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Southland Tales is a 2007 Science Fiction/Black Comedy film from director Richard Kelly, the follow-up to his 2001 cult hit Donnie Darko. While planned as a mainstream breakthrough, things didn't really pan out that way. The combination of a large budget and Sony's decision to shelve the film after lackluster showings in a handful of cities means that it's not likely to show profit for years to come. Nonetheless, ST did make some critics' year's best lists and has found a modest cult on DVD.
The plot is difficult to summarize, and considered intensely nonsensical by many, but here's a thumbnail version. After a nuclear attack in Texas, the government has taken a more authoritarian role. There are several interlaced conspiracies for and against it, with the constantly infighting Neo-Marxists being the most notable opposition group. A dandyish scientist (Wallace Shawn) who has developed a way of deriving energy from ocean current seems to have a hand in everything. And oh yeah, all of time and space seem to be on the edge of self-destruction. It really, really helps if you are at least passingly familiar with the Book of Revelation.
The cast is led by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott and narrator Justin Timberlake. Many of the secondary roles are filled by comedians, and specifically Saturday Night Live veterans.
- All the Myriad Ways: Word of God places the story in an alternate universe.
- 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.
- Applied Phlebotinum: Liquid 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 narcotic drug.
- Auteur License: This movie revoked Kelly's.
- Call Back: "I'm/He's a pimp. And pimps don't commit suicide."
- Creepy Monotone: "Do you wanna fuck... or watch a movie?"
- Crucified Hero Shot: Used for every death 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 H. Christ all along!
- Diegetic Switch: In reverse. With Bai Ling dancing. In a megazepplin.
- Fake Video Camera View: Subverted. The filmmakers gave a camera to an actual family to record their 4th of July celebration. That's true shock in the lady's ace when she hits the camera with a squirt gun.
- Fantastic Drug: Fluid Karma. "Green, you dream. Blue, in an hour you feel new. And you can forget all about mellow yellow and ancient orange, 'cause, hey, I'm giving you blood red. Do you bleed?"
- 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.
- Gambit Pileup: Many. A couple lead to a I Know You Know I Know situation.
- 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.
- Heel Realization: Boxer on the airship. He seems more amused than anything else by it, however.
- Heroic BSOD: What happens when Roland/Ronald remembers. It's not pretty.
- Hummer Dinger: The Treer Saltair.
- Jerkass Facade and Happy Place: Boxer has a mix in Jericho Cane, a loose cannon cop who plays by his own rules. He slips into being Jericho Cane when he has schizophrenic breaks because he is a deteriorating duplicate of the actual Boxer Santaros, characterized by talking in rapid gibberish and tapping his fingers.
- Kill'Em All: By the film's end, there are maybe three major characters still alive, and it's implied that the world ends as soon as two of them let go of each other's hands.
- Last-Minute Hookup: Vaughn Smallhouse and Cindy Pinzicki right before the Megazepplin explodes.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: The movie goes out of it's way to introduce dozens of characters exceedingly often. Unfortunately, it can't quite seem to decide which ones are supposed to be important...
- Mind Screw
- My God, What Have I Done?: Ronald Taverner, stemming from his tour in Fallujah.
Pilot Abilene: He could not forgive himself for what he had done to me.
- Never the Selves Shall Meet: This is the way the world ends.
- 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.
- Playing Against Type: The cast. See What the Hell Casting Agency below for more information.
- Playing with Syringes: The secret tests done on U.S. soldiers using Fluid Karma. Covered mostly in the graphic novels, but movie shows what happens when these syringes get out into the general populace.
- Psychic Link: One of the many effects of Fluid Karma.
- Read the Fine Print: Baron von Westphalen says this to the Prime Minister of Japan after cutting off his left hand.
- 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.
- Show Within a Show: Krysta Now's script, "The Power".
- "Flow my tears, the policeman said."
- Almost all the chapters are allusions: Two Roads Diverge is an allusion to Robert Frost, Fingerprints likely to Leonard Cohen, Temptation Waits to Garbage and Memory Gospel to Moby. The final chapter is called Wave of Mutilation. The Mechanicals is named after an improv group that Kelly took a liking too and who bit parts in the film.
- The corrupt senator and his running mate are named Frost and Eliot.
- Tag-Along Actor: Boxer with Taverner.
- This Is for Emphasis, Bitch: "The fourth dimension will collapse upon itself... you stupid bitch."
- We ARE Struggling Together!: The Neo-Marxists.
- What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic: As it is a Richard Kelly film, everything IS symbolic.
- WTH? Casting Agency: The entire cast. Sarah Michelle Gellar cast as a porn star, Dwayne Johnson cast as an amnesiac, and very dweebish actor, engaged to Mandy Moore, playing a foulmouthed heiress, Sean William Scott playing two traumatised soldiers with identity issues, Amy Poehler and Wood Harris as extremely stupid terrorists, Justin Timberlake as the disturbed and disfigured narrator, Kevin Smith as an Iraq War veteran, Wallace Shaun as a glam-rock criminal mastermind, Bai Ling as his laconic girlfriend, that kid from Thumbsucker playing a street punk, Christopher Lambert playing a small-time arms dealer, and Jon Lovitz as a terrifyingly dead-eyed neo-nazi cop. It may not be spot-on, but damn it it's surreal to see these actors in roles so different to how you'd assume them to play.
This was actually done quite intentionally, although (like a lot of the film) the intended effect is not really that clear. In other words, the setup is there but the punchline isn't. Excerpted from an Internet-based article: "The biggest disappointment of Southland Tales resides in its most promising conceit, a cast populated by B-to-D-list celebrities ranging from Wallace Shawn to Zelda Rubenstein to Christopher Lambert. There's a wealth of satirical material to be found in [this] generation's curious veneration of kitsch, and I'd hoped Kelly's cast list indicated a deeper explanation of the connection between pop culture and regression touched upon in Donnie Darko..." (Full article here.)
- Also done in-universe, as the Neo-Marxists inform Boxer he was cast as a racist cop for a "movie" (in truth, an attempt to convince him their plans are All Part of the Show).