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Southland Tales

Entry updated 16 April 2021. Tagged: Film.

Film (2007). Universal Pictures and Cherry Road Films present a Cherry Road Films/Darko Entertainment and MHF Zweite Academy Film production in association with Inferno Distribution and Eden Roc Productions with Persistent Entertainment. Written and directed by Richard Kelly. Cast includes Sarah Michelle Gellar, Dwayne Johnson, Christopher Lambert, Jon Lovitz, Mandy Moore, Miranda Richardson, Seann William Scott and Justin Timberlake. 145 minutes. Colour.

Three years after nuclear attacks, of unknown origin, in Texas in an Alternate-History 2005 have crippled the US under the extreme anti-terrorist measures passed in response and a new oil war has escalated into World War Three, a newly discovered Power Source, Fluid Karma, promises freedom from energy dependency, while also operating as a dangerously psychoactive and reality-altering Drug. A self-promoting porn actress (Gellar) dupes a mysteriously Amnesiac film star (Johnson) into collaborating on a screenplay about the end of the world which turns out to prefigure actual events; it emerges that he and his driver (Scott) have travelled briefly into their own pasts through a time rift opened by Fluid Karma production, and that the resulting disruptions are bringing about the End of the World.

Expectations were high for this long-awaited followup to his Kelly's admired debut Donnie Darko (2001), with which it shared a starry ensemble cast, an exotic weave of multiple plot threads, a dark satirical impulse, and a stream of startling plot turns, alongside Kelly's signature themes of Time Travel and apocalypse, but on a grander scale with a significantly bigger budget, and with a darker and more political thematic palette. A rushed early cut previewed disastrously in competition at Cannes in 2006, and further money was found for additional effects work; after protracted post-production a shortened cut was finally released over a year later, to generally dismayed reviews and apocalyptic box office (with a worldwide dollar theatrical take in the low hundreds of thousands). The film attempts an audacious cinematic recreation of the texture and themes of the later novels of Philip K Dick – especially Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974), which is referenced directly in a quotation and a character name. It makes few concessions to audiences, and indeed to the conventions of film narrative: scenes, performances, and transitions are heavily voice-overed (by Timberlake's character, whose role in events emerges to view only gradually) to explain and motivate scenes that would otherwise be entirely impenetrable; characters and plot strands emerge from and exit into nowhere; deliberately grotesque characterizations withhold all of the conventional comforts of sympathy and identification; and the narrative as a whole is characterized by a wilful refusal to tick expected boxes. Opening in the middle of a story in which the audience are even more lost than the characters, the film forbiddingly presents itself as only the second half of its narrative, numbering itself as parts IV-VI of a hexalogy begun in Southland Tales: The Prequel Saga (2007), a Graphic Novel trilogy scripted by Kelly with art by Brett Weldele. Actually written after the film, this does clarify some elements of the story, notably the content and purport of the screenplay-within-a-film; while the expositional narration which sits uncomfortably within the film is more naturally at home in panel and page. Most viewers found it a difficult film to care about despite its enormous investment of sophistication and ambition, locating it variously on the spectrum between fascinating failure and unwatchability. But as an experiment in consciously novelistic sf cinema its hubris, at least, is thrilling. [NL]


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