In Steven Hyden’s excellent new book Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, the hirsute Minnesotan rock critic writes extensively about what he calls the “Default Smart Opinion”. The Default Smart Opinion (DSO) is any instance of critical consensus that—over time—has calcified into uncritical baseline conventional wisdom. For example: saying I hate Nickelback is a safe tract for any semi-knowledgeable music fan to adopt. And sure, you probably do hate Nickelback. But just how much of that opinion is based on an actual rigorous appraisal of the art itself versus merely plugging into the agreed-upon bromide that Chad Kroeger and Co. are the worst thing to happen to ears since Michael Madsen in Reserviour Dogs? In other words, how much of this opinion have you come by honestly? How much of it stands up to scrutiny?
I say all this to say: you’re wrong about Southland Tales. Ever since its ignominious dumping in the war-torn summer of 2006, director Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko follow-up has been unjustly reviled and dismissed as an unwatchable nuclear turd full of half-baked sci-fi gobbledygook, shrill anti-Bush political satire, and self-indulgent style. Which is totally incorrect. Southland Tales is a HIGHLY ENTERTAINING nuclear turd full of half-baked sci-fi gobbledygook, shrill anti-Bush political satire, and self-indulgent style.
My appreciation for Southland Tales is so profound, in fact, that the film was the subject of the very first blog post I ever wrote about movies for the internet—way back in the golden year of 2010 for BattleshipPretension.com. Me: a person who is now paid to write about movies on the internet for a living. The title of that particular post was “Erroneously Underappreciated” and I stand by that assessment with the pigheaded vigor of Japanese infantryman still bayonetting roundeyes for Tojo decades after WWII.
So what exactly makes Tales so gloriously worthwhile? First of all, there’s always value in peeking inside the imagination of an unselfconscious creator riding high in the wake of prior success. For Kelly, that success was his 2001 debut Donnie Darko, a charmingly doofy bit of horror-tinged sci-fi hokum anointed by film geeks as an instant cult classic, destined to be viewed through a veil of marijuana smoke in dingy dorms for as long as dorm rooms and marijuana continue to exist. Kelly leveraged his Darko success to make Tales, an ambitious cross-platform sci-fi action epic that included not one, not two, but six separate graphic novel prequels—and the result was basically the movie brat version of Icarus flying to close to the sun.
Southland Tales premiered at Cannes in an unwieldy 160-minute cut that was nearly vaporized by a sonic boom of lusty French jeers, at which point the movie’s distributors slashed the movie’s runtime down to a comparatively slim 144 minutes. So if you’re wondering why Tales’ plot is so achingly chaotic, the answer is simple math: take a sci-fi action comedy as unrelentingly weird and complicated as, let’s say, The Fifth Element; now subtract 10% of the film’s expository connective tissue; then divide all that by six volumes of backstory that 99.99% of the film’s viewers would have absolutely no familiarity with.
The results add up to something like Blade Runner meets Kiss Kiss Bang Bang meets Total Recall meets Repo Man. And in my opinion yes—it IS as awesome as all that sounds. Though audiences expecting anything like a coherent storyline, traditional character development, or a lucid political message might disagree. Southland Tales is what happens when you hand a nerdy 29-year-old dude watching nonstop CNN in 2005 a giant bag full of psilocybin mushrooms and 17 million fuckaround bucks to do whatever the hell he wants. And the best word to describe the final product is “unbridled”.
There’s something like a compelling whodunnit buried deep within Southland Tales: a bit of intrigue around Seann William Scott’s time-traveling Iraqi war vet and Dwayne Johnson’s lunkheaded Hollywood action star being used as a pawns ping-ponging between competing Neo-Marxist and Conservative political factions, with Sarah Michelle Gellar’s entrepreneurial porn actress caught in the middle. But what Southland Tales really excels at are—and what I’d recommend sampling first before diving headfirst into the whole film—are individual sequences of pure atmosphere and beauty.
One such clip which I’ve returned to again and again over the years is essentially just a music video following a bloodied and drunk Justin Timberlake as he lip-synchs The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” while stumbling through a dreamy beachfront arcade amid a swirl of Technicolor chorus line girls and dry-ice fog. In a just world, this sequence would rightly be considered one of the greatest individual movie scenes of the 21st century. I also particularly like Johnson and Gellar’s weirdly touching final slow dance aboard a doomed clean energy zeppelin soaring high above the skies of downtown L.A. et to Moby’s great slow-burn jam “Memory Gospel”. There’s also Jon Lovitz’s corrupt cop ambushing a ridiculously disguised Wood Harris and Amy Poehler, a bloody negotiation scene that ends in dismemberment, and plenty more.
So look: you can either have the courage to evaluate Southland Tales on its own terms or you can retreat to the muck and slime of the cowards’ gutter, shrouding yourself beneath the flame-retardant trauma blanket of one of film culture’s laziest Default Smart Opinions. But c’mon. Don’t commit [intellectual] suicide. As Johnson’s Boxer Santaros helpfully points out, “Pimps don’t commit suicide”.
Here's what you can expect this week:
- A look at the strange predictions of Southland Tales' dystopian future
- A career recap of unlikely A-list star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
- Related Review of Richard Kelly's equally failed The Box
- Streaming recommendations of misunderstood masterpieces
- And more!