by Brad Nelson
In 1989, Susan Sontag wrote in AIDS and its Metaphors, “Apocalypse is now a long-running serial: not ‘Apocalypse Now’ but ‘Apocalypse from Now On’.” Noir is in many ways an attempt to address the symptoms of apocalypse; the protagonists of noir are trying to put together a rapidly unraveling world. The ambient menace of apocalypse resonates throughout Richard Kelly’s 2006 opus Southland Tales. All of its characters are drawn unconsciously toward the end of the world. They act erratically, without motivation, as if their movements are determined by a distant, vacant source. In any other film this would be recognized as a flaw in the script or the direction of the material. It’s a flaw inSouthland Tales, but the movie is a woven mosaic of flaws; it’s a movie about its own irregularities and distortions. Failure is the entire fractured cosmos of the film.
The apocalyptic engine Kelly embeds in the film revolves around the deceleration of the earth and a corresponding imbalance in the human psyche. There is also a dimensional fissure in the Nevada desert which is causing time to blend and drift. Characters, when injected with a substance harnessed from the depth of the ocean, can literally “bleed” through time like watercolors. Late in the film, Justin Timberlake, playing a disfigured Iraq War veteran who surveils Venice Beach, injects himself and re-materializes in an empty arcade, lip-synching The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” and drowsily navigating the legs of USO dancers in nurse uniforms.
Southland Tales is unable to explain scenes like this, unable to coherently assemble its rapidly unraveling world, despite exhaustive attempts. In 2007, Kelly described the film as working simultaneously in the traditions of Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler, identifying the genre of Southland Tales as “apocalyptic, science fiction, film noir.” Exposition in the movie is often entirely regulated by hybridized television channels, over which Timberlake narrates the Book of Revelation or lifelessly delivers lines like, “The war machine was running out of gas, and there was no alternative...alternative fuel, that is.” Some of it is lately resonant; after two nuclear attacks in Texas a national surveillance program called USIdent is formed to regulate the flow of information on the Internet.
When Kelly is able to unpack his ideas, his ideas are revealed to be ponderous, linear, and mundane; both Darko and Tales are gently disturbed metaphysical constructions with central messiahs, comic books consumed by their origins.
Southland Tales was selected to be in competition for the Palme d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. It premiered there in unfinished form. “I wanted to be able to announce, 'This is a work in progress!'” Kelly said in an interview last year with Motherboard. “But then everyone around me was like, 'No. Do not say that’.” It was booed; critics who attended the screening roundly disliked the film. After seeing it John Solomons wrote in The Observer that Southland Tales made him “wonder if [Kelly] had ever met a human being.”
Watching it, I can’t tell either. That is part of what fascinates. Dialogue is labored and unnatural. Continuity is mutable; there is little narrative sense of how characters get from point A to point B, and the movie doesn’t seem to care anyway. Characters will be where they will be. In one scene, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson walks across Venice Beach conveying a six-pack of Bud Light. He lifts the entire six-pack to his mouth to drink ineffectively from the flood of one opened can.
When Southland Tales is remotely coherent, it fails. Kelly’s director’s cut of his previous filmDonnie Darko makes everything that was implicit in that film—all of its subtext and the unresolving edges of its narrative—explicit. He overlays the text of a manual explaining the mechanism of time travel in the movie, rendering the film tediously intelligible and disrupting its rhythms. When Kelly is able to unpack his ideas, his ideas are revealed to be ponderous, linear, and mundane; both Darko and Tales are gently disturbed metaphysical constructions with central messiahs, comic books consumed by their origins. The Cannes cut of Southland Tales meanders around importantly and dwells on needless subplots, one of which centers around Janeane Garofolo playing an army general stationed in Venice Beach. After the bewildered reception at Cannes, Kelly spent a year recutting Southland Tales into a more dynamic and enigmatic digest of the original. Garofolo’s role was entirely deleted from the theatrical release of the movie. Her absence from the final cut would resonate if all the distinct plots that compose Southland Tales weren’t in some way needless and easily disconnected from the film.
In this way the specific movements of Southland Tales begin to resemble the curious logic of dreams: hurried, recursive, dissolving into itself. Full of familiar objects acting in uncharacteristic, alien ways. Innumerable glowing orbs. Most of its plot movements are not empirical but peripheral. It is a textural movie in that it is nothing but texture. Ideas disappear into the length of its perspective. It could just as easily be a movie about the muted and sourceless way light and dark fall on Venice Beach. It is, in a way. “If you go to [Los Angeles], you’re surrounded by pop culture faces and products and billboards,” Kelly said in 2007. “LA is a collage. It’s like a gigantic messy collage with everything flowing together. And I wanted it to feel like LA.”
Los Angeles is a center of noir; the characters in Raymond Chandler novels uncoil in its dark and abstract corners. To make this connection even more obvious and intertextual, Kelly projects the 1955 LA noir film Kiss Me Deadly repeatedly within Southland Tales. The protagonist of Kiss Me Deadly, detective Mike Hammer, is deliberately inhabited in The Rock’s performance, and both characters serve the same functions in their respective films: They’re ciphers, muscular blanks around which the incidents of apocalypse turn. In oneSouthland Tales scene, we see The Rock driving from the perspective of a camera mounted in his car, which absorbs the rhythms and echoes of the engine. This technique is reproduced directly from the driving scenes in Kiss Me Deadly, which have a nervous and dreadful energy moving through them, as if they might at any point explode. The force that animates the competing agendas of Kiss Me Deadly turns out to be an apocalyptic device, a box containing the demon core, which in reality was critical plutonium that irradiated two scientists in Los Alamos in 1945 and 1946. It was later incorporated into the structure of the atomic bomb.
In many ways Kiss Me Deadly seems to be the film Kelly actually wants to make, not only withSouthland Tales but with his 2009 feature The Box, which considerably expands a Richard Matheson short story about unintended consequences into a meditation on government conspiracy and extraterrestrial life. It’s as if Kelly is always trying to construct noirs whose endgames are located in a simultaneously plausible and apocryphal form of physics, stories where atomic innovations slowly and fantastically destabilize the rhythms of human life.
So far I have avoided describing the plot of Southland Tales, which not even contemporary reviews were able to summarize. It’s not that the plot is especially complex; it’s just full of stuff. The Rock plays amnesiac Hollywood actor Boxer Santeros. He is manipulated by porn star and aspiring multi-hyphenate Krysta Now, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. She’s described by Kelly as a kind of “femme fatale” but her ambitions are neutralized by the apocalypse and she becomes occupied by a residual tenderness for Boxer. Gellar is among two femme fatales Kelly constructed for the movie; the other is played by Bai Ling, whose character, Serpentine, distantly manipulates every character into her preferred end-of-the-world scenario. (I’m only certain of this because I’ve read the comic book prequel, which, like the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, clarifies the ambiguities of the story with agonizing prose and skeletal art.) Kelly writes this role and Ling performs it as a self-consciously racist Asian caricature; unfortunately the character of Serpentine drifts through a movie that exhibits no self-consciousness.
What else happens? So much of Southland Tales is held together by the deeply reflexive face of The Rock. His performance is incredible—he glides seamlessly from his characteristic, almost disembodied bravado (meant here to mimic the senseless and brutal masculinity ofKiss Me Deadly’s Ralph Meeker) to a nervous and rhythmic introversion. Seann William Scott appears to have been hired to look bewildered for two hours but he does not quite represent the bewilderment of the audience. The viewer can probably be discovered somewhere on the continuum between Scott’s performance and Mandy Moore’s, who spends most of her screentime projecting exasperation. At the end of the film, Scott shakes hands with his doppelgänger in a floating ice cream truck and unknits the world.
In its manic compression of war, surveillance, apocalypse, alternative energy, bowel movements, and improv comedy Southland Tales becomes finally a movie about whatever. Characters in the film tediously recite the final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but slightly recalibrated: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a whimper but a bang.” This obvious inversion of high art is mercilessly juxtaposed with litanies like “Nobody rocks the cock like Krysta Now,” destabilizing both phrases into neutral baths of words. Everything is empty and refers to its own emptiness, which is a kind of apocalypse.
I discovered Sontag’s quote about apocalypse in Eula Biss’ On Immunity, where it’s rendered in close proximity to a quote from Jean Paul Sartre: “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” The recut of Southland Tales is a manic exhibition of this freedom, how to transform a negatively received draft into a whirling vortex. The writings of Sartre incidentally govern the rhythms ofThe Box, in which Frank Langella plays an enigmatic, disfigured man who conducts the fates of everyone else in the film. In a scene that seems to compress the impulses animating all of Kelly’s films into one gesture, one of Langella’s employees asks, “Your employers remain a mystery to us all.” Langella replies, “I like mystery. Don’t you?”
Brad Nelson is a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic, and The Village Voice.