Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson wasn't always the highest paid A-lister in Hollywood, or everyone's favourite 2020 presidential candidate. A little after the hype of his WWE career had died down, the hulking new face of the Fast and the Furious franchise and overall woke bae was working hard to break into the acting game. He was doing OK for himself overall, turning a bit part in The Mummy Returns into a major starring role in The Scorpion King early on. But he had his fair share of duds too, the biggest being the critically hated Southland Tales.
Southland Tales seemed like a safe bet. Director Richard Kelly was riding the high of his 2001 sleeper hit Donnie Darko, with studios hoping lightning might strike twice. It didn't. Southland Tales was off to a rocky start when an early cut was booed at Cannes in 2006. And things didn't get any better when it was trimmed down for its theatrical release a year later.
The Guardian's Shane Danielsen called it the worst movie he'd ever seen, and Roger Ebert gave it one star. Ebert hated the original Cannes cut but found the shorter theatrical cut to be "even more of a mess." Kelly has suggested that an extended re-release may be coming, but with a cool 36 percent freshness rating at Rotten Tomatoes, it's hard to imagine who might bankroll such a thing.
So, does Southland Tales actually suck? The short answer is a hard no.
It didn't suck in 2007, and it's only gotten better over time. This is due in no small part to how great Johnson's performance is. If anyone was still on the fence about whether he could cut it as an actor, Southland Tales should have been the last word. The Rock was born to be a star, and here we start to see the excessive emotion and self-deprecating charm that have become hallmarks of his screen persona.
But the film holds its own overall too.
It may have been a little too on the nose when it came out (and in 2007, one could hardly be blamed for suffering from Bush-bashing fatigue, however justified the criticisms were). Donnie Darko, with its plane-falling-from-the-sky premise, had a similarly shaky reception when it opened in October 2001. Audiences were surely a little put-off by its sense of hopelessness and eerie echoes of the previous month's attacks on the World Trade Center. But it didn't take long for it to spring back and enjoy a healthy second life. Donnie Darko found success in Europe and had an impressive 28-month run as a midnight movie at the Pioneer Theatre in Manhattan's East Village. The twenty-first century's first bonafide cult film was born.
Maybe Kelly sensed that his cult following owed some debt to the historical moment that Donnie Darko had accidentally tapped into. Regardless, he doubled down with exaggerations of surveillance culture, political conspiracies, and the corporate control of America with Southland Tales.
Providing a synopsis of Southland Tales may well be a fool's errand. The story almost doesn't even matter, except to tie together a string of absurdities. It's 2008 (the near future). America has been rocked by a nuclear attack, and World War III has intensified everything about the Bush-era War on Terror and post-9/11 security state. Dwayne Johnson's Boxer Santaros, an action star with ties to the Republican Party, mysteriously wakes up in the California desert with amnesia. Former porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) seems to be manipulating Boxer as the two work on a screenplay about the coming apocalypse, drawn from their own shared premonitions. Throw in racist cops, mind-altering drug testing on American soldiers, a Neo-Marxist resistance movement, and a rift in the space-time continuum, and you've got an incoherent mess of political allegories fighting with each other for a little over two hours.
The film also references everything from T.S. Eliot, to the Book of Revelation, to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, to Philip K. Dick. It's an endless string of quotations, a mish-mash that, true to the larger project, isn't even a little straightforward—though Salon has made a solid effort to clear things up.
But even when Southland Tales seems bad, it's hard to hate it, because it always knows exactly what it's doing. It's only bad when it wants to be bad. Or more precisely, its over-the-top ridiculousness always feels ironic. The wacky casting signals this before the film even starts. Johnson and Geller are joined by Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, and Sean William Scott, and the supporting cast includes Kevin Smith, Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri, and Christopher Lambert—one more hint that Kelly had clear cult aspirations. How else do you end up with a wrestler, a Slayer, a Highlander, Silent Bob, some pop stars, Stifler, and fan-favourite SNL cast members all in one place?
At one point, Timberlake, as wounded vet Pilot Abilene, has a drug-induced dream in which he lip-syncs The Killers' "All the Things that I've Done." If the scene comes off dated now, it was always anachronistic and goofy (but still oddly beautiful). Why would a 2004 pop song be so conspicuously crammed into a 2007 film set in 2008? And what a choice to have JT lip-sync when he's so clearly well equipped to sing. Everything here goes gloriously against type.
Justin Timberlake, as Private Pilot Abilene, lip-syncs The Killers
These weird asides and strings of confusing plot points all make Southland Tales either perplexing or entirely impossible to follow. Timberlake can't have been alone when he told Lynn Hirschberg "I still don't know what that movie is about" in 2011.
I think I know what that movie is about, but I'm just uncertain enough to always be transfixed when I re-watch it.
This very intentional confusion gives Southland Tales a sense of anarchic fun, messing with its audience by keeping its own plot and politics murky. It's undoubtedly anti-war, anti-Patriot Act, anti-surveillance, anti-cop, and anti-Bush, but it also joyfully celebrates the media industry that helped create those things. Like 2013's flawless Spring Breakers, Southland Tales doesn't seem to have chosen whether it hates the state of things or wants to dive in head-first. Kelly's commitment to that ambiguity elevates the film above any kind of clean political statement. Southland Tales is instead a darkly funny reflection of our own fractured identities and messy pop culture landscape.
And Kelly really did go all-in, making Southland Tales feel like a summer blockbuster—with comic-book tie-ins that expand his fictional world. He also gave his characters their own MySpace pages, so that you could at one time pretend to engage with them via social media. Sarah Michelle Geller's public service pop song "Teen Horniness is Not a Crime," made available on iTunes, was initially credited to her character Krysta Now to collapse the division between the film world and the real world even more.
This all fits with what's going on in the film itself: Boxer is an action movie star, but he also identifies as Jericho Cane, a fictional character he created for himself. Krysta is both Krysta Lynn Kapowski and her porn star persona Krysta Now. But the two of them are also The Rock and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Of course Kelly knew that both stars came with a healthy dose of pop cultural baggage and that no one would be watching them without making those connections.
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