Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Southland Tales (2006)

Director: Richard Kelly

Notable Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore, Miranda Richardson, Wallace Shawn, Nora Dunn, John Larroquette, Jon Lovitz, Janeane Garofalo, Will Sasso, Zelda Rubinstein


When Donnie Darko miraculously found its audience on home video after an abysmal initial release, it put director and writer Richard Kelly on the map. His street cred skyrocketed as a bold voice in early 00s cinema and producers seemed incredibly willing to give him a blank check for his next film, Southland Tales. Even with its relatively low budget of $17 million budget, the film found disaster in the box office and in the reviews from critics and audiences. It was quickly relegated to the cinematic consciousness as a bold and utter failure and has been relatively buried despite its small but dedicated cult fanbase. 


Until now. Over the last five to ten years, many maligned films from the 1990s and 00s have found a resurgence of life, being reassessed by the cinematic community and finding a second life. With the new Arrow Video release of Southland Tales and a rumored ‘director’s cut’ from Kelly on the horizon, perhaps now is the time to see if this ballsy cult film deserves more credit than it received upon its release.


Told over a few days leading into a massive Fourth of July celebration in LA, the events of Southland Tales are almost too much to describe in one synopsis. It’s an ensemble film that essentially follows three key protagonists - Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and Taverner (Seann William Scott) as their lives intersect with a rebel group looking to blackmail a politician on the eve of a new power source going online out in the ocean. 


Despite my own love for Donnie Darko, Southland Tales remains a film that perplexes more than inspires on an artistic level. Its bold approach to narrative storytelling, weaving science fiction and fantasy into an offbeat political and social satire, rarely ever rides the line in a way that doesn’t seem confusing for its audience. This is perhaps the most intriguing element that will be reassessed. Is Southland Tales as scattered and problematically missing its comedic beats as it seems on the surface? Or is that the intention of the film? It’s one of those satires that is open to interpretation on whether the odd timing of almost all of its execution is on purpose. It’s a film that often aspires to be a modern Brazil, but doesn’t quite have the sense of balance and efficiency to reach those lofty goals. 


What makes a film like Southland Tales even more intriguing is the impressive ensemble cast that Kelly has pulled together to attempt his cinematic coup d'etat. Most of the cast are a series of actors with some impeccable comedic chops, just look at the three ‘leads’ listed above, and most of them are asked to perform with as little of a wink-wink attitude as possible and, while the results are mixed overall, it can be an intriguing set of performances. Particularly from many of the secondary cast that is almost there as stunt casting (I’m looking at both Jon Lovitz and Kevin Smith in this regard) than anything deeper. Still, there is an incredible amount of talent on screen and most of the cast seem to be on the same page when it comes to the tone that the film is aiming for – whatever tone that happens to be.


As a final point to be made on Southland Tales, it should be mentioned that the science fiction element of the film is certainly – there. The new power source that is revealed throughout the film, which also ties into a new drug that’s being distributed on the street by Justin Timberlake as a military sniper/drug dealer/voice-over narrator and the amnesia that plays Boxer (Johnson), is more or less a narrative means to an end to cut in a bit of science fiction mumbo jumbo. While this worked to some extent in the director’s previous film, it stumbles here in providing anything more than more layers to peel through. For those who enjoy the film, it’s an intriguing choice. For those who are not buying into what Kelly is selling here as a pseudo-futuristic satire then it feels underdeveloped as a plot and one that doesn’t quite parallel the other elements. Did I mention there’s a zeppelin in the third act? Yeah, that’s a thing too.

This latest Blu Ray also includes the original Cannes cut, which clocks in roughly 15 minutes longer than the theatrical cut. Quite frankly, I'm not familiar enough with the theatrical cut to truly compare the two, watching the Cannes cut never feels all that different in terms of narrative pacing, confusion, and oddness. For those cult fans though, boy oh boy, it's there for your enjoyment.  


All in all, Southland Tales makes sense as a cult film. It’s a film so bold in its swings that even when it’s horrifyingly flawed, it’s respectable that Kelly and company were shooting for the stars. It’s also a film that is far too ambitious for its budget (the CGI has aged like milk) and it’s incredibly layered, vague, and dense series of plots, characters, and themes make for an experience that never finds its footing on any single one of them. It’s 2 and a half hour run time feels bloated and the manner that the tonality feels both too goofy and too serious at any given moment is a constant reminder that this is a ‘film.’ While Southland Tales is getting that new assessment after 15 years of being shit on, it’s one that remains shockingly divisive from moment to moment.


  • New 2K restoration by Arrow Films, approved by director Richard Kelly and director of photography Steven Poster
  • High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentations of both versions of the film: the 145-minute theatrical cut and the 160-minute “Cannes cut”, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006
  • Original lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo soundtracks
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Audio commentary on the theatrical cut by Richard Kelly
  • It’s a Madcap World: The Making of an Unfinished Film, a new in-depth retrospective documentary on the film, featuring contributions by Richard Kelly and members of the original crew
  • USIDent TV: Surveilling the Southland, an archival featurette on the making of the film, featuring interviews with the cast and crew
  • This is the Way the World Ends, an archival animated short set in the Southland Tales universe
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Image gallery
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacey
  • Limited edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Peter Tonguette and Simon Ward


Written By Matt Reifschneider

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