Every now and then, a rising wunderkind makes such a splash with a film that some studio greenlights whatever he wants to make next. What he generally wants to make next is an ambitious spectacle that proves a commercial disaster and an artistic misfire. And thus Universal Pictures and Richard Kelly, the director of 2001 cult fave Donnie Darko, give us the surreal, satirical epic Southland Tales, all but straight to DVD.
Trying to explain the setting and plot feels foolish since Kelly resorts to an incessant voiceover from Justin Timberlake (you heard me) to do so in the film, and even then they barely hang together. The gist is that the action takes place in an alternate 2008 America in which unspecified terrorists have started World War III. Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson plays a big action star with political connections and amnesia, Sarah Michelle Gellar is his double-dealing porn-star mistress, and Seann William Scott embodies a hapless policeman (or, rather, two hapless policemen), all aided by an outsized secondary cast that ranges from the ridiculous (Bai Ling, Curtis “Revenge of the Nerds” Armstrong) to the sublime (Miranda Richardson, slumming). The energy crisis is apparently solved and yet no one is mollified, and the world appears set to end. By the time the film arrives at that point, you’re kinda okay with that.
Donnie Darko won its cult, in large part, because most of what seemed non-sequiturial eventually made sense. If Southland Tales makes any sense, in the end, it’s impressionistic at best and buried under the groaning weight of its preponderance of characters, stories, and alternate-reality details. It’s an impressive piece of filmmaking and is likely to work for some viewers strictly on its whoa-dude visuals alone, but Kelly’s obvious artistic/political passion is obscured, and it’s unlikely anyone’s going to let him indulge it so freely ever again.