“Southland Tales”: An Apocalyptic Identity Crisis


Published: November 15, 2007

I had watched the trailer for “Southland Tales,” the new film written and directed by “Donnie Darko” mastermind Richard Kelly, four times before I saw the film. It fascinated me to no end. It was messy, funny, didn’t reveal too many details and starred Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—things that, I think, make for an entertaining trailer. What I realize now, though, is that the exact same sentence could describe the entire film, and this is not such a positive.

To say the film is a sprawling mess is like saying that pizza is good; it severely understates the truth. Pizza is phenomenal, and this movie is a disaster. It’s a deranged pop culture pastiche that meanders, tumbles and eventually fizzles out. A promise is made at the start of the film, telling the audience to prepare for an explosion of an ending.

The narrator, played by Justin Timberlake, utters the mangled T.S. Eliot lines: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper but a bang.” This is a lie. Don’t worry, you needn’t stop reading this in fear of spoilers. I couldn’t spoil anything if I tried. I have seen the movie and know just as much about it now as when I finished watching the trailer for the first time.

Here are the few things I am sure of: The film takes place in 2008, following a nuclear attack on U.S. soil; Seann William Scott is credited as playing two characters, both named Roland Taverner; The Rock’s character, Boxer Santaros, is an action film star who suffers from amnesia, which may or may not be caused by the government; a vital plot point involves an alternative fuel source that is also the key to destroying the world. Or something. I lied when I said, “things I’m sure of”. Honestly, I really don’t know or remember what happened in this movie. So many wacky characters and gaudy images and slabs of information are hurled at the audience; only a few really stick.

The other reason I had a tough time paying attention to the story was because I was far too preoccupied with trying to guess which sketch comedy star or ’90s teen heartthrob would appear next. Would it be Mandy Moore? Yes! Cheri Oteri? You bet! Will Sasso? For sure! Jessica Simpson? Oh, so close. The correct answer was Sarah Michelle Gellar.

I’m being a bit harsh on the film, but there were bright spots. More precisely, two bright spots named Justin Timberlake and Dwayne Johnson. Contrary to the other pop stars in the flick, these two men can act. The Rock nails the paranoid, memory-deficient action star. Obviously, he is a physical presence onscreen, but he also takes advantage of each joke and never shies away from acting vulnerable. Timberlake’s character is an enigma. He seems to exist in the past, present and future, and he even has his own drug-induced musical interlude—hands down the most entertaining three minutes of the film. The ex-*NSYNC star captures the anger and devil-may-care attitude of the scarred pilot.

If “Donnie Darko” was a film seemingly made to appeal to few but embraced by all, “Southland Tales” is just the opposite. It has all the fireworks and big names to seemingly appeal to the masses, but because of its outrageous casting and ridiculous, often campy dialogue, this film has a better chance to reach cult status than “Donnie Darko” ever did.