Southland Tales (2006)

2008 #63
Richard Kelly | 139 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Southland Tales

– confusing mess? or profound experience?

I won’t go into my full “how I discovered Donnie Darko” spiel [save that for whenever I finally watch the Director’s Cut!], but ever since I saw Richard Kelly’s first writing/directing effort way back on its original UK release I’ve been waiting eagerly for his second film. It’s a testament to the negativity of the reviews it received — and, perhaps, the influence of reviews in general — that I skipped Southland Tales at the cinema, left it five months after release before getting it on DVD… and even then it was only a rental.

At some point, Kelly split his story into six parts and, in a Star Wars-like move, the film was to be Parts 4-6, while the first three would be told in accompanying graphic novels. “The film will work fine without reading them,” he said (I paraphrase here), “but reading them will lead to a deeper experience.” Southland Tales: The Movie begins with a long recap of events from these books, going so far as to include images from their art. “Oops”?

You have to wonder, if you switched “Directed by Richard Kelly” for, say, “Directed by David Lynch”, would the critics’ reviews have suddenly jumped up a star or two? [some of it is certainly very Lynchian in feel — not a normal film with bemusing aspects, like Donnie Darko, but an all-out muddled weird-fest]

  • David Lynch fans may find this more entertaining than most. Or they may hate it for trying to be Lynchian but failing, or perhaps like it as an example of why Lynch is so good and others fail when they attempt similar feats. I don’t know how they’d use it like that, but I expect they would know.
  • the clear IV, V and VI presented at the start of each chapter — as well as showing I, II and III blatantly on screen during the recap, and having the narration have to recap bits of them — seems to hammer home that this is really for people who are prepared to invest in the whole thing, not people who just watch the film

** raises the question, should you ever have to go further (e.g. reading companion books, comics, websites, etc) to understand a film? Yes and no. If it’s consciously part of a wider ‘experience’, labelled and marketed as such, then why not? But if it’s sold as a film in its own right — or, at least, potentially in its own right (as this was) — then it should really work that way too.

  • narration: tries to explain everything, though does very little to help (difference between Kelly and someone like Lynch, who just leaves it all up to the viewer?) — at times almost uncomfortably over-explaining — you wish it could’ve been done properly, rather than with narration
  • Kelly spent months re-editing, following the critical panning it got at Cannes, trimming the length and restructuring it. And it seems to show, as it feels like a failed attempt to construct something legible out of a mess of half-thought-through scenes and subplots
  • one feels a good director’s commentary and/or the original cut might shed more light on things — this is the sort of film that could benefit from a decent DVD edition, that it probably won’t get due to its lack of popularity… unless it gains surprise critical acceptance years down the line, which isn’t unheard of… though I wouldn’t bank on it here. Perhaps, one day, when we’re all watching Data Crystals, Kelly will have gained enough reputation that a 20th anniversary release will finally explain the damned thing
  • seems to become clearer toward end — there are some answers, at least — but ultimately a lot is left out
  • too many of the ‘underlying ideas’ in the climax feel like a Donnie Darko rehash; odd musical numbers and long takes add to this feeling — almost like Kelly’s taken what he did in Darko and tried to expand it into some ensemble epic kinda thing

i thought, with respect to the film’s crazy half-constructed mess of half-ideas, i’d copy&paste my notes rather than a normal review. so at least that’s one answer at the end for you.

when it was originally conceived, it was set a couple of years in the future; now, it’s just set ‘now’; and soon, of course, it will be set in a fictional past — the copyright year on the film is 2005; it’s credited as 2006 on IMDb (which is when it turned up at Cannes); it was finally released in 2007; and it’s set in 2008

I really wanted to like Southland Tales, in spite of the critical mauling it received, and because I loved Donnie Darko and actually enjoyed Domino too (which Kelly wrote). Maybe — maybe — with time to invest in reading the prequel graphic novels, and exploring whatever official sites or crazy fan theories may be out there on the web, I could get more from this film. Personally, I don’t have that kind of time to invest right now, but I might give it a shot sometime. Until then, it will just remain a largely disappointing mess.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0405336/faq

this is the way the review ends, not with a bang but with a whimper

2 out of 5

Southland Tales featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2008, which can be read in full here.

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