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Film / Southland Tales

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"This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper... but with a bang."
Inversion of a poem by T. S. Eliot

Southland Tales is a 2007 Science Fiction/Black Comedy film from director Richard Kelly, the follow-up to his 2001 cult hit Donnie Darko.

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 character actors and comedians, specifically Saturday Night Live veterans.

The sprawling story in a nutshell: 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 ever-present 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 injectable 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.

That's the backstory delivered in the first ten minutes by Justin Timberlake, who's using Fluid Karma to narrate the story. The plot of the actual movie 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.

Kelly is 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).

In April 2020, Richard Kelly announced that both theatrical and Cannes version of the film have been restored in 4K. While the Cannes cut's special effects still haven't been finished, the new edit ("Version 3.0") is in development, and combines the Cannes version (with improved effects) and animations based on prequel graphic novels along with live-action scenes from The Power screenplay the character Krysta Now wrote. Time will tell if this version gets to see the light of day.

This film provides examples of:

  • 555: Notably averted. 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.
  • Actor Allusion: Richard Kelly explained that every actor in the movie is playing an exaggerated, "dramatic" version of their usual comic persona.
  • 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 selves.
  • Alternate Universe: The story is set in 2008, but everything looks quite futuristic. This is because Word of God places the story in a Tangent 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 Fantastic Drug.
  • Arc Number: 69 comes up a few times — the number, not the position.
  • 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."
    • I am a pimp, and pimps don't commit suicide
  • Artistic License – Politics: It's mentioned that due to the terrorist attacks, the US is fighting World War III and it's put a strain on the US's oil supply. However:
    • Assuming that the war is only with the five countries named (Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Afghanistan) and no other countries are participating (either allied with or against the US), it wouldn't be a World War.
    • Of the five countries mentioned, only one (Iraq) is in the top fifteen countries the US imports oil from (and was #6 at the time). In fact, North Korea (one of the named countries) exports no oil whatsoever, so unless the US was on the receiving end of an oil embargo by Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Venezuela that the film doesn't mention, the US being cut off of oil from the five countries mentioned in the film wouldn't have nearly as much of an impact as the film suggests (at best, it would cause the price of gas to rise slightly, but not to the point where it would cause a major boom in alternative fuels).
  • Auteur License: This movie revoked Kelly's.
  • Auto Erotica: The absolutely bizarre car commercial. Hint: It does not involve humans.
  • Bad Humor Truck: An ice cream truck is home to an illegal gun dealer.
  • Bathos: The scene where Bookman fatally shoots the Neo-Marxists. It was originally staged for Roland to "kill" them by firing blanks from his gun, and the actors would react with remote-triggered squibs going off at the appropriate moment. However, Bookman shows up to "investigate" the crime, but since he's a racist cop that doesn't give a damn, he kills both the actors with zero remorse. What makes it this trope is that when Bing triggers the squibs his reaction time is hilariously delayed from the actual shots, making the tragic deaths we witnessed take on the feeling of a cheap sophomoric drama production instead.
  • 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.
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: Veronica Mung brings this up during the domestic disturbance act: "His fucking dick was 200 inches long!"
  • 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).
  • Bond One-Liner: Officer Bart Bookman deadpans "Dream over" and "Flow my tears" after shooting dead Dream and Dion respectively.
  • Celeb Crush: There's that woman who's obsessed with Boxer Santaros, 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 Santaros.
  • 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!
  • Dream Sequence Pilot Abilene has a drug-induced daze after shooting Fluid Karma. In it, he lipsyncs to the outro of The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done" with sexy female dancers in Naughty Nurse Outfits swirling around him doing a 1940s-style Busby Berkeley Number.
  • Europeans Are Kinky: 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".
  • False Friend: Boxer Santaros calls his supposed friend Fortunio Balducci to pick him up at the beachfront but the latter turns out to be working for the Baron and has Boxer kidnapped.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Gambit Pileup: Many. A couple lead to an I Know You Know I Know situation.
  • Groin Attack:
    • Zora kicks the ice-cream-truck owner in the nuts when he calls her a "Cro-Magnon bitch".
    • Vaughn Smallhouse gets his balls tazered... twice!
  • Heel Realization: Boxer on the airship. He seems more amused than anything else by it, however.
  • Her Code Name Was "Mary Sue": In the script to The Power, its author, porn star Krysta Now, makes a point of describing how her blatant self-insert, Muriel Fox, should be a ballerina instead of a stripper. Later in the screenplay, Krysta writes herself into the story (she was flying high on drugs while writing it) and blames her self-insert for ruining her life and also being the Biblical Whore of Babylon. So clearly there's some unresolved issues there.
  • 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.
  • Hindenburg Incendiary Principle: The Treer MegaZeppelin is introduced late in the film. During the Mind Screw Gainax Ending, nearly the entire cast is on board the thing when a rocket destroys it, killing them all.
  • 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.
  • Infodump: Pretty much all Justin Timberlake does in this movie is literally explain the plot down the barrel of the camera. It's very telling that, in spite of this role, he said later he STILL had no idea what was going on in the movie.
  • Just Before the End: The movie is a big dystopia comedy-satire about the last three days on Earth in Los Angeles.
  • La Résistance: The Neo-Marxists are a terrorist group fighting the oppressive Police State that was established in the wake of the 2005 attacks on US soil.
  • Last-Minute Hookup: Vaughn Smallhouse and Cindy Pinzicki right before the Megazepplin explodes.
  • Made of Incendium: The Mega Zeppelin explodes in fabulous fashion after getting hit by the missile. Seems like they didn't learn from the Hindenburg disaster and still used hydrogen instead of non-flammable helium.
  • Meaningful Echo: Boxer Santaros' line "I'm a pimp. And pimps don't commit suicide." gets repeated in the final scene where it refers to Taverner not pulling the trigger on himself.
  • Mind Screw: To this day, even the actors have admitted they have no idea what was going on.
  • The Mole: Kenny Chan was recruited by the Neo-Marxists to work as a mole inside USIDent. It backfires when USIDent secretly bugs him to track the location of the Neo-Marxist cell.
  • My Greatest Failure: Ronald Taverner can't forgive himself for critically wounding his fellow soldier Pilot Abilene during the battle in Fallujah (Iraq).
    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).
  • Nervous Tics: Boxer Santaros has a habit where he taps his fingertips together whenever he's nervous (which is pretty often).
  • 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.
  • Ominous Multiple Screens: Nana Mae Frost has at least 18 monitors in her USIDent office.
  • 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. Pilot Abilene is one of the few survivors of the drug experiment conducted overseas.
  • 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.
  • Punny Name: Jericho Cane.
  • Reading Ahead in the Script: The Power is both an in-universe script and a metafictional prophecy about the future that allows readers to predict future events in the film. One particular moment of this is Boxer finding a gun aboard the airship. Pilot's voiceover in the Cannes Cut states he knew about it because he read it would happen in The Power.
  • 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.
  • Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony: We see the senator's wife Nana Mae Frost cutting a rope during a ceremony to open the USIDent headquarters.
  • 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.
  • Run for the Border: Kefauver is on the run from being drafted to fight in the war. Taverner suggests he should flee to Mexico but the plan gets interrupted when the two bump into Taverner's twin.
  • Scenery Porn: The beachfront of Los Angeles.
  • 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.
    • Jericho Cane is the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in End of Days.
    • 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.
      • On a related note, Richard Kelly pointed out that Lou Taylor Pucci's character, Martin Kefauver, is named after of Tennessean politician Estes Kefauver, who took an issue with Kiss Me Deadly when it released in theaters.
    • 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.
  • The Coats Are Off: At the beachfront, Boxer removes his hoodie (and thus shows off his muscular body) in preparation for kicking Fortunio Balducci's butt. However, his attempt is thwarted by the latter's goons revealing their firearms.
  • Show Within a Show: Krysta Now's script, "The Power," which she convinces Boxer that they wrote together.
  • 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 Santaros), who turns out to be the Antichrist.
  • Space Whale Aesop: "Veterans! Don't commit suicide, because you may be sci-fi Jesus."
  • Steal the Surroundings: When Kefauver loses access to his bank account, Taverner helps him rip out the whole ATM machine.
  • 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.
    • The movie's aesthetic very much invokes mid-2000s music videos with its shiny, chrome-like production design.
    • Krysta Now's pop song is recorded with autotune with poorly written lyrics. It's so bad that her actress Sarah Michelle Geller refused to record it for the movie.
  • Tag-Along Actor: Boxer with Taverner. It doesn't end well.
  • Theory of Narrative Causality: The psychic Krysta Now has written a prophecy of future events in the form of a screenplay, The Power, which, as it goes on, begins to conform to the plot of the film itself until some characters are essentially acting it out live. Hence, the plot of Southland Tales happens because the characters have read the script (to The Power) and acted accordingly. This rather important plot point was glossed over by the theatrical cut of the film, ironically.
  • This Is for Emphasis, Bitch!: "The fourth dimension will collapse upon itself... you stupid bitch."
  • 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.
  • Trash Landing: An open dumpster is padding Taverner's rooftop fall.
  • Unobtainium: 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.
  • Vanity License Plate: Krysta Now's Ferrari sports a "KRYSTA69" license plate.
  • 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.
  • The Von Trope Family: Dubious scientist Baron Von Westphalen and his mother Inga are of German descent. There is also Starla Von Luft.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never learn who launched the nuclear attacks in Texas.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: In Boxer Santaros's screenplay, which is actually supposed to be a prophecy, the tears in the fabric of spacetime by the Fluid Karma wireless power field are causing the Earth's rotation to slow at a rate of 0.00000006 miles per hour each day. This is supposed to cause the end of the world. Which, considering that the Earth rotates at 1,037 miles per hour at the equator and all other factors that affect its rotation,'s going to be a few million years before the apocalypse arrives.
  • You Know I'm Black, Right?: Santaros tags along with police officer Taverner when the latter openly admits to him that the police are only out for the blacks. Santaros is taken aback and removes his sunglasses as if to say "dude, I am black too". Subverted when it turns out that Taverner was only joking.
  • Yubitsume: When the Prime Minister of Japan agrees to have his pinky cut off for access to Fluid Karma. But instead his whole hand gets chopped off.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: One of the big differences between real 2008 and parallel universe 2008 is the presence of massive perpetual-motion powered Zeppelins.