Seeing “Southland Tales” has made me change my opinion of writer/director Richard Kelly. His first film, 2001’s “Donnie Darko,” gave the impression that he was some film-school hotshot who thought incoherence was the same thing as brilliance. Now I realize “Donnie Darko” wasn’t obtuse on purpose: Kelly just doesn’t know how to communicate.
“Southland Tales” is a rambling, senseless mess. But in interviews, Kelly honestly seems to believe he’s made something satirically insightful, something that will get people thinking. It’s sort of like reading a manifesto from the Unabomber. He thinks it’s an eloquent dissertation, while no one else can even figure out what he’s talking about.
I guess it’s nice to know Kelly’s not doing it intentionally, that his faux-provocateur sensibility is just the way his mind works, but I can’t say it makes “Southland Tales” any more bearable. It’s garish and cheesy, with everyone apparently directed to speak their lines as broadly and one-dimensionally as if they were no-name actors appearing in a made-for-USA-Network movie. The story eventually becomes so devoid of reason that I stopped taking notes on it. You might as well try to follow — and make sense of — the plot progression in a dream.
The film is set in July 2008, three years after a nuclear attack on Texas started World War III. The United States has become almost a totalitarian regime, with visas required to travel between states and the USIdent department controlling all of cyberspace to quash dissent.
Neo-Marxist liberal cells have begun to pop up, however, and a porn actress named Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is involved with one in Southern California. She’s recently hooked up with an actor named Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), whose wife is the daughter of a Republican senator running for vice-president. Boxer disappeared in the Nevada desert a few days ago and has now reappeared with amnesia. He and Krysta have written a screenplay called “The Power,” although since he just showed up a couple days ago, I’m wondering if maybe she had already written it and has just put his name on it.
But back to the neo-Marxists. They want to use Boxer in a scheme to defame the government by making the police appear more brutal and severe than they are. (The police are now called Urban Pacification Units, by the way.) This involves kidnapping a real cop named Taverner (Seann William Scott), putting his uniform on his twin brother, and having the twin go out and do something nefarious while Boxer videotapes it. It’s all for show; no one’s really going to get hurt.
Meanwhile, a scientist named Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) has devised an alternative fuel called Fluid Karma. There is something shady going on with Fluid Karma and the U.S. soldiers on whom it may have been tested. There is one particular soldier, Abilene (Justin Timberlake), who now runs two operations, one selling drugs and another perching on a pylon out in the ocean and sniping beachgoers.
Meanwhile, the text of “The Power” has begun to circulate, and a USIdent employee (i.e., a cog in the Big Brother machinery) named Starla (Michele Durrett) has become obsessed with acting it out with Boxer Santaros playing his role.
There is more to the story than what I’ve told you, but describing it wouldn’t do any good, even if I could describe it. There’s a zeppelin. There are doppelgangers. Metaphysics become a factor. At one point someone warns, “The fourth dimension will collapse on itself, you stupid b****!” I grant you, it’s hard to completely hate a movie that says that, or that has Wallace Shawn playing a character named Baron Von Westphalen.
But if the film is good for anything, it’s to marvel at how misguided and dull it is, and at how Kelly has managed to apply his uniquely baffling aesthetic to every element. For good or bad (so far just bad), Kelly knows how to make a film that is entirely his. And in “Southland Tales,” somewhere beneath all the layers of idiocy are some good ideas — if only Kelly knew how to express them.
D (2 hrs., 24 min.; )