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Film: Southland Tales

Southland Tales is a 2007 Science Fiction/Black Comedy film from director Richard Kelly, the follow-up to his 2001 cult hit Donnie Darko. While planned as a mainstream breakthrough, things didn't pan out that way. The combination of a large budget and Sony's decision to shelve the film after lackluster showings in a handful of cities means that it's not likely to show profit for years to come. Nonetheless, ST did make some critics' year's best lists and has found a modest cult on DVD.

Imagine if you will the skewed artistic sensibilities of Andy Warhol filming a Greatest Hits version of Philip K. Dick's body of work, written with the esoteric denseness of Pixies lyrics, and you'll have something approximating the, er, experience that is Southland Tales. The film's cast is an eclectic group, led by names like Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, and narrator Justin Timberlake, while the secondary cast is filled with Hey, It's That Guy! character actors and comedians, specifically Saturday Night Live veterans.

The sprawling story is difficult to summarize (and considered intensely nonsensical by many) but here's a thumbnail version: after a nuclear attack in Texas, World War III has begun and the fuel supply of the United States is placed under strain, while the government becomes an authoritarian police state to combat the everpresent threat of terrorism. A genius inventor named Baron von Westphalen, a dandy who dresses like Liberace crossed with Ozymandias from Watchmen, joins forces with a Republican presidential candidate to create a wireless power generator that uses ocean currents to transmit electricity via quantum entanglement. This wireless energy, dubbed Fluid Karma, is derived from a compound that's also an injectible drug allowing the user to "bleed" his or her consciousness through space and time, but you'd only know that if you read the graphic novel prequels. The tidal generator appears to be sending out dense waves of fog, causing red tides, and oh yeah, ripping holes in the fabric of time and space. Meanwhile, the police state has created widespread discontent among the population and, in a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, created actual terrorists in the form of neo-Marxist cells dedicated to overthrowing the government agency responsible for monitoring the American population, USIDent, spearheaded by the aforementioned presidential candidate and his wife.

And that last paragraph? That's all backstory delivered in the first ten minutes by Justin Timberlake, who's using Fluid Karma to narrate the story. The actual movie hasn't even started yet.

Yeah, it's that kind of flick.

The "plot", such as it is, is a Four Lines, All Waiting series of vignettes about a loosely-interconnected group of people living in the southland and plotting conspiracies either for or against the police state, although along the way it morphs into a metaphysical odyssey about the apocalypse requiring more than a passing familiarity with the Book of Revelation to make sense of, not to mention essential exposition available only in the graphic novel prequels. And even then, some things happen that have no rhyme or reason, though it's hard to tell if that's because Richard Kelly is a poor writer or if the studio made him cut large swatches of the movie out after a disastrous screening of a workprint version at the Cannes film festival. We just know that a FAQ is probably necessary for viewers. Thoughmany tried and failed to make some sense.

As of 2013, Kelly still considers Southland Tales his proudest accomplishment, calling it his "misunderstood child". He's actively trying to create a definitive version of the story by restoring the deleted scenes and condensing the events of the graphic novels into an animated prequel (the script is available to read here, if you're interested). Only time will tell if his completed vision fares better than the original.

This film provides examples of:

  • 555: If you call the number given to Dwayne Johnson's character at the beginning (which goes to John Larroquette's character), you'll end up getting John Larroquette's "actual" voice mail.
  • All There in the Manual: Kelly wrote three graphic novels to set up the premise and characters. Unfortunately, they were poorly distributed and pretty much off the market by the time the movie came out. Having important information outside the movie and in the graphic novel is likely a major reason the movie did poorly. They're included as extras on the Blu-Ray.
  • Alternate Self: Boxer and Taverner's future selfs.
  • Alternate Universe: Word of God places the story in an Alternate Universe. His prequel script directly namedrops Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, one of the defining works of the genre.
  • Anti Anti Christ: Boxer, who for most of the film is suggested to be the Messiah, and tries twice to save the bystanders when he realizes the real one is about to kill him.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Fluid Karma is perpetual motion energy generated by the tides, can be beamed to whatever uses it, and also can be made into an attempted Super Serum and a narcotic drug.
  • Arc Words:
    • This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.
    • We saw the shadows of the morning light / The shadows of the evening sun / Until the shadows and the light were one."
  • Auteur License: This movie revoked Kelly's.
  • Auto Erotica: The absolutely bizarre car commercial. Hint: It does not involve humans.
  • Awesome Mc Cool Name: Boxer Santoros's character, Jericho Cane, with added Significant Monogram and Punny Name. Subverted at the end when he turns out to be the Antichrist instead of the real Messiah, who kills him.
  • Bad Humor Truck: An ice cream truck is home to an illegal gun dealer. The Agony Booth called this out, pointing out that an ice cream truck would bring attention that an illegal gun dealer would not want.
  • Because Destiny Says So: The Power, Krysta Now's script, is actually a highly esoteric prophecy written under the influence of Fluid Karma. By the time he boards the airship, Boxer Santaros has taken heed of the cosmic signs and fully immersed himself in the role of Jericho Cane, to the point where he knows things about the plot ("The soul of a monkey would never survive the dimensional threshold") solely because he read the script of The Power.
  • Berserk Button: Don't tell Zora to get the fuck out of your ice cream truck and don't call her a "Cro-Magnon bitch".
  • Blackmail: When Krysta Now mentions that she is sleeping with Boxer Santaros, Cyndi Pinziki decides to use this information to blackmail Boxer’s father-in-law, Republican candidate Bobby Frost, for money and demanding the passage of Proposition 69 (a bill that restricts USIDent’s powers).
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: Veronica Mung brings this up during the domestic disturbance act: "His fucking dick was 200 inches long!"
  • Callback: "I'm/He's a pimp. And pimps don't commit suicide."
  • Celeb Crush: There's that woman who's obsessed with Boxer Santoros, and tries to force him at gunpoint to let her blow him.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The ground-to-air missile, which is used to destroy the Mega-Zeppelin the climax, killing most of the main characters, including the Decoy Protagonist Boxer Santoros. Also all that other stuff that made no sense.
  • Creepy Monotone: "Do you wanna fuck... or watch a movie?"
  • Crucified Hero Shot: Used for many deaths in the film, until the majority of the cast dies at once in the Mega Zeppelin. And Boxer still gets to do it.
  • Decoy Protagonist: And in the final minutes of the film no less! Thought Boxer was the hero? Wrong! It was really not-twins Taverner all along!
  • Diegetic Switch: In reverse. With Bai Ling dancing. In a megazepplin.
  • Fake Video Camera View: Subverted. The filmmakers gave a camera to an actual family to record their 4th of July celebration. That's true shock in the lady's face when she hits the camera with a squirt gun.
  • Fantastic Drug: Fluid Karma. "Green, you dream. Blue, in an hour you feel new. And you can forget all about mellow yellow and agent orange, 'cause, hey, I'm giving you blood red. Do you bleed?"
  • Fluffy Fashion Feathers: Krysta wears a pink marabou jacket in an early scene.
  • For Science!: The reason The Baron and his executive staff toyed around with the space-time rift.
  • Friend or Foe: Abilene is scarred from a friendly fire grenade. Taverner was the one who did it. This is surprisingly extremely significant to the plot, as Taverner can't forgive himself for it.
  • Gambit Pileup: Many. A couple lead to a I Know You Know I Know situation.
  • Gainax Ending: If you're still somehow following the plot by the end, you won't be able to any longer. A passable knowledge of the Book of Revelations is needed to make sense of the majority of the plot and characters. Likewise, the graphic novels help to make the plot significantly more understandable.
  • Groin Attack: Vaughn Smallhouse gets his balls tazered... twice!
  • Heel Realization: Boxer on the airship. He seems more amused than anything else by it, however.
  • Heroic BSOD: What happens when Roland/Ronald remembers. It's not pretty.
  • High Collar of Doom: Villainess Nana Mae Frost wears a black jacket with the collar turned up.
  • Human Notepad: The screenplay "The Power" explains, that as part of his job, Jericho had to tattoo a symbol from every world religion onto his body and, when the Messiah reaches maturity, the “winning” religion’s symbol will bleed snake blood.
  • Hummer Dinger: The Treer Saltair.
  • Identity Amnesia: Boxer and Taverner suffer from this.
  • Jerkass Façade and Happy Place: Boxer has a mix in Jericho Cane, a loose cannon cop who plays by his own rules. He slips into being Jericho Cane when he has schizophrenic breaks because he is a deteriorating duplicate of the actual Boxer Santaros, characterized by talking in rapid gibberish and tapping his fingers.
  • Just Before the End: The movie is a big dystopia comedy-satire about the last three days on earth in Los Angeles.
  • Kill 'em All: By the film's end, there are maybe three major characters still alive, and it's implied that the world ends because two of them won't stop holding hands... or it will be saved because of that.
  • Last Minute Hookup: Vaughn Smallhouse and Cindy Pinzicki right before the Megazepplin explodes.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: The movie goes out of it's way to introduce dozens of characters exceedingly often. Unfortunately, it can't quite seem to decide which ones are supposed to be important...
  • Mind Screw: To this day, even the actors have admitted they have no idea what was going on.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Ronald Taverner, stemming from his tour in Fallujah.
    Pilot Abilene: He could not forgive himself for what he had done to me.
  • Name of Cain: Boxer Santaros's screenplay centers around a character named Jericho Cane (who he hopes to be able to play himself).
  • Never the Selves Shall Meet: This is the way the world ends.
  • Nonindicative Name: Confusingly, the song "Wave of Mutilation" plays in chapter V, "Memory Gospel", while the song "Memory Gospel" plays in chapter VI, "Wave of Mutilation". The phrase "Memory Gospel" originates from a conversation in chapter IV, "Temptation Waits", while the song "Temptation Waits" isn't in the movie at all.
  • Noodle Incident: The film never explains what happened between Tavener and Pilot in Fallujah. It's revealed in the comic and passingly hinted at in the film that while under the influence of Fluid Karma, Roland accidentally scarred Pilot's face with a grenade. He was listening to "All of These Things That I've Done," at the time, which is why Pilot psychically projects his musical number into Roland's head while he's unconscious.
  • Oh Crap: Dream and Dion just before being shot by Bart Bookman on Zora's orders.
  • The Oner: A magnificent example. Starts with Boxer and Madeline getting on the Mega-Zeppelin, follows Cyndi, then Serpentine, then Brad, then drifts past Smallhouse and Frost, then Madame Westphalen before stopping at Serpentine and the Baron dancing on the stage. Technically two shots, as there is a disguised cut while the camera follows Serpentine.
  • Pastiche: Basically, the movie is one giant love letter to Philip K. Dick, to the point where you practically need a PhD in PKD to figure out what the hell is going on. In particular, Southland Tales apes his Four Lines, All Waiting style of plotting, his sci-fi meets religion Mind Screw nuttiness, his themes of identity and counterfeits, his gratuitous mixing of high literature and pop culture references, his Medium Awareness twists about characters believing fiction is secretly communicating to them, and an intense dislike of the Republican Party. It also has explicit references to Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by having a policeman say, well...."Flow My Tears", and the last name of Seann William Scott's character being "Taverner".
  • Playing with Syringes: The secret tests done on U.S. soldiers using Fluid Karma. Covered mostly in the graphic novels, but the movie shows what happens when these syringes get out into the general populace.
  • Punny Name: Jericho Cane.
  • Psychic Link: The Fluid Karma energy field transmits wireless electricity to anything inside its radius. Taking the actual Fluid Karma compound, which powers the tidal generator, makes the user into a "receiver" for the energy fieldnote  and enables them to send their consciousness (which is really just electrical impulses) through space and time, including communicating with other people taking Fluid Karma. And, if Pilot Abilene is to be believed, you can even communicate with God Himself.
  • Read the Fine Print: Baron von Westphalen says this to the Prime Minister of Japan (or a rival patent holder, depending on which version you're watching) after cutting off his left hand.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Boxer's tattoos are symbolic representations of all the major world religions, and Word of God says that the tattoo that bleeds is the religion that "wins." The tattoo of Jesus bleeds just before the Megazeppelin explodes. We might as well just admit that the entire film was built around taking this rule to its most logical extreme.
  • Scenery Porn: The beachfront of Los Angeles.
  • Sex Sells: When Senator Frost questions why one of the Baron's commercials has two SUVs "porking", Vaughn Smallhouse reassures him that "that's the European version".
  • Show Within a Show: Krysta Now's script, "The Power," which she convinces Boxer that they wrote together.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Possible parody of Left Behind: The character of Fortunio Balducci, the Baron's Mole. Word of God confirms that, following the Book of Revelation, Fortunio is the False Prophet. His counterpart's name in Left Behind? Leon Fortunato.
    • Scenes from Kiss Me Deadly are played throughout the movie, a noir from the 50s about a briefcase full of nuclear material lost in Los Angeles. Kelly said the film was a major influence, to the point where Boxer Santaros drives the same car as that film's main character when he leaves the Frost mansion.
    • Soberin Exx states that once they found the dimensional threshold/gateway to heaven, they launched monkeys into it. This takes place in a chapter/episode/whatever titled "Wave of Mutilation", a reference to the Pixies song. Also on the same album? "Monkey Gone to Heaven", about a man who controls the ocean, and also mankind's place in the universe.
  • Shy Finger Twiddling: Boxer Santaros does this a lot because he is having constant schizophrenic breaks into the character of Jericho Cane.
  • Significant Monogram: There's a Jericho Cane (real name Boxer Santoros), who turns out to be the Antichrist.
  • Space Whale Aesop: "Veterans! Don't commit suicide, because you may be sci-fi Jesus."
  • Stylistic Suck: What the theatrical cut doesn't really make clear is how awful The Power is. The "no bowel movements" thing is only the tip of the iceberg. An extended version of the ridealong scene from the Cannes cut goes more into detail about the messianic baby with nuclear farts that cause earthquakes. What the theatrical cut makes doubly unclear is that the infamous line, "Pimps don't commit suicide", is actually dialog being recited from this (really, really bad) script.
  • Tag-Along Actor: Boxer with Taverner. It doesn't end well.
  • Time Paradox: Sixty-nine minutes before the original Boxer Santaros and Roland Taverner went through the time rift at Lake Meade, duplicates of them appeared in the desert. Serpentine then blew up the originals, killing Boxer Santaros before he could go through the rift, while leaving his time-displaced self still alive and creating two identical versions of Roland Taverner, shattering the laws of causality.
  • This Is for Emphasis, Bitch!: "The fourth dimension will collapse upon itself... you stupid bitch."
  • Trash Landing: An open dumpster is padding Taverner's rooftop fall.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future: The story is set in 2008, but everything looks quite futuristic. Justified, as Word of God places the story in a Tangent Universe.
  • Unobtanium: Fluid Karma. A compound found by drilling in the ocean that apparently can be used to generate electric power. Also, acts as a drug working somewhat like a Green Rock.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: The film is drenched in references to literature and politics that range from punishingly obvious to downright impenetrable. Everyone watching the film can tell that it's certainly supposed to be about something, but what the hell is actually going on or what it's all supposed to mean in the end generally baffles most audiences. Ultimately the director certainly had a lot of faith in the audience that they'd be able to follow his thought processes. Or he just intended to make a longer film with more explanation, or thought more people would read the prequel comic. Though the longer cut at Cannes got similar, if not even more negative responses than the final cut.
  • Villainous Ice Cream Truck: Used for illegal trading of handguns and ammunition. Later it helps to end the world.
  • The Von Trope Family: Baron Von Westphalen and his mother Inga are of German descent. There is also Starla Von Luft.
  • The Walrus Was Paul: Director Richard Kelly (who also did the equally convoluted Donnie Darko) has admitted that he made the plot so convoluted that almost no meaning can be extracted from it. It includes Time Travel, the impending end of the world, Orwellian dystopia, revolutionary new energy sources which will change the world, Neo-Marxist terrorists, an actor who seems destined to be the new Messiah, and a government conspiracy all colliding in Los Angeles aka the Southland.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never learn who launched the nuclear attacks in Texas.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The Neo-Marxists.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: One of the big differences between real 2009 and parallel universe 2009 is the presence of massive perpetual-motion powered Zeppelins.


Snuff 102Films of 2005 - 2009 Space Thunder Kids

alternative title(s): Southland Tales
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