This piece is the latest in a week-long series about the end of America in fiction. For the full archives of the series, check back here throughout the week.
I’ve watched a lot of bad, spectacularly messy movies in my life as a critic, but I can’t think of something quite as disastrous that’s got as deep a hold on me as Richard Kelly’s 2006 movie “Southland Tales.”
The follow-up to Kelly’s cult classic “Donnie Darko,” “Southland Tales” managed to make “Donnie Darko,” a movie about a monstrous rabbit with the ability to predict the future, look relatively coherent. I would try to explain the plot of the movie, but that’s sort of beside the point, and not merely because “Southland Tales” isn’t actually coherent. “Southland Tales” is a movie aimed squarely at the delusion that if the end comes for us, we’ll be able to understand it and survive it. The film’s insanity is the point, even if “Southland Tales” has become eerily more prescient in the years since it was booed vociferously at Cannes and became one of the entries in the slow-motion suicide that has become Kelly’s post-“Donnie Darko” career.
Watching it feels like experiencing a complete personal and societal breakdown. Scenes and conversations are disjointed. The characters speak in mannered portents and seem to be motivated by their own impenetrable logic. At some moments, the world seems to pulse and become hyper-real, and that’s not even to mention the scenes where the time-space continuum actually seems to break down as part of the plot.
It’s entirely possible to read “Southland Tales” as catastrophically incompetent filmmaking, and I wouldn’t necessarily contest you if you tried. I’m not even the sort of person who would normally be swayed by dialogue like “I’m a pimp. And pimps don’t commit suicide.” And yet, I’ve found myself returning to “Southland Tales” again and again over the years.
One of the themes of “Southland Tales” is the collapsing boundary between fantasy and reality. Dwayne Johnson plays Boxer Santaros, “a famous actor with ties to the Republican Party,” a biography that loosely matches Johnson’s own. Justin Timberlake is Pilot Abilene, an actor who served in the ongoing American war in Iraq; Timberlake has not exactly seen military service, but again, at least one part of the biography matches. And one of the film’s many plots concerns a movie script that predicts a catastrophic slowing of the Earth’s rotation, an event in the film that actually comes to pass thanks to the inventions of one Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), who has made himself a celebrity and America’s greatest hope with the promise of an infinitely renewable energy source evocatively named Fluid Karma.
The American flag-festooned funhouse mirror “Southland Tales” holds up to America has only become more intense in the decade since its release, and not least for its prediction that the United States would still be mired in expanding wars in the Middle East, including Syria, with soldiers coming home determined to take revenge on their country.
In 2006, police-worn cameras were still in relatively nascent use worldwide, but “Southland Tales” uncannily hints at the role of video in future conflicts. A neo-Marxist cell tries to set up Boxer Santaros by putting him in proximity to a racist cop, who is himself a neo-Marxist recruited to play the role. As it turns out, they needn’t have manufactured a provocation; a real racist police officer (Jon Lovitz) murders the activists (Amy Poehler and Wood Harris), confiscates the video of the shooting and leaves the scene, blasé and confident of his invulnerability.
Meanwhile, the Baron has hypnotized the public with promises of groundbreaking transportation innovations, including a sport-utility vehicle that runs on Fluid Karma (and that in a recurring gag, is shown humping a less-worthy, gas-fed SUV in television spots) and a gigantic zeppelin named for the Baron’s mother. If the Baron is a more eccentric, stylized Elon Musk, his company’s innovations also promise more than deadly autopilot accidents and unlikely promises for super-fast transit. The anodyne language of disruption that has been used to give world-altering significance to things like long-overdue competition to established taxi monopolies means something more sinister and catastrophic in the context of “Southland Tales.” The Baron’s efforts to save the world and vastly enrich himself are quite literally tearing the world apart even as he takes advantage of the social chaos emerging around him.
Fighting through that turmoil is Krysta Now (a sad, luminous Sarah Michelle Gellar), a former porn star branching out into energy drinks, perfumes, reality programming and a post-feminist riff on “The McLaughlin Group.” Richard Kelly may be an inscrutable lunatic, but he’s the only filmmaker I can imagine who could have imagined a political moment where a figure like Kim Kardashian West emerges as an eloquent spokeswoman against police brutality.
Ultimately, this is why I keep coming back to the mess that is “Southland Tales,” to the disappointing promise of a future that was supposed “to be far more futuristic than previously predicted,” but where the gains have mostly happened on the margins. “Southland Tales” feels insane because it tells a truth that most of us would rather ignore: that faced with the chaos of what feels like a disintegrating society and imperiled world, we would not emerge as the heroes we would like to imagine ourselves to be. We would be overwhelmed. We would panic. And the small plans we scrabbled together might include moments of aesthetic beauty and small flares of grandeur, but they would ultimately prove useless. Pimps may not commit suicide. But that doesn’t prevent the world from devouring them.