The Austin Chronicle

Southland Tales

Rated R, 144 min. Directed by Richard Kelly. Starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake, Wallace Shawn, Miranda Richardson, Mandy Moore, John Larroquette, Nora Dunn, Kevin Smith.

REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Nov. 16, 2007

It’s been six years since Donnie Darko came out of nowhere and introduced the independent-film world to a precocious 26-year-old writer/director named Richard Kelly. The movie was something surprising and audacious; its dense web of suburban psychoses, time-travel excursions, and post-depressive rabbit hallucinations was so intricately woven that viewers were treated to that rarest of cinematic pleasures: the believable alternate reality. And a new star was born. Flash forward now to the fall of 2007, and suddenly things don’t look so sunny. It appears that Kelly spent the intervening years taking hallucinogenic drugs, reading Philip K. Dick novels upside down, and – most disastrously – believing his own hype. Call it the Curse of the First-Time Cult Success Given the Keys to the Kingdom, or Too Much Too Fast: A Tragic-Farce. The result: His sophomore effort, Southland Tales, is an incomprehensible, self-indulgent mess of post-apocalyptic anxiety and political paranoia, a confusion of half-baked social critiques, pop-culture references, sci-fi whimsicalities, and anti-corporate satire straining for significance. Here’s what I managed, with great effort, to piece together of the movie’s plot (which should really come with footnotes and a dramatis personae): On July 4, 2005, a nuclear bomb explodes in downtown Abilene, Texas, setting off World War III, turning the United States into a hypermilitarized police state, and most likely wreaking havoc on that city’s rodeo industry. Out of the ashes comes Boxer Santaros (Johnson), an amnesiac action-film star with a political secret who’s running from an army of government agents, Marxist revolutionaries, and mad scientists (most of whom are played by long-unseen cast members of what seems like every movie and TV show made during the 1980s, including Booger from Revenge of the Nerds, the creepy little medium from Poltergeist, and dozens of forgotten comedians from Saturday Night Live). And then there are two – God help us, two – Scotts running around, the unfortunate result of a identity duplication that took place after a rift in the fourth-dimensional space-time continuum caused by a company called Treer, which is looking to create an inexhaustible energy source called Fluid Karma, which is propelled by ocean currents that affect the Earth’s axis of rotation and … oh, to hell with it. If you’ve been waiting to see Timberlake as an Old Testament prophet quoting T.S. Eliot or if you’re comfortable with a world where the guy who played Stifler in American Pie is the messiah, then you’ve found your movie. If not, and if you’d rather die in a nuclear explosion than suffer such a fate, please step this way. See "The End of the World as He Knows It," for an interview with Richard Kelly.)

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