In this edition of The Forum, Cinessential editors Aaron Pinkston, Sarah Gorr and John Gilpatrick met with Southland Tales week lead contributor Matt Warren to chat about their reactions to the controversial film, their favorite characters, scenes and more.
Matt: So guys, thanks for watching this crazy movie. Southland Tales is generally perceived as being this big failure that pretty much ruined Richard Kelly's career. Aaron, Sarah, you guys had never seen this before. What was your perception of the movie beforehand vs. what it is now after you've actually seen it?
Aaron: Well, first off, I knew it was going to be a mess, but that wasn't scaring me off---there are many movies that are in that "interesting mess" conversation that I love. Going in I knew there was a chance I would absolutely love it.
John: Sensing a "but" coming...
Aaron: You got it.
Matt: You son of a bitch.
Aaron: Unfortunately, it is mostly just an interesting mess.
Matt: Well we get in the details of that, but I'd be interested to hear from Sarah, and then from John [as someone who had seen it before].
Sarah: So I didn't know anything about this except that The Rock was in it.
Matt: "Dwayne Johnson" please
Sarah: And I believe right before I pressed play I shouted to no one, "THIS MOVIE IS TWO AND A HALF HOURS?!" But I wanted to be open minded. But oh my god, I don't think I can make heads or tails of this thing. Half the time I had no idea what anyone was talking about. But then a scene would happen that I'd be really fascinated by? Then I'd be lost again. It was a rough go for me.
Aaron: I definitely think it is a film that needs re-watching for those reasons.
Matt: I totally understand all that. I love ST for many reasons but none of them are "because it makes perfect sense and has airtight storytelling" John?
John: Yeah, like you said, Matt, I re-watched Southland Tales. It was the first time I'd seen it in almost 10 years. I watched it for the first time in 2008 after it came out on DVD. I liked it quite a bit the first time. Like you, it wasn't because it made much sense. But I appreciated its messiness. I generally respond to movies like that. After watching it again, I don't feel like I have a better grasp on the mechanics of the plot, but it makes more sense if you sort of dispose of these superficialities---a hard thing to do on a first viewing.
Matt: I watched it again in prep for this, which makes it 3x for me. It's the sort of movie that I feel like makes *just enough sense* that there's at least some momentum. And honestly, I feel like the plot is not really any more complicated or difficult to follow/understand than a lot of detective/noir type stuff. Like, is the plot of Southland Tales really any more difficult to understand than True Detective?
Sarah: I mean. Yes, for me. But that has more to do with some of the messiness obscuring the plot, not because the plot in and of itself is so overly complicated per se.
Aaron: That wasn't my issue, really. More that the third act really becomes plot heavy lost momentum for me.
John: I think it's a film that you want to understand because of its setting and the alternate history it presents up front, and that sort of sets some people up for disappointment because Kelly doesn't care about all the dots connecting.
Matt: Well... I think it's important to point out/acknowledge that there are about 20 minutes cut out of the original version for the version that's widely available. Who knows if that makes things more clear or not, but the 2.5 hour version that's available is not Kelly's original cut.
Aaron: I can absolutely see that. This is a case where I think the film would benefit from either adding more of those connective threads OR be even more scrambled [which I probably would have preferred]
Sarah: Can we talk about the casting?
Matt: Jon Lovitz Jon Lovitz Jon Lovitz Jon Lovitz
Sarah: I wrote the following in my notes as I was watching it: "THIS CASTING WHAT IS HAPENING" Did Kelly know someone or know a lot of these people? How on earth did he get them all in one movie? It's the most bananas collection of actors I've ever seen!
Matt: This is good one to have seen for that Kevin Bacon game. And I think all the performances are really good, too. I mean, it helps that the characters are mostly just doing one thing each.
John: Yeah, I mean, Sarah Michelle Gellar is Kim Kardashian before Kim Kardashian was Kim Kardashian.
Aaron: Casting both The Rock and Justin Timberlake was really bold. They were both superstars in their fields at the time, but neither were seen as movie stars. And it mostly works out.
Sarah: I was actually surprised by how good I thought JT was for how weird his role is. And The Rock's performance is just so much fun? You can really see the wheels turning for him. Like he's trying really hard to do something different. To work those acting chops. And I don't know, I just found that to be really enjoyable to see.
Matt: It's especially interesting because Boxer is so confused and scared all the time. Like, he's not a very heroic character.
Sarah: His dumb finger twiddling.
John: When Lovitz kills Poehler and Avon Barksdale, so good. Also Lovitz kills Poehler!
Aaron: It is incredible to see how much more comfortable an actor The Rock has become. His performance is actually a little bit of a hang-up for me. I can see the wheels turning in him a little too much. Just don't think he has found the range yet. If we already didn't have his performance in Be Cool by this point or know what he would become, it would have felt a little more like stunt casting to me.
John: I agree with Sarah. Nothing you say, Aaron, about The Rock is necessarily wrong. It's just that Kelly sets up an environment in which such a performance thrives for me. Like, I don't think a traditionally great performance would ever work for this movie. They need to be silly. They need to be a little see-through.
Matt: I like his performance. I think there are parts when his character isn't consistent, but that has more to do with the script than anything Mr. Johnson himself is doing. Like, the hero shot in the Zepellin [talking to Kevin Smith] when he says "pimps don't commit suicide"... that's a cool moment, but Boxer definitely wouldn't be saying that at that moment, he'd be shitting his pants. Like the rest of the movie, I think the performances work best when considered as great, idiosyncratic individual moments. Which leads me to transition to... what are some of our favorite scenes or sequences?
John: I got soul, but I'm not a soldier...
Sarah: The Killers scene. I watched it 5 straight times. I sent it to friends.
John: It's a great song choice, too. I mean, The Killers are basically the musical equivalent of Southland Tales---makes no sense, but funky and fresh and awesome.
Sarah: The choreography is on point and Timberlake is actually doing a fantastic job--maybe because it's essentially a glorified music video where he'd feel most at home. But his movements and the way he uses the beer as a prop are all really great and I think what clinches it for me.
Aaron: You really see what makes him a superstar in that scene in a way that you don't ever see with The Rock.
Sarah: But my clincher is the very end of the scene when it's the "All these things that I've done" line and JT sort of stops in the middle of it as if he's actually horrified by the things he's done and the camera pulls back and the pop rock fades into this very melancholy score. It's just super well done. A smooth transition and something that looks good and works well for explaining this character.
Matt: My runner-up scene is the "Memory Gospel" dance aboard the zeppelin at the end with the porn stars, Krysta Now, Dwayne J. and Mandy Moore.
John: I love when they cut off the Japanese businessman's hand. Wallace Shawn and his crazy German family 2016. I love when Boxer is on the beach and the woman tells him she'll kill herself if he doesn't let her ... you know.
Aaron: Yeah, that was an interesting scene, though I kept trying to figure out who the actress was because I felt like it had to be somebody.
Matt: Yeah, she's like the only one who isn't somebody. No offense ma'am if you're reading this.
Sarah: That woman was baffling to me. I couldn't understand her at all. Also why did she eat so many Cheetos? These are my questions.
John: Obsession, it’s relatable.
Matt: I don't like how it's easier to get Flamin’ Hot Cheetos these days than it is regular Cheetos.
John: This is how the world ends. Not with regular Cheetos, but Flaimn' Hot.
John: What do you think we'll be saying about this movie in 25 years? Anything? Will we appreciate it more?
Matt: I think yes. I mean, I feel like the movie already has such a bad reputation, it could only go up from here as people like me continue to spend their careers advocating for it. Blade Runner wasn't very well thought of when it came out either.
Sarah: That's a bold claim.
John: I have a hard time imagining people hating it. I mean, there's a lot of fun to be had, and it's certainly not a movie you forget easily.
Matt: Maybe it will endure in viral moments, like the JT arcade scene.
John: Movies as viral moments. That's really interesting.
Aaron: If there was ever a movie that would appreciate to be a viral moment, it would be Southland Tales.
Matt: I guess my final thoughts are... I think Southland Tales is a relentlessly *interesting* movie. Like, every element of it is at least interesting, from the plot, to the political stuff, to the casting. I think the worst thing you can say about it is that it's an ambitious mess. It's also very well shot and sustains a unique and consistent atmosphere and tone. Once you divorce yourself from the tyranny of expecting/wanting narrative coherence, basically everything else works. Or it does for me, at least.
Aaron: You can't deny its ambition, which is why I'm fine with the film. I hoped to love it like I love the finest work of Paul Verhoeven [which I think is definitely an influence], but it didn't get me there. At least yet. Maybe in time.
Sarah: I appreciate the ambition. I think it failed, honestly, and it's not something I'd watch again. But I don't necessarily regret watching it. I think it's interesting as a weird marker in the early careers of JT and The Rock. Beyond that, I don't think I have words for it.
John: I'm totally with you, Matt. I'm a sucker for so much of what this film is: alternate American history, campy, packed with stars doing sometimes random things, music, sci-fi, and sticking to the courage of its convictions. If it ended Richard Kelly's career, which I sincerely hope it didn't, he too went out with a bang.
Aaron: At least they still let him make The Box on his way out.