Underrated: Southland Tales

Think back to 2003. In this magical land of yesteryear, a filmmaker named Richard Kelly is finally gaining recognition for his 2001 film Donnie Darko. The DVD release of the film (as well as a contract with HBO that stipulated almost constant play for a year) makes Donnie Darko a coveted film for teenagers who view themselves as outcasts, whether that is true or not. The film feeds into the belief that outcast, misunderstood teenagers are actually magical, and not just seemingly so. While Darko has plenty of flaws (some silly moments that are inexplicably highly regarded such as the “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit” line…), it is definitely the debut film of a director with true talent. From the perfectly realized soundtrack to the excellent casting, the film, the original edit, not the director’s cut,  really does hold up. So you can only imagine the immense interest in Richard Kelly’s follow up to the cult phenomenon.
But don’t forget, this is still 2003. Kelly has just announced the title of his follow up film, Southland Tales, and he promises more characters, more story, more budget, and more soundtrack. People are floored, they can’t wait. Internet forums are abuzz. We can’t wait to see his newest magical outcast movie.
Then something happens…
Something strange….
It is announced that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is attached.
Not only is Johnson attached, but Jon Lovits and Justin Timberlake. Keep in mind that it is 2003, and Timberlake is years from proving himself worthy of acting chops (Social Network, Black Snake Moan). There’s more! Sarah Michelle Gellar is in it too! And she plays a porn star! Oh yeah, don’t forget Stiffler from American Pie…
Okay, so he loses interest pretty fast. Now it’s 2004, and the hipster cult of Donnie Darko is outright confused and angry about the bizarre (and, like, mainstream) casting of Kelly’s new film. So interest in the project falters, and is later almost completely lost.
2005: Domino, written by Kelly and directed by none other than Tony Scott, is released. It is given adequate reviews and adequate box office returns. In other words, it is not a failure or a success, so Kelly is given no real press. Besides, the hipster cult has now all but moved on to follow the slightly more prolific Wes Andersons and Darren Aronofskys of the world. No harm there, they’re both great.

This poster didn’t help, either…

In late 2006 Southland Tales finally reaches DVD shelves all over the country. Although it enjoyed a limited theatrical release, people tend to go ahead and believe that it is a straight-to-DVD film with mildly famous celebrities in it. Except for Timberlake, who is still fairly successful before his career renaissance.
The film has a soundtrack by Moby (yes, that Moby), a 145 minute runtime, a wildly complex plot, a couple of musical-style scenes, and near infinite references to other films, novels, television shows, and religions. It features characters with personality and drive. It features Wallace Shawn! And the scary lady from Poltergeist! We see cars having sex! There are blimps, shoot-outs, flying ice cream trucks, time-loops, and political agendas! To put it mildly, the film is a mess.
Yet somehow it works. From the narration that gives the film a thread (lacking in the Cannes release) and the soundtrack that ties scenes together, the audience experiences the film as a ride in a sort of alternate universe. The scenes don’t really mesh because we are given a glimpse into a “what if?” world. It’s like a David Lynch film, a director that has clearly influenced Kelly, you watch it like a dream that only threads thematically, not through narrative.
Filmmaking with this kind of passion and honesty does not come very often. We are given the rare opportunity to see directly into his head without any sort of manipulation by producers. Aronofsky did this with The Fountain, David O. Russell did this with I heart Huckabees, and Lynch did this with INLAND EMPIRE, and all of these films have found a niche audience based mainly on the names of the directors. Kelly’s Southland Tales has found very little success in the years since its release, but I would say that its quality is ten times what his The Box is, and I would rate Tales over Darko any day of the week for its absolute dedication to its world and to the many, many references it makes to other works. There is always something new to find in the film, and always some subplot that is opening itself up to be discovered.
If you missed this film upon its release, or if you saw it and didn’t let its zany, strangely toned atmosphere sweep you off your feet, I ask you, please reconsider this outstanding work.

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  • you sold me at cars having sex.

  • Great artcicle. I was lucky enough to track down a used copy of this one at my local rental store (for 5 bucks!) Watched it once and immediately fell in love. This movie has everything! Yet, anytime i show it to anyone they loathe it. They don't just not like it, they actually chastise me for having forced them to waste their time. There is an incredibly violent opposition to it. Very very frustrating. To me, this film actually defines the decade, post-9/11. I keep telling myself that, someday, it's brilliance will be recognized. But I gotta say, i lose a little more hope each and every day. I harken back to Boxer's line as he's dancing with Krysta. "It had to be this way."