In a recent New York Times profile, Richard Kelly talked about how the years since the release of his cult hit Donnie Darko have seen him growing increasingly politically engaged/enraged by the actions of the Bush administration. Southland Tales, Kelly's long-delayed second film, makes sense as a vision of a world gone mad. But at some point, the madness got the better of Kelly.
An apocalyptic carnival of grotesques and lost souls set in an alternate-universe 2008—think Fellini by way of Strange Days—Southland Tales features a sprawling cast of characters who, almost to the last, are driven by their political obsessions. A neo-Marxist underground (whose ranks include Saturday Night Live's Nora Dunn, Cheri Oteri, and Amy Poehler) recruits porn star/pop star/political activist Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) into an extortion scheme involving an amnesia-stricken action hero (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) with ties to the Republican party. Also in their control: A man who may or may not be an L.A. cop (Seann William Scott), and his twin brother, who may not actually be his twin. Elsewhere, disfigured actor/Iraq vet Justin Timberlake narrates the film from an offshore gun turret.
There's more. Much more, all of it absurd and confusing. That isn't necessarily meant as a complaint. Like Donnie Darko, Southland Tales seems content to keep some of its mysteries to itself. But what was intriguing in Darko is just confounding here, mainly because the movie and its immersive world are so irritating that viewers probably won't want to know more about them. About a third of Southland retains Darko's foreboding tone, which Kelly handles masterfully. The other two-thirds are given over to broad comedy and surprisingly obvious satire, all played to the hilt by a cast that never appears to be on the same page.
Of course, it's hard to tell exactly what page that should have been. Kelly packs his film with post-9/11 anxieties, Gulf War fatigue, political suspicion, and trippy science-fiction concepts, but the more elements he adds, the deeper the film bows under its own weight. Southland has its moments of isolated brilliance, like Timberlake's spirited, drunken musical number set to The Killers, and Gellar's deadpan pride at her brand-expanding album, Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime. But the further Kelly bends his funhouse mirror, the more he loses sight of what it was supposed to reflect. By the end, the image has twisted beyond coherence.