Southland Tales: An Unappreciated Masterpiece

by Freddie deBoer

Since Andrew and the Dish team gave me carte blanche to write about what I want, I’m going to go ahead and abuse the privilege by writing a defense of a largely-forgotten, eight-year-old movie, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Because when it isn’t being ignored, it’s usually being reviled, which is a crime. Southland Tales is a masterpiece.

Explaining the plot of the movie could take up thousands of words—and in fact, already has. I’ll leave it to others to explore the complex web of plot lines, references, digressions, and symbols. Suffice is to say for now that Southland Tales is the story of America in the age of terror, an America where a nuclear terrorist attack on Texas leads to a massive surveillance infrastructure, a nascent resistance movement, and the desperate search for an alternative energy source in a world where the Middle East is on fire. While American wars rage in Syria and North Korea, the sprawling USIDENT surveillance system keeps tabs on us through both sophisticated electronic means and more old fashioned, soldiers-with-telescopes techniques. Meanwhile, a genius scientist has discovered Fluid Karma, seemingly a source of unlimited free energy, drawn from the endless churn of the oceans. When we enter the scene, Dwayne Johnson’s character Boxer Santeros, a Schwarzenegger-style movie star and fiancee of a powerful Senator’s daughter, has gone missing, having lost his memory in a mysterious event in the desert. During his disappearance, he’s shacked up with Krista Now, a porn star who wants to start a new life, and sees Santeros as her ticket out. The story really gets rolling when Santeros goes on an ill-fated ride along, ostensibly to research a movie role, with a cop named Roland Taverner—or is it Ronald? Then there’s the question of Santeros and Now’s screenplay, The Power, which keeps mimicking real life….

But, well, there I go, getting into the plot without really meaning to. The movie’s like that.

You won’t understand everything happening in the movie the first time you watch it, and you aren’t really meant to. Among its many references and influences are the great film noirs of the past, and like those films Southland Tales is usually experienced in a state of mild confusion, comprehension always lagging just behind the progression of the Byzantine plot. But you don’t need to understand all of what’s going on for the themes to resonate, or to enjoy the many fantastic set pieces, which are sometimes hilarious and sometimes gorgeous. The characters are pulled into these moments in surprising ways. All of them are portrayed as at least partially comic, and yet all are allowed to entertain grandiose schemes and levels of self-importance. Wallace Shawn’s mad scientist wears the haircut of a synth player from some 80s Euro band; Cheri Oteri’s witless revolutionary/con woman makes up for her bad plans with a talent for violence; Zelda Rubinstein, the diminutive actress from the Poltergeist movies, quotes T.S. Eliot. Kelly arranges them in carefully choreographed moments that play out almost as skits within the larger narrative, and it’s here that they are allowed to achieve some sort of dignity, or at least self-determination. A staged domestic disturbance between Amy Poehler and Wood Harris from the Wire turned real shooting bleeds out into a paranoid escape across the foggy, overgrown lawns of suburban LA, set to The Pixies. The Rock, Mandy Moore, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer dance to Moby in a scene right out of your senior prom. A hallucinating Justin Timberlake, shirt covered in blood, lip syncs to the Killers in a psychedelic arcade. Gorgeous, every frame.

Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Southland Tales is one of the handful of greatest LA movies without being recognized as such. It’s cliched to say that a city is a character in a film, so perhaps I’ll just say that Los Angeles is a ubiquitous presence in Southland Tales. The city is at once a central concern of the film and a subtle one. There’s little about the plot, as plot, that necessitates it being shot in LA, and yet there’s no way it could have been made anywhere else. The city is alluded to in the (excellent) soundtrack and in the voiceover narration, but it reveals itself especially in the movie’s geographic expansiveness, the way it lazily stretches out across its setting. Donnie Darko, the film that made Kelly’s reputation, is a claustrophobic movie, its suburban cul-de-sacs a metaphor for a time line looped back on itself. Southland Tales, in sharp contrast, spreads out across its setting like it’s in no particular rush to get anywhere, mimicking the expansive interconnectedness it dramatizes, as vast and inescapable as the surveillance network that is at the center of both its plot and its themes. In its centerless sprawl and wide boulevards, LA works for this movie in a way that a more cramped city like New York never would.

Though it’s a 9/11 movie and a War on Terror movie and a political movie, show business is at the heart of its themes. The movie is about Hollywood the culture and Hollywood the industry, if not so much Hollywood the place (In its aesthetics, Southland Tales is much more Venice Beach than Hollywood and Vine.) In The Power, Santeros’s name is “Jericho Kane,” a reference to the Arnold Schwarzenegger schlockfest End of Days. That movie, while one of the worst Arnold ever made, is peak meta-Schwarzenegger, the dopiest and most self-important of his blockbuster career, a symbol of overstuffed action movies with overmuscled action stars. And it was the beginning of the end for Schwarzenegger as unironic action star, a relative box office dud from an actor who was once the most reliable draw in Hollywood. Kelly is interested in Hollywood people on the down swing; he’s interested in value in Hollywood, how it’s perceived and what it means. The cast is filled with actors who were seen as Grade C-types even at the time—Oteri, Jon Lovitz, John Laroquette, the guy from Highlander. I’ve heard people suggest that this means that Kelly couldn’t get bigger names in his movie, but that’s wrong; coming off of Darko, his career would have been at peak buzz. Instead, I think Kelly intentionally sought out actors who were perceived as washed up or in some sense ridiculous, like pre-Renaissance Johnson. In his movie, Kelly is working through the idea of who is allowed to be taken seriously. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s porn star character, for example, is underestimated and dismissed, despite taking part in a complex conspiracy that drags in some of the most powerful people in the world. Two feminist neo-Marxist radicals fight for revolution and respect from government officials who underestimate them. A character who fulfills one of the most reviled stereotypes we have—the rich white kid who dresses and talks like a character from a rap video, complete with ridiculous doo-rag—is given respect and compassion, playing a key role in the bravura climax, one of the most indelible visuals I’ve ever seen on screen.

All of this, I’m sure, makes the film sound deeply pretentious. If so, that’s appropriate; it’s a pretentious movie, in the best sense. The rampant fear of pretension has been one of the great mistakes of our current aesthetic era. It’s led to lots of perfectly crafted, perfectly unambitious, perfectly safe movies, the type Manohla Dargis aptly summarized, in her positive review of Southland Tales, as “elegantly art-direct murder.” We’re in an artistic age where the omnipresence of critical judgment has led so many creators to create from a defensive crouch. It’s an age of recappers and social media chatterers and Rotten Tomatoes, and so the response has been the rise of artwork designed to appease them rather than to take the kinds of risks that, sometimes, lead to transcendence. It’s the Era of the Critic Proof, the age of celebrating the perfectly fine. True Detective, Drive, Haim—I enjoy each of these, sometimes a great deal, and I’m happy they exist. But none moves me like the big shaggy mess that is Southland Tales, and in their workshopped perfection, they sand away the natural impurities that are the source of character. It’s kind of a dismal feeling, to perceive so much competence and so little risk, but in a world of towering fan entitlement and an entire industry of nitpickers, it’s probably inevitable. Here’s to the messes, and to Southland Tales.