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Southland Tales Blu-ray review: Dir. Richard Kelly [Arrow Films – 2021]

After 2001’s Donnie Darko, the timeless and existential cult classic starring Jake Gyllenhaal, set Writer/Director Richard Kelly firmly into the ‘one to watch’ category, 2006’s Southland Tales was enormously anticipated before its release.

Boasting a huge cast that includes Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore, Wallace Shawn, Bai Ling, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Wood Harris, Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Lambert, Zelda Rubinstein, John Larroquette, and a prosthetic-ed up Kevin Smith, we knew that it was ambitious, but it unintentionally became one of those films that seemed doom to fail before it’d even got beyond the critics because, as Kelly confessed, it wasn’t even finished.

This new Arrow Films release finally gives fans, and those intrigued, the definite 160 minutes Cannes cut that’s been kept back from us, in this form, since that fateful festival. The 2-disc set features a new 2K restoration, which is approved by director Richard Kelly and director of photography Steven Poster, as well the 145 minutes theatrical cut and a whole host of extras – as you’d expect from the Arrow team.

“This is the way the world ends…”

Full disclosure: Because of a deafening wall of negativity, and my love for Donnie Darko (both cuts), I’ve not seen the full, original theatrical cut of Southland Tales but I have now seen the Cannes Cut. Interestingly, while the theatrical cut tends to start with an over-explained background to events and who’s who, as well as outmoded computer graphics, the Cannes version is totally different. Kelly’s original cut deserves this time in the spotlight and while in the past I’d only heard bad things, I quite liked it and much preferred the nature of learning characters as the story progresses. Too many films try to tell you everything, and I like the ones you need to piece together.

All that being said, there’s little doubt that Southland Tales is bonkers but it’s also hugely ambitious, and with a modest budget of $17m (in a big film sense), it takes on huge amounts of subjects and isn’t afraid to be extensive. This is Richard Kelly’s magnus opus, a vast web of stories and characters all trying to do what’s right for the world they exist within. Now, stick with me here, for some narrative insight: the film is set in Los Angeles in 2008 and it’s three years after two Texas towns have been destroyed by nuclear attacks, sending America into a state of chaos, triggering a Third World War. As well as the introduction of state surveillance on residents, there’s an essence of post-apocalyptic and George Orwell’s 1984 but it’s not quite as severe as that, as people still seem to have freedom despite the ever existing (and very real) wealth gap between the rich and the poor.

So, as 2008’s LA is on the brink of social, economic, and environmental collapse, Kelly throws more into the mix with an eclectic array of characters, living in a world where a Neo-Marxist organisation are trying to take back control (there is no democratic party), and the republicans have taken everything else. During this, we follow the story of Dwayne Johnson’s amnesiac-action star, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s adult-film star who’s trying to develop her career and reality programmes, plus Seann William Scott’s Police Officer, whose existence has been split into two via an incident, and the story is about how these three (and many more) all intertwine with each other. It’s complex but I found you can follow the basics, even if occasionally you’re not entirely sure who everyone is – or which side they’re representing. And maybe that’s the point.

“Anyone who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without feminine upheaval.”

With a 2021 context, there’s a lot of topics in Southland Tales that will intrigue, and it’s important to note its 2006 release date. I read a Variety review from 2006 that statedthis wannabe visionary epic may find cult believers among gullible undergrads ready to embrace anything that projects the worst paranoid notions about America” but when Richard Kelly deals with notions of illegal voting, election hacking, police racism and brutality, the digital era, and edges of the #MeToo movement, well, you have to consider how misguided that reviewer was and how innocent 2006 sounds, or even how much they disregarded about where America could head. When you’re throwing in self-obsessed reality TV stars who actually have an affect on political matters, well, everything feels disturbingly prescient.

Althought Southland Tales deals with complex narratives of politics, war, and alternate realities, it’s also contains a lot of funny moments, and it’s meant to. The satirical nature was so beyond that era that it’s easy to understand why the jokes didn’t seem relevant at the time of release, and I was fascinated by that side of it. A stand-out scene includes Timberlake’s military narrator doing an impromptu music-video for The KillersAll The Things That I’ve Done and, somehow, it really works! The film that Kelly’s film really has going for it is that great cast, and everyone fully performs. This was one of Dwayne Johnson’s first alternative roles, and while he’s always going to be an action star, he plays it here with a fine sense of seriousness and smart comic-timing. There’s a lot of script moments that are truly off-the-wall, but he brings it, and you believe in the madness.  

“A staged double murder, committed by a racist cop and captured on tape by a movie star with political ties.”

The film also features an impressive score from Moby, with atmospherics that compliment many scenes, adding an air of timelessness and futuristic possibility at the same time. There’s also a noticable soundtrack lingering throughout, with the likes of Pixies, Elbow, and Blur making their mark at certain moments and particularly Muse’s Blackout which is placed quite perfectly – and includes a scene following Johnson driving at night, which I could have watched for the entire song.

Southland Tales is no doubt a ‘love or hate it’ type of film and now, possibly more than ever, it’ll inspire debate. While I’ll admit the characters have somewhat ridiculous names, that’s worryingly the most far-fetched part of it now. Kelly’s film felt like a concept so extreme, and so surreal, that at the time it was probably beyond rationalising. This was before the real boom of the internet, we’re right on the cusp of change, and CCTV culture wasn’t as broad and accepted, so it didn’t weld the power it does now.

Sure, Southland Tales is definitely batshit crazy, but this restored version looks and sounds great, and in some outstanding, famous locations that help the reality side of it. The entire ensemble is also well up for giving everything (in a Fifth Element sense – and think of that lunacy) but you know what, I think I need to watch it again.

Southland Tales comes to Blu-ray from Arrow Video on 25th January, order now https://amzn.to/3spfwIa

Full list of Special Features:

• New 2K restoration by Arrow Films, approved by director Richard Kelly and director of photography Steven Poster
• High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentations of both versions of the film: the 145-minute theatrical cut and the 160-minute “Cannes cut”, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006
• Original lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo soundtracks
• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• Audio commentary on the theatrical cut by Richard Kelly
• It’s a Madcap World: The Making of an Unfinished Film, a new in-depth retrospective documentary on the film, featuring contributions by Richard Kelly and members of the original crew
• USIDent TV: Surveilling the Southland, an archival featurette on the making of the film, featuring interviews with the cast and crew
• This is the Way the World Ends, an archival animated short set in the Southland Tales universe
• Theatrical trailer
• Image gallery
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacey
• Limited edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Peter Tonguette and Simon Ward

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