Southland Tales (Cannes Cut)
Southland Tales is an odd movie, by any definition, an erratic Sci-Fi action comedy with an all-star cast satirizing Post 9/11 America and telling a very sprawling and very convoluted time travel story that's set up in a trilogy of tie in comicbooks. You can't fault it, and writer/director Richard Kelly, for not being ambitious but... well, let's say audiences and critics back in 2007 weren't feeling it. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it failed to find a fanbase for itself, was cut down by around 20 minutes for its theatrical release and ended up a commercial and critical bomb. It was one of those movies that were bound to find themselves a cult audience somewhere along the line but it was bound to take a while.
The original festival cut has always been a bit of a holy grail for me and now, more than 10 years later, there was enough interest in it for it to finally get a home release. Mind you, it's not Justice League, Southland Tales' extended version is still, by all means the, same movie as its theatrical cut. Some minor roles are slightly expanded, some exposition dumps cut, some music has been added, some scenes been shuffled around... it's been too long since I've seen the theatrical cut for me to compare them side by side, but for all intents and purposes, it's still the same Southland Tales, only more of it and with somewhat better pacing. But what is it about, then?
Well, it's the year 2008. Following the detonation of a nuke in Texas, the American government, now headed by an all powerful Republican Party, has implemented an omnipresent mass surveillance system called USIdent, the only opposition left being a number of far left terrorist cells consisting mostly of idealists, opportunists and artists but having a few sympathisers among public figures like pornstar turned celebrity (now we'd call her an influencer) Krysta Now, the mistress of action film star Boxer Santaros who's married to the daughter of a powerful senator. Also, there's a sleazy german businessman who managed to find a supernatural energy source called Liquid Karma he's mining from a rift in the space time continuum, experiments with which caused Police Officer Roland Taverner to have two versions of himself exist simultaneously and... you know what, I give up
Southland Tales' narrative is a maximalist sprawl that's heading off in too many different directions at once to describe, presented as a pop art collage that invokes Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and the Coen's Big Lebowski, as where the writing, all silly names, tongue in cheek musical numbers and political conspiracies, invokes a Thomas Pynchon novel, though more the Crying of Lot 49 or Bleeding Edge type than the Gravity's Rainbow or V type. It's not as sophisticated or creative an abstracted depiction of a post 9/11 world as fellow pop surrealist Goichi Suda's brilliant video game Killer 7, which predates it by a few years. Southland Tales, behind its ambition, and its rather impressive production values, often betrays a somewhat adolescent approach to its subject matter, a kind of edgy fratboy attitude that it doesn't feel self aware enough about to make it work.
Scenes like a staged incidence of police brutality going awry when the people involved are actually being killed by a ruthless cop or a sleazy businessman cutting off a Japanese politicians hand might pass as actual punk, other like an animated sequence of two cars humping each other or a political talk show consisting exclusively of porn actresses making suggestive comments feel more like they've been transplanted from Mike Judge's embarassing comedic misfire Idiocracy. Generally speaking, Southland Tales walks a very thin line between actual, pertinent satire, a lot of which very much still holds up, and bratty anti establishment posturing that feels rather quaint and, well, a bit tryhard, providing mockery of a broken system, but not the insight necessary to imbue it with meaning.
That said, where Southland Tales works, it works and even now, having watched it for the first time in a while, a lot of it still holds up. It's creative, stylishly directed, features some delightfully hammy performances and writing that, while spotty, mostly lives up to its ambitions as both a weird, quirky science-fiction movie and a succesful satire of America during the second term of the Bush administration. It is an ambitious project and honestly, especially considering Richard Kelly's relative inexperience when he made it, it's pretty impressive that it works as well as it does. Southland Tales is not a masterpiece, but it's a lot closer to one than people were, for the longest time, ready to give it credit for.