Box Office Failures Week: Southland Tales (2006)

Much like how I never got It Follows and worship Under the Silver Lake, Richard Kelly followed up Donnie Darko with the impenetrable Southland Tales, a movie seemingly designed to appeal to literally a handful of people.

How did this happen? Was no one saying no? And more importantly, where are the people obsessing over this movie?

As for me, I’m just as guilty. I’ve had the blu ray in my possession for nearly a decade and kept saying, “Well, I’ll get to it.”

On a cold Sunday morning at 5:45 AM — my favorite time to watch films — this mess of a movie blew my mind up real good.

Kelly wrote this movie before 9-11. Before he became someone Hollywood would throw money at. And after the attacks and the fame, he started revising it until it became not unlike the zeppelin that flies at the end of the film — sure, it gets airborne, but it’s awfully bloated. But dammit, I kind of love this ridiculous movie that feels like the 90’s never ended and has the audacity to include musical numbers and Jon Lovitz as a racist cop not played for laughs.

For his part, Kelly said that the movie was a “tapestry of ideas all related to some of the biggest issues that I think we’re facing right now …alternative fuel or the increasing obsession with celebrity and how celebrity now intertwines with politics.”

Man, I love when filmmakers go crazy. I love when they have multiple graphic novels to explain their messes of movies. And I love when ensemble casts get dragged into a shaggy dog of a film, trying to act their way out of something that at times makes no sense. Is that the point?

I mean — this movie somehow was influenced by Phillip K. Dick — characters outright say titles from his books in casual conversation — and Pulp FictionDr. Strangelove and the nuclear doom of Kiss Me Deadly. This is a place where Biblical verse walks hand in hand with song and dance set to the music of Moby and The Killers.

That said — the director’s cut has been referred to as “the ugliest mess I’ve ever seen” and “the biggest disaster since The Brown Bunny” and worst of all, “so bad it made me wonder if [Kelly] had ever met a human being.” And you know what? I want to see it. I want to see it with all my heart. Richard Roeper said that it was “two hours and twenty-four minutes of abstract crap.” I want all of it and more.

Oh yeah — those graphic novels. Southland Tales was initially planned to be a nine-part “interactive experience”, with the first six parts taking up a hundred pages in comic book form, with the movie as the last three parts of the story. And oh yeah — there was a website. Audiences can barely care about anything these days and here’s this movie demanding you do your homework.

Then again, this only played 63 theaters.

On July 4th, 2005, El Paso and Abilene were destroyed by nuclear attacks, which leads to America being under non-stop surveillance. While this is all going on, a company figures out how to make non-stop energy called Fluid Karma which is ripping holes through the fabric of space and time. And oh yeah — there’s a neo-Marxist terrorist plot involving the missing and amnesiac Boxer Santaros (The Rock, who was out of his depth when this was made but would be perfect now), a psychic porn star, singer and reality star named Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the twin Taverner brothers (yep, another Philip K. Dick reference; Sean William Scott plays them) and a screenplay that portends the future.

Somewhere in all of this is Mandy Moore as Boxer’s wife, Justin Timberlake narrating it all (he once said the movie was performance art and claimed to have no idea what it’s all about), Miranda Richardson as the nemesis behind it all, Bai Ling as Serpentine (she’s all film noir here), Wallace Shawn as the Baron who is trying to get the new energy out to the world (when he’s not watching commercials where trucks have sex), Nora Dunn as a terrorist and porn director, John Larroquette (!), Kevin Smith, Cheri Oteri, Amy Pohler, Curtis Armstrong (!), Christopher Lambert (!), Zelda Rubinstein, Will Sasso (of all people!) and a cut for time Janeane Garofalo.

This is a movie that desperately and hopelessly wants to be about something for someone. Let me be that someone. And let me have so many questions, like why do the police cars have the Caligula quote “Let them hate so long as they fear” on them? Why have Jane’s Addiction lyrics come out of a character’s mouth? Why cut the scene where Boxer gets blasted back in time to the 1920’s? Why does Boxer have the same name in his prophetic movie — Jericho Caine — as Arnold in End of Days? What if Rick Moranis had really been in this?

Please watch this movie so I am not alone in my mania for it. Because man — I feel like I might watch this non-stop for a few weeks. Or months. Or years.

3 thoughts on “Box Office Failures Week: Southland Tales (2006)

  1. So, this is the first time I’ve made the effort to comment here, the reason I’m doing it now is that I absolutely ADORE both the movie, and how badly Kelly fucked up with it.

    My favourite thing about it is the fact that he decided to re-dub Timberlake’s lines because the character was such a huge shithead. And by that, I mean re-dub only the parts when he doesn’t speak on-screen, we just hear his inner monologue, and keep the parts where he is actually speaking, resulting in a character that’s sometimes almost sage-like in it’s wisdom, other times an absolute douchebag.

    It was a very important character. He knew he was not gonna be able to re-record every line. He knew he is gonna end up with complete inconsistency. And he still decided to do it.

    There is a lot of other stuff to be amused by: the cast (Was he being ironic by casting actors not exactly considered talented? Was that self-reflective? Or did he just actually like them???), the complete mess of a world, the way he just re-used that lovely special effect from Donnie Darko, and the fact that he really, REALLY expected people to read comics to get the beginning of the story. It was not even sequels, or spin-offs! IT WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE MOVIE’S PLOT!

    It’s not even your old “so-bad-it’s-good” kind of movie, it is somehow legitimately entertaining, while being a complete mess.

    This and the Director’s Cut of Donnie Darko proves that Richard Kelly had no idea what made his first movie such a beloved classic, he just stumbled into something wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Inner monologue” drives me nuts. You know you have problems when you have to “inner monologue” (in post in some cases) so people can follow what the hell is going on.

      But you are right: it’s a complete mess, but it’s somehow entertaining. But I’d say more “intriquing” in a where-is-he-going-with-this kind of way. One thing is for sure: you won’t turn it off and give up, you’ll press onward with it.


  2. Adam — so glad that you’ve decided to comment and I agree with every one of your thoughts here. I can’t bring myself to dislike this movie, no matter how messy and all over the place it is. I actually love it because of these reasons.

    Please feel free to come back and comment — or write something! — whenever the urge hits.


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