Since Donnie Darko insinuated itself into the canon of cult cinema with its much-buzzed Sundance premiere, a failed theatrical release and finally a strong following on DVD, the question has been what writer-director Richard Kelly would do next. Rumors swirled around Kelly's follow-up; it was over two-and-a-half hours long; it was a futuristic tale set in a fascist United States; actors like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Kevin Smith were all signed on to play various roles. It was being backed by Universal, a big change from Darko's indie origins. Now, after a Cannes premiere, Southland Tales has gone from rumor to reality. And the rumors were far more exciting than the reality of the film.
Southland Tales does take place in the near-future -- 2008, to be precise. After a series of nuclear attacks on Texas, the United States is a quasi-police state. The Internet is under federal jurisdiction. All law enforcement has been consolidated into the National Security Agency -- federal, state, even street cops. A new energy source has been discovered, generated by a huge apparatus off the coast of L.A. and beamed wirelessly to homes, vehicles and more. And a 20-million-dollar-a-film action star (Johnson) has emerged from the desert with amnesia and is working on his next film about the end of the world, even as 'Neo-Marxist' agents work to destabilize the upcoming election. If this seems like a lot to fit in a film, bear in mind that this only scratches the surface of all the things happening in Southland Tales; there's also an adult film star (Gellar) trying to turn herself into a consumer entertainment brand, a man (Seann William Scott) masquerading as his police officer twin brother, and a Iraq war veteran (Justin Timberlake) narrating everything with a God's-eye view through the sights of the machine gun he mans. There's a lot going on in Southland Tales; the problem is that it all goes nowhere. The occasional joke is buried under lead-footed pseudo-scientific gobbledygook; the glimmerings of satire are lost in a dim fog of overacting, or outshined by bizarre, banal directorial flourishes and flawed acting choices.
Part of the problem is that Kelly's approach undermines itself. You could make the argument that the only way to satirize modern life is through the lens of bad science fiction; the problem with that technique is that at the end of the day, you've still got a piece of bad science fiction. Kelly makes oblique references to the work of noted sci-fi paranoid Phillip K. Dick (after a policeman commits two murders, he mutter 'Flow my tears. ...", a direct reference to a title of one of Dick's short stories), whose work has been turned in films from Blade Runner to Total Recall. But a little of Dick-style weirdness goes a long way, and there's a lot of weirdness in Southland Tales -- mad scientists with bizarre haircuts, musical numbers, hallucinations, actors-turned-terrorists who work on their improv skills in the middle of a mission, levitating objects and severed thumbs as black-market voter fraud devices.
The inventions and plot ideas and new characters come as a barrage in Southland Tales, but they don't seem like part of any vision or storytelling method; instead, they seem like the rambling elaborations of a bad liar. When Kelly's finale starts recycling ideas from Donnie Darko -- temporal loops, the word "vessel," the image of a character with one wounded eye -- you stop feeling annoyed by the film and start feeling like you've been cheated: This is what we were waiting for? Sprawling, messy, willfully self-indulgent and incomprehensible, Southland Tales is the biggest sophomore slump for a seemingly indie-filmmaker since Kevin Smith's Mallrats -- and the scope of Southland Tales' failed ambitions and vain pretensions make its failure all the more depressing. I'm sure Kelly felt that he was making a movie about something; along the line, though, it's pretty obvious that he forgot all about the basics of making a movie.