Friday, August 8, 2008

Richard Kelly - Southland Tales (2007)

Given that Richard Kelly is the director of Donnie Darko, a film I enjoyed a great deal, I had high expectations of Southland Tales - and it reached them in spades. DD is the more coherent work, but ST is much more interesting.

The film is set in an alternate-history 2008, in which the USA was bombed by nuclear weapons in 2005, and the Bush government has invaded Syria, Iran, and North Korea, reinstalled the draft, and emplaced other Fascistic security measures under the aegis of the Patriot Act. One of these, US-Ident, is a totalising surveillance system. Due to security measures, the states have, in effect, become separate administrative realms, nations within a nation. Meanwhile, a Neo-Marxist underground is becoming increasingly militant, and fast-dwindling fossil fuels are in the contested process of being replaced by an energy system harnessing the tidal power of the ocean. The action takes place on the eve of the 2008 election, in California, possession of which is vital for victory. We follow Boxer Santaros (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson), an amnesiac action film star and the Californian candidate's son-in-law; Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star trying to launch reality TV show; and the twin brothers Taverner (Seann William Scott); as they become embroiled in this heady mix of politics, science, and violence, and the world careers toward an apocalyptic cataclysm, as presaged in Revelations...

As will be evident from this description, political satire is omnipresent in the film and vital to the plot, but it's done very well, and is never heavy-handed. Indeed, at times this is an hilarious ride; Krysta Now's single, Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime is a highlight. Anyone who's concerned with the authoritarian tendencies of US politics, with international aggression, or with global warming will appreciate this aspect of the plot.

As will also be evident, the plot itself, which like DD involves weird time shifts, is heavily convoluted - I found it difficult to follow, though that's a tendency of mine, but although the narrative sprawls uncontrollably and is quite complicated, I didn't actually find this too serious a problem - the film is visually absolutely gorgeous, and you can kick back and enjoy the ride. The casting is also inspired; don't let the inclusion of actors like 'The Rock' put you off - Kelly knows exactly what he's doing. Other favourites of mine who appear here include Miranda Richardson, and Wallace Shawn (Vizzini from The Princess Bride, and his character here seems a conscious reference to that role).

As a work, I thought of various points of reference - Strange Days, Buffy, The Chumscrubber, A Scanner Darkly, Existenz, even Inland Empire in the sprawling lack of directorial self-discipline and welcome disconnect from 'realism' - but there's a lightness of touch here which gives the work a deft touch, particularly as a satire, while Kelly is obviously no intellectual lightweight, given the various references, credited and otherwise, to poets and artists that pepper the work. It's films like Southland Tales that the term 'post-modern' was invented for - so you can forget linearity and enjoy the glossy surfaces, which at the same time reveal their own sterility, but never in a way that's less than ecstatically playful...

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