Classic Intel: Southland Tales - DVD Review

'if you pick up every single bit of the story on first watch then you're some kind of MENSA-level genius'

Richard Kelly's first attempt to follow up his 2001 sleeper-hit Donnie Darko, Southland Tales was near-universally derided when shown in its first iteration at The Cannes Film Festival in 2006. A re-cut followed but an improved critical reception didn't and Southland slipped into a never-world of straight to DVD releases, gaining the reputation of being Kelly's 'difficult' second feature.

The film presents several facets that are easy for the casual observer to knock before they've even sat down in front of the disc... and that's just from looking along the cast list. Sarah Michelle Gellar continues a career progression that saw her go from front-woman in a 'love it or hate it' TV series to obscure porn-star bimbo in this. Seann William Scott takes two of the major roles as a set of twins in what was, and arguably still is, his first definite none-comedy piece. Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson is the notional protagonist as an actor who has written a film script that might or might not accurately predict the end of the world.

It's all very typical Kelly, even more typical Kelly now that The Box is out in the world as his third creation. Like Darko, if you pick up every single bit of the story on first watch then you're some kind of MENSA-level genius. Why, for example, does Christopher Lambert (in what looks like prosthetic make-up) drive an ice cream truck full of guns around LA for the entirety of the film? And why does the end fall in to what looks distinctly like a piece of interpretive dance? Who knows. Perhaps Kelly does. But then again, perhaps he doesn't. There's a distinct feeling here that the writer/director isn't completely on top of all his ideas and it's definitely true that if he'd have been a little more regimented with his scripting, knocking out a character here or a set piece there, then Southland would have made a hell of a lot more sense.

That isn't to say that there isn't a lot to like in Southland and maybe even a few things to love. Justin Timberlake (yes, he's here too) narrates the story beautifully, popping in and out as a character occasionally and almost stealing the show with a musical number halfway through. Mandy Moore (honestly, this isn't just a music video) also crops up as The Rock's wife, first appearing in a terrific scene which harks back to seventies dinner-party mysteries where all of a sudden, everyone wants to confess their guilt to some assorted crime or another. Kelly has talked previously of his love for Terry Gilliam and some of that does shine through in the editing and past-meets-future sets but also like Gilliam, his narrative often gets too muddled in his artifice to make it enjoyable.

This type of failed aspiration doesn't make Southland a bad film all on its own though and the finished cut is by no means as bad as some people want to believe it is. The oddball cast do a fine job, particularly Scott and Johnson (who's nervous tick is hilarious) and some scenes show Kelly's Darko genus in full flow. The director needs to learn though that film-making isn't about throwing all of your good ideas at the screen at once. The sooner he does, the sooner he might find the mainstream warming to his more off-the-wall conceits with a little more willing and little less wrinkled-nose scepticism.

Look further...

'unlike Darko - there is no real through-line to (a) the narrative of the movie or the arcs of the characters and (b) what Kelly is trying to say as a writer/director' - Battle Royale With Cheese

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