Sony // 2006 // 144 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 17th, 2008
This is the way the world ends.
Let's get the preliminaries out of the way: Southland Tales (Blu-ray) is the second feature from Richard Kelly, the director of the left-field hit Donnie Darko. It was booed at Cannes and subsequently recut before being dumped on the American market with little fanfare. It is both an incoherent mess of a film and a work of genius. It's the kind of film that will likely be talked about long after most films of the first decade of the twenty-first century have faded, and this Blu-ray disc is the way to see it.
An amnesiac actor (Dwayne Johnson, Walking Tall), a pop-star porn actress (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and a soldier (Justin Timberlake, Black Snake Moan) all collide in an alternate reality Los Angeles where the federal government has gone fascist, instituting draconian identification and communication laws.
I'm not usually one for these kinds of comparisons, but Southland Tales plays out like P.T. Anderson and David Lynch co-directing an adaptation of a graphic novel by a second-rate imitation of Warren Ellis (or Grant Morrison). This might strike most readers as odd, so let's stick with it a moment. I compare the film to P.T. Anderson for its scope (it's also no accident that, like Anderson's Magnolia, Southland Tales is set in L.A.). Like some of Anderson's work, Southland Tales is an epic that encompasses numerous speaking roles and takes on an outsized Los Angeles as its backdrop. It seems odd to think of David Lynch's peculiar style in connection with P.T. Anderson, but Kelly fuses Anderson's scope with Lynch's slightly off-kilter take on American culture. Also like much of Lynch's work, Southland Tales is a kind of puzzle. Unlike other "puzzle" films (Memento comes to mind), Southland Tales is fascinating whether you put all the pieces together or not (much like Mulholland Dr.). If all Kelly did was channel some disparate influences, then Southland Tales wouldn't be anything special. However, Kelly brings an ambition to his film that outstrips his influences as he presents a nightmare future that is all too real in a way that other directors would shy away from.
Because of Southland Tales, I can only conclude that Richard Kelly is a very nice guy. I know this because the budget for Southland Tales was less than $20 million and it's a two-and-a-half-hour long movie. Despite these handicaps, Kelly has assembled an amazing cast filled with familiar faces who might not have marquee value, but bring solid chops to smaller roles. Besides the stars (Gellar, Johnson, Scott -- all of them fine actors in the film), expect to see such underappreciated actors as John Larroquette, Curtis Armstrong, Christopher Lambert, Nora Dunn, and even Kevin Smith. Those names are just the tip of the iceberg. Just about every role in the film is filled by someone recognizable, and they all do an admirable job making Kelly's larger-than-life characters come to the screen.
The scope of Kelly's project is maintained on this Blu-ray disc. Kelly opted for a busier visual style on Southland Tales, and high-definition video agrees with style. Colors are bold without bleeding, and detail is high throughout the film. Despite the low budget, there are no obvious limitations in source quality, which is a welcome surprise. The Dolby TrueHD track is impressively clear and well-balanced. All of the extras from the DVD release, including a nice making-of and an animated short. New for this release is a commentary with Richard Kelly. He's remarkably animated for so long a movie, and his insights are sure to please fans of the flick. Also new to this edition is a graphic novel gallery that provides prequel material, giving insight into Kelly's plans to launch a sprawling multimedia campaign with the film.
I'd like to return to my earlier comparison for a moment to discuss the weak point of Southland Tales. I compare the film to Warren Ellis because I think that he is one of the greatest living writers of science fiction. In his series Transmetropolitan he managed to seamlessly blend insights about future technology with insights into human nature that has perhaps not been surpassed since. Although his story involves government conspiracy, heaps of violence and cursing, as well as deviant sexuality, Transmetropolitan comes off as surprisingly subtle. Southland Tales obviously traffics in similar territory, with conspiracy, violence, and sex. However, Kelly simply doesn't have Ellis' subtlety. In Southland Tales everything just hangs right out there. For instance, very early in the film, we see a news update, and when the announcer discusses the Republican Party we see an image of two elephants mating. Funny, yes, but not very subtle. This kind of in-your-face filmmaking gets tiring during a two-plus hour film.
Also, most epics make concessions to the viewer by telling a simple story on a large scale. Kelly tells a long, complicated story with numerous characters on a large scale. This makes the film difficult to follow in many ways, and I suspect many viewers will likely throw their hands up halfway in because of the sheer number of characters to remember.
I should also mention that while this Blu-ray disc is a fine way to see the film, Southland Tales deserves more. Because Kelly aimed so high and apparently fell so far, Southland Tales would be a much more satisfying package if the director's initial Cannes cut were included, both to flesh out the story and to compare to the theatrical release.
Southland Tales is not a movie for everyone. However, because it is not easy to categorize, it's difficult to know ahead of time who may or may not enjoy it. So, I say if you're new to the film, give it a rental. Those who bought the previous DVD will probably want to upgrade both for the improved audiovisual quality, as well as Kelly's commentary (although a rental is recommended here as well).
Southland Tales is guilty of letting its reach exceed its grasp. Kelly is put on parole until he reins in his epic impulses.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 144 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "USIDENT TV Surveilling the Southland"
* "This is the Way the World Ends" Animated Short
* Audio Commentary
* "Southland Tales: The Prequel Saga"