Action star, Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), awakens in the desert with a case of amnesia that wipes his memory of his wife (Mandy Moore) and his Republican Party affiliation, but instills in him the need to tell what he thinks is the most important story ever told. Written with the help of porn star, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Boxer has created the movie script to end all movie scripts, and, perhaps, life as we know it.
Meanwhile, the twin of disgraced Iraq War veteran (and police officer) Roland Taverner (Sean William Scott) has been recruited by an underground group called The New Marxists to help create a scene of police brutality (in which Boxer will be an unwitting accomplice) in hopes of damaging the presidential campaign of Boxer’s father in-law, Senator Bobby Frost. At the same time, the world awaits the launch of the Mega Zeppelin, a flying machine powered only by the motions of the ocean (Fluid Karma, baby), as the city of Los Angeles seems primed to explode.
It’s just another day in the southland.
Richard Kelly’s hip, hypnotic, and hysterically funny apocalyptic epic, Southland Tales, is a film destined to be loved as much as it will be hated. Much like Kelly’s Donnie Darko, Southland Tales oozes weirdness, but, this time out, things are much lighter, trippier, and, occasionally, borderline slapstick. The film’s set in what could be considered an alternate reality 2008, in which George Bush is in his final year in office, having ushered in a government controlled internet (USIdent), state-to-state border checks, and World War III. Machine gun turrets sit atop convenience stores, but everyone thinks they’re safer this way, and, as always, American life goes on. It’s all bleakly satirical, with a dose of Sci-fi, and a heaping pile of Lynchian lunacy.
Dwayne Johnson is a revelation as Santaros, balancing his character’s “action star machismo” with a hilarious set of nervous tics and gestures, while Sean William Scott plays the “Taverner twins” with a dour restraint and pathos I’d not thought him capable of. Gellar is hilarious as the motivated porn star-turned-branding machine (she even has her own energy drink), while Wallace Shawn steals his every scene as the narcissistic “genius”, Baron Von Westphalen.
In a nod to the 90’s, a quartet of Saturday Night Live alumni turn up as members of the New Marxists, including Cheri Oteri as a trigger happy terrorist with a secret, Nora Dunn as the movement’s West Coast leader, and Jon Lovitz as cold-as-ice killing machine. The most inspired bit of casting comes in Justin Timberlake, who does double duty as Pilot Abilene, the film’s narrator and plot lynchpin, and features in one of the Southland Tales’ most intoxicating sequences – a hallucinatory musical number in which Abilene pounds Budweiser as he lip syncs to The Killer’s "All These Things That I've Done" whilst dancing nurses cavort around him.
The DVD from Sony screams for a two-disc treatment, but, for now, we get a single disc with a smattering of features, including "USIDent TV: Surveilling the Southland" featurette, featuring interviews with Kelly and other principals, as well as the "This Is the Way the World Ends" animated short. What would be a very welcome addition when it comes time to release the inevitable special edition would be the inclusion of the first three parts of the film (which were told in graphic novel format), as these are said to go a long way toward fleshing out the film (which is the three final chapters in the saga). In the meantime, they’re all available in one volume now, entitled Southland Tales: The Prelude Saga, and my copy is already on order.
Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is like a great acid trip that leaves you giddy, a little confused, yet somehow more complete because of it. It’s one of those truly great movies that has you talking afterward, asking questions, exploring the mysteries, and, ultimately, thinking. This is what great art is supposed to do, and I can guarantee you that at least half of the people who read this review will positively hate this movie (and let me know about it…oh yes…I know you will) for all of the same reasons I find it so fucking brilliant.