Movie Review: Southland Tales

Southland Tales is a ambitious, admirable, sprawling mess of a movie. Caught between satire and reality, reality and science fiction, it never quite works, except for some individual scenes. It’s set in an alternate yet familiar California in which Homeland Security is more invasive and we’re at war in Syria after a nuclear attack in Texas. The Rock plays a movie star who might’ve been sent through a rift in another dimension, only to come back a changed man. Marxist rebels inhabit Venice Beach. A strange Dr. Strangelove-like Nobel-prize-winning scientist/baron has created a new source of renewable energy. And so it goes…

A black comedy feeds off of excellent, sure-footed pacing, and what else can we assume but that we’re watching comedy when the Marxist terrorists are played by members of the Mad TV and Saturday Night Live cast? Especially when they’re as inept and slightly stupid as portrayed here. Yet the comic timing–or timing of any kind–is off, with scenes too long, too short, or unnecessary. At the same time, shooting deaths are relatively bloody and realistic–a counterpoint that only belabors the strange shifts in tone, as if two movies, in two different dimensions, had been forced together. Plot-wise, too, there’s a lot of standing around and explaining toward the end, which destroys the pacing of some scenes.

The director, who also created Donnie Darko (which I loved in the theatrical version), seems to have lost his way in this sometimes stirring, sometimes visually interesting mess. I loved parts of it–and I found myself more emotionally involved in the ending than I’d thought I would be–but the lumpy, not fully thought-out middle sags so much that I can’t really recommend the film. Still, the ambition should be applauded, and here’s further evidence that this director will eventually produce something amazing.


  1. says

    I just watched it the other night…I agree with your assessment; it’s too bad he didn’t feel confident enough in the story to actually give us all the background info in the flow of the action. Also, I was really unhappy with all the female characters, especially Sarah Michelle’s.

  2. says

    Yes, the female characters were worse than the male ones. Contrast this with a deceptively simple movie like Serenity, which gives us the exposition we need in the first five minutes in a seamless, brilliant series of scenes.