Just because a film jettisons a number of crucial social and political issues against the frame hoping they’ll drip down to form a timely cinematic message, doesn’t make the end result profound. Richard Kelly’s epic, meandering satire Southland Tales is certainly ambitious, and at times, the film resurrects some biting transcendence from its rubble of pop culture, political referencing, and globalization (the music video with Justin Timberlake’s traumatized soldier/narrator is a rare marvel). But mostly the film revolves like an undecipherable puzzle, obscuring the clarity of its story with layers upon layers of ripe commentary, asking the viewer to fully invest in its “important” vision without really considering the viewer.
Southland Tales charts the three turbulent days leading up to the end of the world, or the very beginning depending on your point of view. Kelly intertwines Marxist extremists, Iraq War veterans, a porn star, an action hero, and a slew of political undesirables who make up the cluttered terrain of technological surveillance, corporate buffoonery, and governmental impotence. Needless to say, the film moves at a brisk and overwhelming pace, flipping plotlines at will while loosely connecting them through the disturbingly familiar mise-en-scene. Kelly’s scope is far reaching but thin on all fronts, a failure of content his formal approaches (time travel, doubles, the Bible) can never truly solve.
This much maligned film, which was been almost universally lambasted at Cannes two years ago, then re-edited, and finally released in New York and Los Angeles last year, is not the debacle many have targeted it as. Nor is it anywhere near the masterpiece Kelly must have thought it during the screenwriting process. No, Southland Tales merely represents the ultimate example of the auteur gone awry, a young maverick rushing through the celluloid looking glass hoping to find revelation, realizing too late the only thing waiting on the other side is chaos.