’s world suddenly starts to mirror his movie and Taverner goes in search of his twin. Hold on, wait. Southland Tales is hard enough to follow watching it with no distractions; trying to successfully give an idea of the themes and development is a fruitless affair. It’s like turning up to a science revision class having never studied science in your life — you’ll be wondering what you should have done to understand it all.
If only Kelly knew what he was trying to achieve with all this, he might have had a real sci-fi classic on his hands. Cameos from Mandy Moore, Christopher Lambert, Miranda Richardson and Kevin Smith give the impression he had enough material for a ten-part series rather than one overlong mess. A voiceover from Justin Timberlake only muddies proceedings further in what becomes a hyper-real experience that looks glossy enough and talks the talk, but Southland Tales is a modern-day example of a hotshot young director getting too much freedom and money. Kelly got so lost in his own world he forgot to show us how to get in, resulting in an alienating offering. There is something in there somewhere, it might take another 20 hours of footage to explain though.