From the Archives: Southland Tales’ version of 2008 feels like 2020

From the Archives: Southland Tales’ version of 2008 feels like 2020

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

This summer, we are counting down our 25 favorite movies that didn’t connect with audiences on their initial release! View the whole series here.

20. Southland Tales (dir. Richard Kelly, 2006)

  • Budget: $17 million

  • U.S. box office: $374,743

“Every frame is worthy of being frozen in time and then thrown on a wall like an oil painting, and if you work hard on every frame, the meaning of your film becomes deeper, more enhanced.” – Richard Kelly

Midway through Southland Tales, apropos of nothing, a man named Pilot Abilene, played by Justin Timberlake under considerable prosthetic makeup, busts out into a stylized lip sync of The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done.” At times he mouths the words perfectly. At others he is more preoccupied with his beer, or with the leggy dancers performing choreography on the periphery as he drunkenly stumbles through what appears to be both an arcade and a boozy hangout for servicemen. The dancers themselves are reminiscent of David Lynch’s imagery, most specifically that of the woman employed to give Agent Chester Desmond coded information at the outset of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Further comparisons between Southland Tales and Lynch are numerous, obvious, and in a lot of ways, reductive, so I’ll stop with that line of thinking right here.

This musical interlude is the entrance point to Southland Tales for a lot of people (“it’s the one where JT sings The Killers” is a common refrain), yet without the added plot information provided by the trilogy of prequel comics, this scene functions only as an artistic rendering of a drug trip, where the only substance to speak of is the one that Abilene has injected into his bloodstream.


The substance he is abusing is called Liquid Karma, which is a byproduct of an energy generator that uses the perpetual motion of the ocean to do its job. Unfortunately for this alternate version of the USA in 2008, these generators, owned by German manufacturer, Treer Industries, are also slowing Earth’s rotation. While the degree to which this is happening appears minuscule (small price to pay for endless energy), the whole project is causing rips in the fabric of space and time. But hey, monopolizing energy is much more important than such trivial things as environmental safety. Well, at least ever since World War III began.

Meanwhile, there’s a presidential election going on.

If I were to boil Southland Tales down to its basic plot elements at this point, I’d simply say that it’s a story about many different groups of people using this time of potential societal flux to further their own agendas. It would be a fool’s errand to describe every arc, simply because there are so damn many of them. So we’ll just leave it at that: shit’s wild and errrbody schemin’.

Writer/director Richard Kelly burst onto the scene with Donnie Darko, the cult classic which introduced film nerds to both Frank the spooky bunny and Jake Gyllenhaal the talented actor. Being a purveyor of such a user-friendly brand of surrealism, it seemed that Kelly was the latest auteur to keep an eye on. When it was announced that his next project would be an apocalyptic epic with a six-issue prequel comic series to be published in the months leading up to the film’s release, fans of his work were excited. At least in film nerd circles, the conventional wisdom was that Kelly, no longer under the thumb of a small budget, would be delivering something special.

And while he did indeed do exactly that, the film was not a success. Critically, it was hailed as ambitious and weird, but also that it was too cryptic, too unwieldy, and too long to make any coherent point. Financially it did even worse. On a budget of $17 million, the film only managed a meager box office of just under $375,000.00. While this would normally put a filmmaker into the dreaded “director jail” it wasn’t until the release of The Box, Kelly’s more mainstream (but still very atypical) adaptation of Matheson’s story Button, Button that he ended up in a cell, where he currently remains, frequently asserting that one day, a fuller, even longer cut of Southland Tales will find its way home video, and subsequently, to my very own media collection.

On Kelly, Kevin Smith, who appears under heavy old age makeup in Southland Tales, said:

 “He is insanely creative and is not unlike Christopher Nolan. But Nolan wound up in the Warner Bros. system where he got special handling, and he got a lot of money to make huge art films like Inception. Richard can be one of our greatest filmmakers. He is right now, but just a lot of people don’t realize it. He’s still a kid, and someone needs to Nolan that kid.”

The prequel comics for Southland Tales reduced the issue count from six to three, and the film itself, after a disastrous Cannes premiere of an incomplete print, was cut to a more manageable length. It was subsequently cut even further as Kelly negotiated with the studio for money to finish multiple visual effects shots. Yet even though the scope of the project was reduced due to financial concerns, what remains is still one of the most sprawling, engaging, profound, ambitious, and weird films I’ve ever seen. The fact that Kelly was able to say yes to almost every creative impulse that he had, even with the handful of concessions he had to make, is some kind of a miracle. And for a film that features a subplot where a porn star writes a screenplay that predicts the future, it’s fantastically prescient.

I’ll put it this way. The version of 2008 presented in the film has more than a few parallels to 2020. Some examples:


Southland Tales presents a world where wars don’t end, mostly because they make for good business. It presents a world where we are so obsessed with the industry of energy that we routinely refuse to consider the environmental impact of its creation. In the film, a celebrity with political ties is an unwitting pawn in a larger governing machine, and is embroiled in a plot to fuck with the image of authority by capturing racist police violence on video. This video, originally planned to feature a staged murder, ends up becoming quite real when an actual racist cop (Jon Lovitz!) gets an itchy trigger finger. Meanwhile, the election itself is being hacked by extremists on both ends of the political spectrum, each side confident that their brand of malfeasance is perfectly okay since the ends justify the means.

Did I mention that all of this stems from an unprecedented terrorist attack on US soil? Or that a rapidly declining middle class is being trained by the rich to fear the poor? Or that veterans are falling into drug addiction to cope with the inhuman atrocities they were forced to both witness and partake in?

The world of Southland Tales, at least from within, is one of pure cynicism. No one can be trusted, and no single social faction is without its own self-serving rogue elements. The neo-Marxist movement (lead by a hilarious Nora Dunn) is filled to the brim with wild cards who are each ready to blindly repurpose their own movement for financial/personal gain, all while convinced that there’s a proper level of altruism at the root of their selfishness. The hardcore conservative right (who, in both real and fictional 2008, were facing a potential loss of the presidential office after 8 years of Lil’ Bush) will do anything to avoid ceding power. Well, anything but trust one another. In this movement as well, individuals are more than willing to throw it all in the trash if only so they can cling to whatever authority they’ve each got.

There’s a push and pull between safety and liberty, represented here by the government taking control of the Internet, and censoring it as they see fit, while simultaneously extending the reach of the Patriot Act, that feels very much like our present day.

What I’m saying is that the 2008 presented in 2006 is basically 2020.

That said, watching Southland Tales is also a nostalgic window into 2006. The soundtrack is by Moby, and the stars are Dwayne Johnson (stepping out from under his The Rock moniker for the first time ever, and doing so with a full head of hair), an excellent Sarah Michelle Gellar, and an absolutely transcendent Seann William Scott. Will Sasso makes an appearance, as does Mandy Moore. In one scene, Cheri Oteri and Amy Poehler get into an argument over what defines comedy, and it’s a cathartic passing of the torch, if you will. A passing of the torch that personally, I wish never happened. Yes, this is me saying that I much prefer Oteri’s brand of comedy.

“Just because it’s loud doesn’t mean it’s funny” declares Poehler’s Veronica Mung, quite loudly.


As this buffet of colorful characters all work to serve themselves in the guise of saving the world, it’s easy to feel hopeless. Here in 2020 one only need to pay the slightest attention to the news to see how pervasive greed has become — how desirable power is, and how immediately intoxicating are its effects. Even when the person lowest on the social totem pole gets a taste of power, they are immediately corrupted. It’s one of the most human drives we have, and it’s one that will destroy us all.


Maybe, but if my read on Southland Tales is correct, this cynical worldview might be unwarranted. Sure the film ends with (and I’m being purposefully cryptic here) a very literal assertion that one can only really trust oneself, but it also seems to suggest that a world in a state of anarchy is a world that may be a bit more malleable. With power structures feeling threatened, and grassroots movements feeling empowered, there’s a chance for good ideas to take hold during a period of flux. When unrest occurs, power is no longer monolithic, and anyone intrepid enough to make a grab for it has the opportunity to wield it responsibly and affect lasting change. Through this lens, Southland Tales becomes rather hopeful. Chaos might be our saving grace, and virtue (freak man virtue? — a reference for ST nerds) might be our method of tuning out the noise.

So what is Southland Tales advocating here? Well, I guess I will indeed have to connect this back to David Lynch:

As the great Gordon Cole says, “Fix your hearts or die.”

Southland Tales failed at the box office for many reasons, but the main one is that it’s hard to recommend. It’s long, abrasive, and seemingly unfocused. It requires repeat viewings to really grapple with, and frankly, at over 2.5 hours, this is a tall order for a lot of people. It’s an easy film to dismiss as “weird for weird’s sake,” and in a lot of ways that’s not an inaccurate assessment. But it’s also a film that, if it strikes you as it did me, demands revisiting. A film that demands you go on eBay and spend just under $70 to obtain a copy of a long out of print prequel comic (eh, maybe that’s just me). It’s a film that has endless secrets, Easter eggs, and thematic resonance for those who want to dig beyond the colorful, beautiful, and often playful surface. There are as many hidden terrors as there are sly bits of comedy; as many moments of slapstick as there are body horror; as many straightforward plot beats as there are total head-trip pieces of surrealist flair. The performances range from batshit insane to awards-worthy, and now, sixteen years out, the effects hold up wonderfully. It’s a film made with care, with love, and with a creative energy that simply can’t be contained in the realm of the tangible. It’s social commentary at its most unhinged, and filmmaking at its most dynamic. It’s an apocalyptic soap opera made by someone unafraid to let it the madness of creativity be his driver.

Southland Tales is, simply put, a whole lot of movie. And that’s why I love it. That’s why I think you should give it a chance — no, two chances.

At the very least, just watch this one scene and try to tell me you aren’t at least a little curious.

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