Southland Tales (2006)

Richard Kelly has made a career out of making mind puzzles. While people laude Nolan as the thinking man’s director, they’ve quickly blown off one of the most intricate and complicated set of films made by a director. Sure, there’s a lot of praise given to Donnie Darko, but most were quick to categorize Southland Tales and The Box as nonsense, not because it wasn’t thoughtful but because it required far too much thought than what audiences were willing to invest.

That being said, Watching Southland Tales is a disorienting experience. After two nuclear bombs are dropped in Texas, a new era of Republican power rises in America. They create an Orwellian network and keep a military presence throughout the nation. Meanwhile, the Democrats have created an extreme Marxist group that is collecting people’s fingers in order to rig an upcoming election. Therefore, the film is more of a political satire, taking both American political parties to their extremes.

Amid all this is Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), a well-respected actor who’s the lynchpin of the Republican plan to win over California in the next election. As the movie starts he’s just now reappeared after missing for several weeks. He’s no memory and must figure out whom to trust and who is telling him the truth. This presents a melding of reality and fiction, falsehoods and truths. Is it just an act, or is this serious action. Who is playing whom?

However, Kelly has fun playing with the audience. Throughout the film, he does a masterful job of keeping you just a couple of pieces away from making sense of it all. Once you think you’ve got a grip on it, he decides to throw in something out there and obtuse to throw you off. For every post-apocalyptic reference to The Book of Revelation, there’s a colorful sex joke or surreal musical sequence to muddle the works.

However, there’s a kind of brilliance to that, as Kelly is placing you in the same place as Boxer, where you have to differentiate reality from falsehoods, what’s just a trap, what’s just meant to mislead and confuse. This is the problem with the works of Christopher Nolan. Everything exists in a tightly packaged puzzle, making the film a giant Rubik’s Cube to be solved. No matter how confusing, it all will fit together and become cohesive in the end while Kelly’s films will always have space for debate and reinterpretation.

Kelly’s approach is far more bold, complex and messy. A lot don’t like it because it requires a larger amount of thought and investment, making you think about and rewatch the film over and over again to grasp at its meaning. Nolan makes films that still can be well understood and enjoyed by the masses, creating a form of pseudo-intellectual films. Kelly is the real mental brainteaser, but too many will find his teasing too frequent and infuriating.

And perhaps that’s fair. Not everyone is going into a movie wanting to be mentally challenged. In fact, the entire goal of going to a movie for many is to be entertaining without having to think. However, those people shouldn’t discount Southland Tales because it doesn’t conform to their notions of what a movie should be and do. It’s a film made on its own terms and until you agree to those terms this film is going to be endlessly frustrating.

That isn’t to say Southland Tales is a masterwork, or even better than Nolan’s films. It’s a messterpiece, rough around the edges and a lot crasser and over the top than it needs to be.  He still has a problem of a sprawling backstory that the film never does a good job of conveying. The film can still make some sense without the three graphic novels that set up the narrative of the film, but a simple understanding of their content will shape the way you view the film. Also, he’s a bit too indulgent in his own whims and it becomes readily apparent that certain sequences are built just around the notion that he wanted a certain scene and less around making a cohesive film. Still, for all its messiness, Southland Tales is something to behold, a unique film experience that has a lot of meat for those willing to invest in it.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing