You know, you know, no you don’t, you don’t.
I wanna shine on in the hearts of men.
I want a meaning from the back of my broken hand.
— The Killers, “All These Things That I’ve Done”
It will never be night again and they will not need lamplight or sunlight, because the Lord God will be shining on them.
— Revelations 22
The start of Southland Tales bodes ill. Caught up in the cliché of home-movie-video, kids cavort on the Fourth of July. They scamper and smile in a yard adorned with redwhiteandblue bunting and “Support Our Troops” banners, their parents beaming and their hot dogs sizzling. And then, just as such overwhelming Americana forewarns, the camera jiggles and the children look away, aghast, toward the sign of their world ending: a nuclear explosion in Texas.
Almost three years after this “American Hiroshima,” the movie begins again, with a pile-on of internet images and TV reports, advertisements and threats. Looking forward to the 2008 elections — that is, an alternative reality — the screen is lit up with headlines and factoids: the Patriot Act is expanded, “alternative fuel sources” are in demand, and “dissenting liberal extremist cells” are making performative trouble. Still, the fundamental changes that seemed inevitable on the day of the attacks have not emerged; instead, corporate and administration forces have teamed up to make money off the abjectly permanent terror crisis. And oh yes, the gigantically charismatic movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) has vanished in the desert.
Good to know the popular media obsession with all things trivial and distracting has not abated.
All this hubbub is narrated by one Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timblerlake), Iraq war veteran and music video star (hip-shaking and lip-syncing to “All These Things That I’ve Done”). Peering through his gun sight or into his laptop monitor, he keeps watch on the Texas coastline while offering resonant bits from “Revelations” (for instance, 6:8: “Behold, a pale horse: and he that sat upon him, his name was Death”) and other distractions. He declares his intention to tell the story of Boxer Santaros’ journey along the “road not taken” (repeatedly, the film cites literary sources, from the Bible and Robert Frost to T.S. Eliot and Philip K. Dick, as when a murderous policeman declares, “Flow my tears”). The journey, briefly through a space-and-time disruption, results in Boxer’s special insights into life and death, marking his similarity to Donnie Darko, much adored hero of this movie the first time Richard Kelly made it, back in 2001.
This version is more ungainly and more populated: characters drop in and out, their connections tenuous or overplotted, their self-performances grating and/or mystifying. The new iteration replaces conniving Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) with a conniving Senator’s wife (Miranda Richardson), Sparkle Motion with a supremely strange world-ending dance by former porn star/current “topical discussion chat reality show” host Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), three of her fellow former porn stars/chatters, and the Rock-as-Boxer, and the brilliant Cherita Chen (Jolene Purdy) with the utterly dull Dream (Amy Poehler), an activist/performance artist whose final act is bloodily pointless. Spotting such correspondences — and there are many, both obvious and vague — grants brief diversions while watching Southland Tales, but doesn’t illuminate the essentially perfect first film or help to make sense of the second.
Boxer’s journey into absence and back results in his own special insights into time and space, articulated in a script he writes with his new girlfriend Krysta. Though she’s been paid to make him appear compromised in making-out tapes, threatening his marriage to Senator Frost’s daughter Madeline (Mandy Moore) and so, maybe, exposing a grim scheme by the Senator (Donnie’s father Holmes Osborne) to expand darkly secret and hugely profitable surveillance of the planet — or at least Texas — she is sincerely in love with Boxer, who sometimes confuses himself with the action hero he plays in their script, Jericho Kane. “Do you ever feel,” asks Boxer, so earnestly, “that there’s a thousand people locked inside you?”
If Boxer has trouble sorting out his multitudes, the film redoubles the identity stakes with a parallel story concerning twin brothers Roland and Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott), one a cop, the other undercover as his brother for the “Neo-Marxists.” When the fake cop takes Boxer on a ride-along (research for Jericho), he reveals his method for scoping outlaws: “To be honest, he speaks into Boxer’s video camera, “We’re just looking out for the niggers.” Boxer’s stunned to the point that he takes off his sunglasses, repeating the term and looking hard at his instructor. “They’re everywhere,” says the poster boy for fascist policing. “I’m just fucking with you.”
The moment, deemed a “funny joke” but not really, is forgotten as soon as it’s over. But it’s also one of many frames for the film’s persistent, disjointed action, a marker of official insincerity and ugliness, fakery and brutality. As Roland/Ronald is instructed to screw up Boxer in order to gain control of the election, the film proposes the simultaneous tabloidism and utter meanness of such gaming. No one’s plot works out as planned, with interracial couple and performance artists/activists Dream (Amy Poehler) and Dion (Wood Harris) suffering the most extreme glitch, and magical mystery ice cream truck driver Walter Mung (Christopher Lambert) providing the movie’s most direct reference to Repo Man by way of Kiss Me Deadly (all the confusions might be worth this film’s revisiting of Cloris Leachman standing stark and dazzling in front of Mike Hammer’s headlights).
In this future as in our present, the primary stake for the dystopic election and its multifarious corporate influences is energy. As the post-nuclear-attack U.S. is heavily invested in its World War III and attendant wartime technologies, the profiteers include the Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), deviser of an alternative energy called Liquid Karma. Along with his ur-slinky moll Serpentine (Bai Ling), von Westphalen demands complete commitment to any contract, demonstrated by the willingness of one signer, Hideo Takehashi (Sab Shimon), to give up a finger to Serpentine’s yakuza-style ceremonial knife. That the Baron doesn’t exactly keep his own word indicates that he’s invested in ego even more than money. But his selfishness is countered by Boxer’s selflessness; determined to save the world, he threatens suicide (awkwardly emulating a fan who has done the same in pursuit of her lifelong dream of giving him a blowjob). But Boxer’s threat is both real and fake, a performance that sums up and controverts the movie’s many other performances. Boxer is the hero he imagines Jericho Kane to be, only less violent, less clichéd, less tediously legible.
The very incoherence of Southland Tales is something like an argument, its many pieces and pronouncements a deconstructive challenge to world order. But as it undermines faith in corrupt systems, it does, in its romantic miasma, offer a kind of hope. If Boxer’s big heart, Krysta’s expert love, and Pilate’s sexyback moves aren’t quite integrated, they do all point toward post-apocalyptic possibilities, toward reconciliation.