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No “Darko” Love for Southland Tales

Mark Witte | Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Writer-Director Richard Kelly had to wait until his first film “Donnie Darko” came out on DVD before it rose to popularity and gained iconic cult status.

However, for such to happen with his second film, “Southland Tales,” he may have to wait a little longer.

“Southland Tales” released on DVD March 18, after a dismal run in the late November 2007 box office, where it grossed less than $400,000. The film stars a broad ensemble, beginning with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who plays Boxer Santaros, a movie star who suddenly disappears and then turns up in the desert with his memory wiped. It also stars Seann William Scott, in a double role as Officer Roland Taverner and another character who we are suspiciously led to believe is his brother; Sarah Michelle Gellar as porn star; Krysta Now who takes in amnesia-plagued Santaros; Justin Timberlake as Pilot Abilene, an Iraq War veteran with a wicked scar across his face; Mandy Moore as Madeline Frost, Santaro’s wife and daughter of the prominent Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne); and a number of people who you might recognize from “Saturday Night Live.”

The story begins in 2005 and alters history a bit, beginning with a nuclear explosion in Abilene, Tex. The attack starts World War III and the U.S. goes to war in the Middle East and North Korea. Homeland security and the price of oil go through the roof. This inflation leads to the discovery of a new energy source, Fluid Karma, which somehow draws energy out of the ocean’s waves and wirelessly channels it out in an electrical field. We’re told that the invention was used on U.S. soldiers, including in Abilene, as an enhancing drug, but with sketchy results.

The film then cuts to 2008 in which an election between the Democratic and Republican Party has come down to the state of California where the Republican ticket of Elliot/Frost is scrambling to locate the vanished Santaros, fearing his disappearance to have been an attack on the Republican Party. And it is.

There are quite a few other bits of altered history. After the nuclear attack, the Republican Party helped start this program called US-IDENT, a means for monitoring internet and television activity. This didn’t sit well with a semi-terrorist group called the Neo-Marxists and they are bent on bringing down Senator Frost and his wife, who heads US-IDENT. The Neo-Marxists capture Officer Taverner and his identical brother, planning to use them in an elaborate scheme to make the government look bad. But things don’t go as planned and the story shoots off in an array of different directions.

The rest of the story is made up of a blur of confusing plot twists involving a screenplay Santaros supposedly wrote which keeps predicting the future in a countdown to the apocalypse, the truth behind the dual nature of Officer Taverner and his brother, and a drugged-up musical interlude by Abilene.A longer version of the film debuted at Cannes in 2006 and received very little love. To combat what many critics called “a disastrous mess,” Kelly shortened “Southland Tales” and added a running narration by Timberlake’s character, made up of recitations from the Book of Revelations. Whether or not the additions and subtractions provide any more cohesion to the story is debatable. It’s still ridiculously hard to follow and leaves many of its questions unanswered.

“Southland Tales” is movie that might be too vast for its own good. Like “Donnie Darko,” it tries to explore realms of the fourth dimension and possibilities of time travel, while questioning human purpose. Unfortunately it waits until the final 15 minutes of the two and half hour film to let us know what’s really going on, and that might be a bit too long for an audience to wait.