Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales”

A few months ago I saw Southland Tales.

I thought the original Donnie Darko was genius, but the Director’s Cut wasn’t. That should have told me something about the direction Southland Tales may take. I wanted to like this film, and as it opens I’m impressed. It sets up America as a near-police state in the near-future after an enormous terrorist attack. The opening sequence is handy cam footage of a public holiday when three cities are hit with nuclear bombs. (It’s a variation on the old “Mushroom cloud about the ‘burbs” as seen in a score of movies since the 1960s. Its still an important image that resonates with me; at least directors are still reminding people of the destructive power of a nuclear bomb.)

But then the movie starts to wobble.

In engineering, we’re taught methods that can be used to calculate at what point a system may go from stability to instability. For instance, a control system like an autopilot for an aircraft that flies the plane at a particular speed and direction. As it gets buffeted by air currents and up-drafts, the autopilot makes corrections by shifting the flaps and gently adjusting the direction of the aeroplane. A good control system returns the plane back to the line of flight while the occupants barely notice anything. A poorly designed control system may attempt to return to the correct line, but then overcompensates. In correcting it overcompensates in the other direction, and again, ocillating further and further like an unbalanced weather vane, until it wildly throws around passengers and luggage, and eventually fuselage and wings. The important and frightening thing that started to niggle in the back of mind as I worked through tute sheets of equations is how quickly things could go from plain sailing to ohcrapohcrapohcrapohcrap.

Southland Tales begins and I am with it, I am so there, I get what he is setting up. There’s some gentle buffeting from odd characterisations and slightly strange plot points, but it’s early in the movie and I can still keep to the path the director is setting up, I’m so there, I’m so with it. Then BAM the odd plot points have built up and the credibility of the movie starts to topple like a toddler on one leg…

Which is not to say there weren’t some great moments in the movie. Justin Timberlake’s Private Pilot Abilene miming to “I Got Soul”. A car ad featuring two SUVs humping each other. The deal scene between Baron Von Westphalen and Hideo Takehashi. And Christopher Lambert was it in, but you have to look close.

But there are too many half ideas and semi-explored points that by the end the movie is an unstable metaphysical pile of celuloid that careens into the ending credits with a final awkward line. Had Kelly scrapped half of his script and focussed on some of his key sub-stories and ideas, he would have another Donnie Darko, maybe better. But instead he is wanting a Magnum Opus, and ends up with the movie equivalent of Vietnam.

I can only recommend this to lovers of Donnie Darko, and only for the same reasons why you might rubberneck while passing a car accident.