So just how bad is Southland Tales? Richard Kelly's follow-up to his widely acclaimed debut Donnie Darko was an unmitigated disaster when it made its Cannes debut in 2006, a 160-minute wreck of a film which baffled audiences and swiftly left the festival accompanied by resounding jeers. Kelly sheepishly took his film back to the cutting room, delivering a new version of Southland Tales which is twenty minutes shorter and – we can only presume – a film which makes more sense than its widely derided predecessor. Having said that, the picture is still 90% incomprehensible, and there's no doubt that most viewers will choose to echo the views of the Cannes audience, but it really is worth taking a risk on Kelly's demented creation. Southland Tales is overlong, self-indulgent, inconsistent and ultimately rather pointless – but it's nowhere near as terrible as you may have heard.
In truth, Southland Tales' biggest flaw is that it tries to do too much. Kelly seems to have thrown every idea he has ever had into the film, and it's bursting at the seams with half-baked notions and sketchily developed narrative strands. The film opens with a parallel universe-version of July 4th 2005, when a terrorist attack in Texas led the United States into World War III. Kelly then cuts to the future, July 2008 (although it doesn't seem quite as distant now as it did when the film was originally screened), where the country is under martial law and on the brink of an election. The government is monitoring everyone's movements through an all-pervading surveillance system called USIdent, and rebel neo-Marxist groups are fighting back. Natural fuel resources are running dry, necessitating a renewable kind of energy source which harnesses the movement of the waves, and this whole chaotic milieu is observed from a rotating gun turret by scarred Iraq veteran Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake). He is our narrator, given to quoting lines from the Book of Revelations, and at a number of points in the picture he also (mis)quotes TS Eliot with the line "This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper but with a bang".
Kelly gives us a handful of characters to follows through the lunacy. Boxer Santaros (The Rock, credited here as Dwayne Johnson) is an amnesiac Hollywood action star who is married to the daughter (Mandy Moore) of a Republican senator (Holmes Osborne). However, Boxer has recently shacked up with porn star/pop star/chat show host/entrepreneur Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and the pair have written a screenplay together which foretells the end of the world. Krystal also has ties with the neo-Marxist rebels, who have kidnapped a cop (Sean William Scott) and they have enlisted his twin to impersonate the officer, implicating him in a racist attack in order to spark an uprising. Have I forgotten anyone – oh yes, there's also that weird scientist (Wallace Shawn) who seems to have a hand in everything, and an arms dealer (Christopher Lambert) who sells rocket launchers out of an ice cream truck. Also, there's a rift in the fourth dimension and people have been throwing monkeys into it.
All of the above, and more, occurs within the boundaries of the film, but much of the backstory has already unfolded in another medium. Southland Tales starts with Chapter IV: Temptation Waits, and it appears the opening three episodes of this six-part saga took place in a comic book produced by Kelly prior to the film's release. Frankly, the best environment for Southland Tales to exist in would have been television, where I could see it developing into a Twin Peaks-style cult hit; but Kelly's compression of everything into one 144-minute film has resulted in a wild ride of concentrated weirdness. The writer/director blends high and low art indiscriminately, engages in unfocused political satire, delivers two musical numbers, and ends the picture – of course – not with a whimper, but with a bang. It's fair to say that a lot of this stuff doesn't work, but Southland Tales' scattergun approach inevitably means some of Kelly's ideas are going to hit the mark, and when they do the film can be an exhilarating, hilarious experience.
There are some terrific standalone moments on display here. Timberlake's Busby Berkeley-style rendition of The Killers' All The Things That I've Done is a superb interlude, as is the later sequence – very reminiscent of David Lynch – in which Johnson, Gellar and Moore dance on stage while Rebekah Del Rio sings The Star Spangled Banner. Kelly directs with real flair, staging a magnificent tracking shot late on which unites most of the characters in one space, and almost every scene is interesting to look at even if you don't have the foggiest idea what's going on. It's also fun to see such an eclectic range of actors giving such odd performances, even when they themselves don't seem to know what role they're supposed to be playing in the wider drama. Sean William Scott, Wallace Shawn and Jon Lovitz are all very good, and Dwayne Johnson gives a terrific performance as the picture's central figure; I loved the little fluttery gesture he did with his hands, and his Shatner-esque delivery of some amusingly bad dialogue ("The fourth dimension is going to collapse on itself, you stupid bitch!"). As he showed in the otherwise dreadful Be Cool, Johnson can be a very witty and self-aware comic actor, and his appealing performance is vital for Southland Tales.
But will it be appealing enough for the majority of viewers? There certainly were plenty of walkouts at the screening I attended, and to be honest I couldn't really blame them. Lord knows, Southland Tales is a mess, but it's a fascinating mess made by a brilliant – if wayward – filmmaking talent, and even at two and a half hours the film is too reckless and unpredictable to ever be boring. Kelly's crazed vision of a nation destroying itself has provided as invigorating a cinematic spectacle as I've seen anywhere this year, and in the final fifteen minutes, as a pair of Sean William Scotts ride their battered ice cream truck into the fourth dimension, the film achieves a weird kind of transcendence. I hope the vehement negative reaction to Southland Tales doesn't deter Richard Kelly from following his own cinematic path, because he's clearly an ambitious director with a lot to say, even if he doesn't quite know how to say it at times. On this occasion, Richard Kelly's reach has exceeded his grasp by some distance – but at least he's reaching.