Part of the joy of being a fan is finding odd and obscure gems that you end up falling in love with. For every Star Wars, there is a Starcrash. For every Batman, there is a Condorman. At Fandom, we like hunting for offbeat and off-the-wall films and TV shows that might become your own secret treasures. Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected, because this week’s Weird Watch is Richard Kelly’s 2006 sci-fi thriller Southland Tales. (Last week: A Field in England)
Southland Tales is the second film from Richard Kelly, released five years after his cult hit Donnie Darko. Like Donnie Darko, Southland Tales is confusing and strange, though it is much more complex in scope. The film under-performed at the box office and was panned by critics, though it gained a cult following in its home video release.
Southland Tales is an apocalyptic tale set in the “future” of 2008. World War III began on July 4, 2005, when nuclear weapons were dropped on El Paso and Abilene, Texas. A new government agency, US-IDent, controls and constantly monitors the American public. A German tech company called Treer designed an ocean-driven energy source that makes gasoline obsolete. Unfortunately, the “Fluid Karma” machine Treer developed also slows the rotation of the Earth, damaging the fabric of space and time.
The movie follows an ensemble cast as they experience three days that lead to the end of existence. There are a lot of interesting characters in the Southland of Los Angeles, like amnesiac actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), ex-porn star turned talk show queen Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and twin brothers Roland and Ronald Taverner (Sean William Scott). There are appearances by Amy Poehler, Will Sasso, Jon Lovitz, Janeane Garofalo, and many more actors and comedians. In addition, pop stars Justin Timberlake and Mandy Moore both have leading roles.
Narrator Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), is a soldier returned from Iraq with serious PTSD and a gnarly scar across his pretty face. A montage of news footage introduces us to the world of Southland Tales then ties the many stories together. He also stars in the best sequence of the whole film, in which he has a serious drug trip and imagines himself in a music video singing The Killer’s “All These Things That I’ve Done” with all kinds of weird Americana imagery.
One of the most challenging things about Southland Tales is that it walks a fine line between self-awareness and pretention. There are moments that seem completely sincere despite itself. Others, like 99% of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s dialogue, where it is clear this movie knows it’s insane. There are serious moments too. Pilot Abilene reading the Book of Revelations aloud, Ronald Taverner having a breakdown because his reflection isn’t following him, and Boxer Santaros figuring out who he is after waking up in the middle of the desert.
The dialogue in the film is fantastic, even when it’s ridiculous (or rather, because it’s ridiculous). Each actor gives the dialogue their own spin, with some playing it completely straight while others camp it up. Gellar definitely has the best dialogue. As Krysta Now, she delivers lines with the kind of arrogance and ignorance one would expect from a porn-star-turned-talk-show-activist. She says “once you get on the bang bus, you never get off,” with the same kind of tone someone might use while talking about genocide. Her character is so self-serious, but the actress is clearly having a ball, which really captures the film’s spirit.
Confused yet? Don’t worry, so is everyone else. In a 2011 interview with Wired magazine, Timberlake confessed that “Southland Tales is performance art. I still don’t know what that movie is about.”
Part of what makes Southland Tales so interesting is its complexity and the confusion it creates. Each viewing offers new insight, plus the chance to look for the many socio-political, literary, and musical Easter eggs Kelly in the film. Beyond the basic plot, viewers can also develop theories on Southland’s mythology and the impending apocalypse. There are communities and websites dedicated to solving the mysteries of the movie’s plot. Even academics have weighed in on the subject.
The other part of what makes Southland Tales a fun watch is that it’s completely insane. A spiritual predecessor to films like John Dies at the End and Detention, the movie goes completely off the rails from the opening scene onward, taking the audience along for the ride. The pale horse of the apocalypse is an ice cream truck filled with assault rifles, for Christ’s sake.
Southland Tales isn’t for everybody. The humor is dark and biting. There is a lot of political content that could offend some viewers. And in the end, the movie doesn’t really make much sense. For those of us who revel in the weird pop-culture soup this came from, it’s one hell of a movie. The acting’s fun, the overall visual quality is good outside of some awful 2005-era CGI, and the soundtrack is great. But what makes Southland Tales so entertaining is just how unique and bizarre it is. This is what qualifies it for this week’s Weird Watch.