It’s possible that Southland Tales, the apocalyptic satire from Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly, is not actually as stultifying and incomprehensible as it seems, that somewhere amidst its frantic mess of pop-culture allusions and political reference points, there is a coherent narrative, or at least a reasonably cogent idea or two. Of course, it’s also possible that Dennis Kucinich will be the next President of the United States. But I wouldn’t bet on either.
The film’s influences are easy enough to spot: the paranoiac science fiction of Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick, the surrealist menace of Terry Gilliam and David Lynch. But it musters neither the cohesion nor the sustained mood of any of their work. Attempting plot summary would likely prove a fruitless endeavor, though I think David Edelstein makes a valiant effort in his review:
World War III has erupted; Middle Easterners nuke Texas (Why Texas? Why not?); the government is run by totalitarians, among them Miranda Richardson as Cruella De Vil; mutant Iraq-war vets hover like lifeguards over Venice Beach; Wallace Shawn in transvestite makeup invents “fluid karma energy” to solve the energy crisis; and Nora Dunn masterminds a “neo-Marxist” rebel group with the aid of hard-core porn star Sarah Michelle Gellar. There’s time travel, too, as well as a paranoiac screenplay that begins to blur with reality—or is the screenplay the real reality?
I think it’s a safe bet that neither reality—nor, for that matter, anything approximating it—is among the film’s chief concerns. What’s clear, though, is that Kelly thinks his film is saying something, and probably something important. Any movie that kicks off with a nuclear cataclysm on U.S. soil, quickly moves on to news reports about America going to war with Syria and North Korea, employs Sarah Michelle Gellar to play a combination porn star/talk show host, and features Wallace Shawn as a demented (probably evil) environmentalist who shouts things like “No longer can even the most jaded neocon fatcat deny the majesty of our mother ocean!” clearly aspires to some sort of socio-political relevance.
Sadly, there’s not a shred in evidence. It’s all a hazy, manic jumble, in which dream sequences with pop-singer Justin Timberlake as a scarred, drug-dealing Iraq-war veteran make just as much (which is to say as little) sense as any other scene.
In a strange way, however, it’s refreshing. After a season full of smug, irritating political diatribes posing as prestige pictures, it’s almost pleasant to see a film that tackles current events—the energy crisis, terrorism, the war, just to name a few—without an air of smarmy self-satisfaction. Discombobulated as it all may be, it’s a step up from insolence and dimwitted self-certainty. Southland Tales obviously has no idea what it wants to say about the state of the nation’s politics. But at least it’s bold enough to own up to its confusion.