Your best hope of making sense of Southland Tales is to read the Prelude Saga graphic novel, comprising parts I-III of writer/director Richard Kelly’s sprawling, many-layered saga. On second thoughts, your best hope of making sense of Southland Tales is not to bother trying. Don’t attempt to unknot the absurdly torturous plot as it reels in every direction, crashing into myriad genres (satire, conspiracy thriller, sci-fi, musical) and themes (fascism, terrorism, nuclear war, reality TV, time-space fissures, teen horniness).
And don’t waste any energy investing in the army of characters, all of them hollow, cartoony grotesques: amnesiac action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), politicised porn princess Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), LA beach cop Roland Taverner and his twin/clone (Seann William Scott times two)…
It’s a big ask, but if you can brace for a long haul (this post-Cannes theatrical cut still runs 145 minutes) then there’s mangled beauty in Kelly’s car-wreck of an encore to Donnie Darko. That film’s strange tenderness has been flushed down a wormhole, but there’s still the personal stamp of assured, auteurist conviction. There are no half-measures, no wobbling and no sops to popcorn values. Kelly has held a cine-mirror up to the chaos, confusion, fear and loathing of 21st Century Bush-world, reflecting back a kind of jumbled, queasy truth.
But for all its diseased, dystopian decadence, there’s a weird comfort in the writer/director getting away with such a monster-piece of flawed ambition in today’s franchise culture. Dismiss it, but don’t miss it… Mind you, given the cursory trimmings (Making Of only), it might be wiser to hold out for a deeper Director’s Cut package.