Watching the first cut of Richard Kelly’s ultra-ambitious Donnie Darko follow-up is like riding a wave of mutilation.
Southland Tales, director/writer Richard Kelly’s apocalyptic epic of a world gone berserk in the run-up to a paranoia-riven presidential election, is at long last a little closer to completion. Thanks to the fine folks at Arrow Films, the 158-minute cut of the picture that played at Cannes – as opposed to the 145-minute theatrical cut – is now widely available for the first time. Compared to the theatrical cut, The Cannes Cut lays out Kelly’s bigger picture more clearly and deepens the (famously odd) ensemble’s work.
For good and ill, The Cannes Cut is still Southland Tales. It’s one of the great whatsit movies of the early 21st century, an artifact of the mid-to-late Dubya years that captures the specific tenor of the United States’ anxieties and fears from that time in amber. It’s a kinky, surreal Armageddon wounded by its early-aughts-sour-bro treatment of its ensemble’s leading women. It is, in other words, an extremely 2006 movie. In its best moments, it describes and invokes the overwhelming sensation of being alive at a time when everyone and everything has come undone.
In a world where a nuclear attack on Texas kicked off a slow-burn WWIII Dwayne Johnson is Boxer Santaros, a movie star who was supposed to be one more smiling face on the VP campaign trail for sneering Republican Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborn), right next to his lovely wife Madeline Frost Santaros (Mandy Moore). Instead Boxer vanished, lost his memories and woke up in the arms of adult actor/reality host/proto-influencer Krysta Now [real name Krysta Kapowski] (Sarah Michelle Gellar).
As near as Boxer can tell, he and Krysta got thoroughly zonked on Fluid Karma, a hot new drug/alternative energy source created by the eccentric Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), and wrote a screenplay. This screenplay, The Power, casts Santaros as Jericho Cane – a loose cannon detective who has discovered why the world seems to be going mad. As Boxer tries to figure out what happened to him and the world around him spins further and further off its axis, he – normally a skittish dweeb – occasionally seems to become the far more confident and clued in Cane.
In its best moments, it describes and invokes the overwhelming sensation of being alive at a time when everyone and everything has come undone.
MEANWHILE, a loosely aligned band of Neo-Marxists, whose members range from well-meaning if thoughtless (Wood Harris and Amy Poehler) to amiably amoral vicious mega-creeps who use their alleged politics as an excuse for violence (Cheri Oteri) have hatched a half-baked plot to expose the horrific conglomerate law enforcement organization US-Ident as the venom-fanged monstrosity it is. Thus, they have kidnapped a US-Ident cop named Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott).
Roland’s twin brother Ronald is one of the Neo-Marxists, and he’s participating in the plot to protect his brother as much as he is to bring down US-Ident. Like Boxer, Ronald’s reality is fraying. When he looks in the mirror, there’s a delay in his reflection. He is physically incapable of using the bathroom (yes, this is important). His memory is a fog. There is something in his past that he does not want to face.
MEANWHILE MEANWHILE, in the blindingly white headquarters of US-Ident, Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson) watches over everything that transpires in the Southland with a smirk. Baron Von Westphalen and his entourage (which includes Bai Ling, Zelda Rubinstein and Kevin Smith) play power games with the world. A scarred, ambiguously sinister soldier named Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) narrates the whole affair, in between shifts aiming a computer-controlled sniper rifle at US citizens for their protection and leading the audience through a Fluid Karma trip to an arcade full of women in Marilyn Monroe wigs and latex nurse outfits and endlessly flowing beer, all set to one of The Killers’ best songs (NOTE: Just to be safe what with the fetish outfits, this clip is Not Safe For Work).
As a searing heatwave batters the Southland and the Baron prepares to launch his mega-zeppelin, the end of the world draws near. It won’t be a quiet fade into oblivion. No. The last night on Earth will be one, to paraphrase Tolkien paraphrasing an old Norse poem, of axes and swords and wolves and ruin. There will be dancing. And a flying ice cream truck.
So. Yeah. Southland Tales is a sprawl and it’s a muddle. The Cannes Cut makes the exact allegiance of most of its players clearer and grants a bit more clarity to Boxer’s impromptu investigation of just what the heck is going on, but there is still a great deal of the tale that is missing. Parts of it are told in a set of long-out-of-print comics. Parts of it were tied to now-long dead websites. Much like the greater story of the Matrix sequels, Southland Tales was a relatively early attempt at transmedia storytelling. And like Reloaded and Revolutions, Southland Tales the movie definitely feels like big, big chunks of the tale are missing.
This incompleteness (which Kelly has long been open about), coupled with the picture’s bleakness, oddness and general morbidity, makes it a movie for a very specific audience. For most, it will be deeply off-putting, save perhaps for Johnson’s excellent adventure outside his amiable tough guy archetype. It’s one of his finest pieces of work.
Johnson deploys his physicality both ironically (Boxer’s muscles and tough dude aura aren’t much good outside a movie set) and deliberately (Johnson crafts a nervous physical tic for Boxer that effortlessly highlights how completely he is in over his head, one that shrinks his presence to a smidgen even as he remains Dwayne Johnson). It’s frequently hilarious work, and when taken in concert with the bitter, resigned calm Johnson deploys in the picture’s last act (after Boxer puts the pieces together), genuinely affecting. Even folks with no time for the rest of Southland Tales may dig his turn here.
And as for the folks who do have time for the rest of Southland Tales (case in point)? It’s damn near one-of-a-kind. Kelly’s observations about power, moral corruption and the dreadful vertigo of remaining yourself even as the spiral stretches into an oblivion both horribly familiar and totally unrecognizable are sharp as a reaper’s scythe. For all that the specific details of Kelly’s twisted 2008 are tied inextricably to the aughts, his diagnostic of humanity’s many flavors of wicked maps pointedly well to 2021.
US-Ident is fascist state force at its most nakedly hateful, a gaggle of tacticool-geared ghouls brutalizing and surveilling for their own amusement. Richardson’s Nana Mae Frost (and the rest of her family and associates, minus Boxer and to some extent Madeline) straight up does not see other people as real. She sits in her fancy office chair and revels in ordering executions because they make her feel big. She has gleefully detached herself from reality, to the point that when reality pushes back, she panics because suddenly her actions have consequences.
Southland Tales’ Neo-Marxists are a painfully familiar portrait of modern leftism’s most obnoxious adherents, a collective of self-aggrandizing, self-righteous twerps who wrap their venality in rhetoric that they only have the shallowest understanding of at best. At worst, they’re just plum appalling people. Oteri’s Zora is a holier-than-all, treacherous, vindictive fool of a bully – a Travis Bickle without even the complication of wanting to save someone. When she goes down, she goes down devoured by a dream where she’s the greatest person in the world, no matter the evidence to the contrary.
And the Baron? Minus his amazing/awful fashion sense, he is a hyper-wealthy bro. He paws at progressive politics while prioritizing the bottom lime he dreams of above all else. His bottom line may be fantastical, but his methods are all too familiar. They carry the sting of a thousand and one empty promises.
In a world where so many of the players are utter schmucks, what is right action? In a world where so many are compromised by their actions during an endless war, what hope is there for a better tomorrow? In a world where the hands of destiny may very well be steering everything towards Ragnarök, what is there even to do? There’s only so much guzzling an entire six pack of Bud at once on a crowded beach can do.
Kelly offers an answer to his beleaguered characters in Southland Tales’ strange and affecting ending. Come clean. Come to terms. Do what you can, even if only for the sake of having done so. If reconciliation is a possibility, pursue it. Therein lies the possibility for a quantum of solace, maybe even some sort of salvation.
The Cannes Cut is, as mentioned way back at the start of all this, still very much Southland Tales. It’s idiosyncratic and offputting and singular and frustrating and wonderful. That is worthy of celebration. That is worthy of laurels. For all that parts of it vex, I’m so glad that Southland Tales exists. I’m really, really glad that The Cannes Cut is widely available. If it sounds like a plunge worth taking, TAKE IT.
Southland Tales: the Cannes Cut is available on Blu-Ray from Arrow Video.