In Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales", a handful of colourful characters navigate an increasingly dystopian South California. Military checkpoints are everywhere, government surveillance is ubiquitous, and a new power source – an energy generator called Liquid Karma – has led to rifts appearing in the "fabric of space and time". These rifts lead to several of the film's characters splitting into two identical bodies, an event which will have apocalyptic ramifications if the twins meet, matter and anti-matter merging in a kind of giant fireball.
Kelly makes several attempts at both satire and social commentary (the Patriot Act has been expanded, terrorists are everywhere, his film's hero is a nod to Governor Schwarzenegger, his narrator draws heavily from the Book of Revelations, one character is named after Arnie's character in "End of Days" etc), but these mostly fall flat. Instead, the film works best as a quirky attempt at hyper-realism (not surrealism), "Southland Tales" playing like a cross between David Lynch, teen dramas and children's science fiction. It's all hokey, but in a world of cookie-cutter cinema, "Southland Tales" feels somewhat fresh.
Many have complained that Kelly's plot is incoherent, but this is not true. Told from the point of view of a drugged and intoxicated military sniper, "Southland's" narrative is deliberately fractured, Kelly's story coalescing as it draws to its conclusion. In fact, one of the film's big flaws is that it makes too much sense, Kelly tying up all his loose ends with an awkward "revelatory finale" that leaves none of the delicious ambiguities that better artists oft leave us with.
Still, what the film does well is capture the schizophrenic tableau that is postmodern America. This is a landscape subjected to cultural overload. The film's cast - Buffy, Justin Timberlake and The Rock (a rock literally being the audience's anchor point) etc - are depthless icons adrift in a hyper-link world that is too fast, too mediated (Kelly makes use of music videos, internet footage, head-cams, doc footage etc), too overloaded, to make sense of. Globalization as garish info-orgy, the film is itself filled with references to "fluids" and "fluid karma", characters always asking others "do you bleed"? (the film also has "chemical bleeders" who literally "bleed in time"), epitomising a world in constant flux, everything bleeding into something else, boundaries collapsing, overlapping and constantly transmogrifying.
On top of this zany landscape, director Richard Kelly applies a pseudo-religious myth culled from the Book of Revelations. With references to plagues, locusts, apocalypse, messiahs and the Bible, this all reads very silly, but the silliness is the point, as the film's narrator is a drunk redneck, misinterpreting what he sees and filtering it all through his mom's homespun brand of evangelism.
The film ends with its lead character saying "pimps don't commit suicide", a sentence which has baffled many. But if one follows the religious ramblings of the film's intoxicated narrator, the line makes perfect sense. Our hero, the false messiah whom everyone stalks, has sacrificed himself for the "true messiah" (the twins of the film) so that "all the religions in the world" (the tattoos on The Rock's back- a collage of all religious denominations) may "win" or "survive".
But forget about the film's religious allusions. What's most interesting is the way everything in "Southland Tales" "bleeds" into everything else, even Kelly's characters, who first exist in "The Power", a script-within-the-film. This is a highly mediated pop-world in which everything is cross-pollinated; our own contemporary/future hyper-capitalist cocktail, labyrinthal, overstimulated, vast and incoherent.......until the film's sell out ending.
7.9/10 – "Southland Tales" is one of a number of labyrinthal works released recently (Inland Empire, The Wire, Boarding Gate, New Rose Hotel, Summer Hours, The Black Dahlia, Miami Vice etc), most of which were unfairly bashed by critics. Worth two viewings.
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