When Southland Tales was released in 2006, it confounded filmgoers. A dense, sprawling science-fiction tale, Southland Tales throws the war on terror, the surveillance state, Hollywood, and the Book of Revelation into a blender and purees that unlikely mix into a stylish, acerbic film that we're still trying to figure out.
Directed by Richard Kelly, a guy who can only make cult classics, Southland Tales is a mess, but it's a mess like no other. The biggest of big swings, this was only his second movie, and rather than going the easy route and making something linear and waiting until he had enough clout to "do it right," Kelly chose to throw everything at the wall.
If you're not a member of the Southland cult, now's a great time to join: It's a disaster, but it's well worth your time.
‘Southland Tales’ Was Richard Kelly’s Follow-Up To ‘Donnie Darko’
Richard Kelly first became a known quantity to audiences with Donnie Darko, a heady, nihilistic science-fiction film that premiered at the Sundance Festival on January 19, 2001. The film took months to find distribution after its premiere, and even after that, it took years to become the cult classic that it is today.
The earliest version of the Southland Tales script was a sprawling tale about Los Angeles without any of the mind-blowing science fiction or the commentary about America's forever war in the Middle East. That all changed after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Producer Sean McKittrick, who worked on both Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, told IndieWire:
The first draft of the script [Richard] gave me was not what the movie became. It was very much a comedy, almost Altmanesque. It was about a failed group of actors creating an elaborate con against a major action movie star. It was very grounded and didn’t have sci-fi components at all. That was pre-9/11. After 9/11, Richard’s entire take on his own material completely changed. That’s where all the craziness of the film we know came into it.
Kelly Describes It As A ‘Sprawling Philip K. Dick/Robert Altman Acid Trip Of A Movie Set In Los Angeles’
The script for Southland Tales changed drastically after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time, Kelly was working on Domino with Tony Scott, and the film changed from a story about actors in Los Angeles to a more dense piece of material equally influenced by Robert Altman and Philip K. Dick. Kelly told Filmmaker magazine:
I told myself, "I really love this wild Los Angeles story and want to incorporate more political and religious and scientific ideas into it." I essentially wanted to add a big Philip K. Dick layer to my Southland Tales script, so I dug back in and put all my energy into developing that project. I figured that if I had really acquired some career momentum thanks to the second extended life of Donnie Darko, this might be my only chance to make a sprawling Philip K. Dick/Robert Altman acid trip of a movie set in Los Angeles. So, I forged ahead.
It Has One Of The Strangest Ensemble Casts Of All Time
The cast of Southland Tales is wild - it's like The Avengers but for fans of early 2000s improv comedy and indie films. At the time of its release, pretty much everyone on screen was known in some way, but they've only become more famous as time has passed.
Let's take a look at this stacked cast: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, Wallace Shawn, Kevin Smith, Amy Poehler, Bai Ling, Nora Dunn, Janeane Garofalo, Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, Zelda Rubinstein, Christopher Lambert, Will Sasso, Curtis Armstrong, and Beth Grant.
Everyone in this movie was either one of the most famous people on the planet at the time of its release, or they're a recognizable genre actor. That's about as Altmanesque as you can get. Kelly says the reason he had to put together a murderers' row of talent was specifically so he could sell the film to distributors. Sure, the film could have had unknowns playing Boxer Santeros, Krysta Now, and Pilot Abilene, but he needed Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Justin Timberlake to fill those roles in order to make distributors take notice.
To Understand The Film, The Audience Must First Read Three Graphic Novels Entitled ‘The Prequel Saga’
If you've seen Southland Tales and you don't know what's going on, you're not alone. Throughout the film, title cards explain that the audience is watching parts four through six of a saga, but what isn't explained is that parts one through three can only be found in a series of graphic novels.
Comic book and digital series tie-ins are now part and parcel for tentpole films, but in 2006, a prequel graphic novel series was unheard of. At the time, Kelly felt that a series of graphic novels was the only way to get out the complex backstory for all of his characters, and fellow director and Southland Tales actor Kevin Smith (he plays a legless military vet in old-age makeup) helped publish the three prequel comics. As cool as this sounds, no one knew about the comics, so they didn't digest any of the backstory before seeing the movie. Kelly told Filmmaker magazine:
Looking back, I think I was too naive or caught up in my own head, so much so that I didn’t realize that these books were only going to be digested by maybe less than one percent of the people who watched the movie.
At The Time Of Its Release, The Film Was Set In The Near Future
Released in 2006, Southland Tales offers a prescient view of the near future of 2008 - America is engrossed in a third world war, the draft is back, and the Patriot Act keeps citizens under constant surveillance. Fingerprints are required for computer and bank account access, creating a black market for severed fingers.
As ridiculous as some of that sounds, the film is prescient not only in its look at the modern surveillance state, but also in regards to America's growing conservatism surrounding sex as violence runs rampant. Southland Tales isn't morally righteous, but it's not trying to win anyone over, either.
A Scientist Creates An Alternative Fuel Source Called ‘Fluid Karma,’ But It Backfires
One of the main plot lines in Southland Tales revolves around a rock star scientist named Baron von Westphalen who's built a machine off the West Coast that uses the ocean to create an energy field he calls "Fluid Karma." Played by Wallace Shawn, it's hard not to wonder if Elon Musk saw this movie and said to himself, "That's me."
Fluid Karma is meant to be a source of renewable energy that makes up for America's lack of oil, but it's also a substance that, when injected, allows the user to see both the past, present, and future. The Baron also hides the fact that Fluid Karma is slowing the Earth's rotation and ripping holes in the space-time continuum.