Southland Tales Is the Greatest (Cult) Film of the 21st Century

The two-and-a-half-hour, near-future dystopian epic, directed and written by Donnie Darko creator Richard Kelly, is a rare breed of classic.

In American cities large and small, all self-respecting art theaters preserve some sort of series of cult favorites. Even outside of the inevitable local Rocky Horror subculture, there are recurring favorites. Monthly call-and-response screenings of mystery man Tommy Wiseau’s self-produced bomb The Room in Los Angeles and New York continue to rack up long wait lists. Showgirls screenings in conjunction with drag shows have been popular for well over a decade. For years, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain played at midnight near-weekly at the IFC Center in New York City. Even so, the canon is in desperate need of expansion — of a new, widely revered cult classic for a still-young millennium.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music is the most high-profile theater undertaking screenings of cult films in Brooklyn — whether campy, controversial, or highbrow. BAM’s visibility in the New York City arts world means that when they champion an undersung film, it’s a fairly sizable publicity boost. This week, during their “Turkeys for Thanksgiving” series, comprised of legendary and beautifully weird box-office flops, my favorite film of all time got a look: Richard Kelly’s 2006-7 speculative dystopian epic Southland Tales. This widely panned but spectacular epic has long deserved the kind of cult status that is currently awarded to far lesser movies — at least, ones that go much less far toward altering the fabric of one’s reality.

Kelly made his reputation with Donnie Darko, which accrued a following on the midnight-movie circuit following its 2001 release. Donnie Darko’s speculative, cerebral, gobbledygook followed naturally for fans of turn-of-the-millennium pseudo-philosophical thrillers like Fight Club, The Matrix, and Memento, as well as less discriminating David Lynch enthusiasts. It also doubled as a teen movie, and made a young Jake Gyllenhaal a rising star. Southland Tales — given a vote of confidence and a $17 million budget on the back of Darko’s runaway success — is five times as sprawling and conceptually obscure as Kelly’s earlier film. It’s extremely hard to understand how it was ever greenlighted in the first place; considering that hundreds of eyes must have read the tome of a script and nodded in apparent comprehension is enough to make one’s head spin. If there is any movie that ever deserved revisitation, again and again, by audiences curious about the most outlandish possibilities of the medium, it is Southland Tales.

Kelly’s is the rare film that makes less sense the more times you view it. The narrative is divided into three long unwieldy sections — IV, V, and VI — which extend the action laid out in three, desert-centric graphic novels Kelly released previous to the film’s theatrical premiere. The action in the comics is roughly summarized in the opening eighth of the film, which comes across like a kinetic, hyper-involved DVD menu: Overcrowded screens shift constantly, cuing up new news clips and primitive computer animations, narrating the story of a movie star named Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) lost in the desert, and the chaotic aftermath of two nuclear attacks on the United States. Where did the attacks take place? Two different small cities in Texas, naturally.

Dwayne Johnson as Boxer Santaros, 'Southland Tales'

Our narrative is set less than three years after the bombings, and one from the time of Southland Tales’ theatrical release — when America is a surveillance state run by an NSA-like organization U.S. IDent, the existence of which is justified by the PATRIOT Act. Experimental science has resulted in both weird alternative energy sources, a black market for a new hallucinogen, and a rift in the space-time continuum which is setting the apocalypse into motion. The world’s progress toward total annihilation is marked by passages from the book of Revelation narrated in voiceover — by Justin Timberlake, playing a shadowy Iraq vet named “Pilot Abilene” suffering from PTSD and a debilitating addiction to a colorful energy serum called Fluid Karma that allows him to “talk to God.”

The simplest and least inaccurate way to explain this movie away is calling it a document of Bush-era paranoia. There are surveillance cameras and CCTV screens in nearly every scene. Multiple newscasts play at once, TV shows and ads pop into the frame to block others, and everything is branded with garish logos — military tanks are inscribed with the HUSTLER header. Everyone seems to be sapped of self-awareness or an understanding of their role and agency in a disordered universe. Vice-presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bobby Frost (R-TX) even does a Bush impression — even though W is still meant to be in office — and breeds fear of terrorism and moral degradation in rhetoric dotted with snippets from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (get it, Bobby Frost? Robert Frost?). Military snipers watch over Los Angeles on parapets.

"Do you bleed?" -- Justin Timberlake as Pilot Abilene, 'Southland Tales'

The language and syntax of Kelly’s film mirrors the fractured narrative world, sometimes by design, but more through its failure to find a way of making this multi-threaded saga remotely digestible. One can assume the situation was significantly worsened by necessary runtime cuts and the fact that he couldn’t detach from the complex mythology laid out in the graphic novels (needless to say, these have gone largely unread).

While an initial view — and even the first few — will find viewers scrambling to piece the basic plot together, Kelly’s movie works best when viewed as a vast sea of floating, unmoored symbols. Many of its most striking moments could function just as meaningfully out of context, or jumbled up — sometimes, the extremity of a new scenario seems to negate everything that has come before it. Every scene is stuffed with mind-boggling one-liners and unlikely appearances by marginalized character actors, ’90s film stars on the decline, and sketch comics. Everyone’s performance walks a strange line between intentional comedy, accidental farce, and hypnotic regurgitation. Outside of those whom I’ve already listed, this movie features, in no particular order, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Wallace Shawn, Mandy Moore, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Wood Harris, Bai Ling, Jon Lovitz, Mad TV’s Will Sasso, Christopher Lambert (you know, The Highlander), Booger from Revenge of the Nerds, Kevin Smith, John Larroquette, Lou Taylor Pucci (of Thumbuscker and Fast Food Nation fame), and Zelda Rubinstein — otherwise known as the medium from Poltergeist.

Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) and colleagues (Beth Stein, Joe Campana, Jon Laroquette, Zelda Rubinstein)

None of these actors seem to know exactly what kind of a film they are starring in: Clad in lurid costumes and playing jarringly against type (Lovitz as a blond-haired, hard-boiled, crooked cop? Poehler as a slam poet and “neo-Marxist” revolutionary? Sasso as a drug dealer and thug for the evil CEO of a German “alternative fuel” company? Kevin Smith as a mad physicist?), they deliver long strings of quotable lines that often don’t follow functionally from one another. Lovitz asks partner-in-crime and be-dreaded assassin Oteri if she wants to “fuck or watch a movie,” Gellar predicts that “the future will be far more futuristic than originally expected,” and The Rock wards off a desperate fan (Michele Durrett as Starla von Luft) who threatens to shoot herself if he doesn’t let her “suck [his] dick.”

Nearly 10 years after its release, Southland Tales continues to feel — in its bizarre, inimitable way — timely. Even though 2008 is long past and anti-Bush psychosis is behind us, the film gives some impression — if often accidentally — of the disorder and anti-linearity of life in the age of technology and endless access. Southland Tales is obsessively, ludicrously intertextual: Embedded works of fiction (Boxer’s screenplay) and fatalistic, media-spread narratives seem to seep into and distort its “real” world. Outside of the constant Biblical quotes, the film is peppered with allusions to Frost, T.S. Eliot, Philip K. Dick, Mulholland Drive, Elton John’s “Levon,” and Donnie Darko. Multiple characters (most notably, U.S. IDent overseer Nana Mae Frost) interact and influence the world without budging from their computer screens. The logic of the action is as free-associative as an endless, wayward web search. Kelly moves between scenes like he’s clicking through to some new portal with each of them; each seems to have its own distinct rules. It’s exhausting, but a transformative experience to be sure.

Wood Harris and Amy Poehler as Dion and Dream

As it stands — where’s the director’s cut, Richard? — the only way to justify a lot of what happens in Southland Tales is to imagine the many, Shiva-like hands of Mother Fate wantonly slapping people and plot elements around at random. Some of the characters — primarily Johnson’s Boxer Santaros, in a psychotic state — seem to be able to predict what’s coming, or maybe even will it into being by twiddling his fingers together like Mr. Burns. The film squeezes in at least three Christ figures outside of Boxer, but the exact way in which all these errant New Testament allusions interact with the events on-screen is usually unclear. It’s all obscured by the clutter of eight too many intercut plotlines.

There is little comparable to Southland Tales in Western art, and anyone who has seen it can say that with confidence. The fact that its comprehensive, vertiginous insanity is not more widely debated and marveled at is disappointing, and that the movie’s following is not more far-reaching among film buffs is unconscionable. Two years ago, Manhattan’s IFC brought Southland Tales for one midnight screening, and BAM delivered again on Monday. One can only hope that other theaters across the world will consider programming Kelly’s warhorse — the greatest cult film of the millennium so far — to expose it to the wider audience that it so richly deserves.

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