In Defense of Southland Tales

Upon its release at the Cannes Film Festival, Richard Kelly’s sophomore feature Southland Tales met with some pretty harsh reviews. It was one of the worst receptions to accompany any film in recent memory. A year and a half later, Samuel Goldwyn Pictures released a tighter cut, and still, the film was ripped to shreds by the critics.

I, like many others, had waited endlessly for a nationwide release. Samuel Goldwyn gave it a limited release on a handful of screens, and so I was forced to wait for the DVD. When the DVD finally came out months later, I bought it, and sat down to watch it. As the film unfolded, it wasn’t exactly clear where Kelly was going with the material. Like Donnie Darko, the film had multiple storylines, but unlike that film, Southland Tales initially came off as a mess. Everything that worked in Kelly’s debut seemed forced here. The casting was insane, some scenes seemed contrived, and the script – which offered lines like “I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide” – seemed to need a bit of polishing. My first reaction was that Kelly seemed to be trying too hard to create a meaningful, futuristic, ensemble film. Much of it did not work for me. My mind had been clouded with the bad press that the film had received, and so I had let my expectations down considerably. I wasn’t allowing myself to let go and enjoy the ride. Every work of art has its weaknesses, and the same is true here.

Since then, I have watched the film around five times. Yes, I still think that the script needs work. Some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy. You could also say that about some of the acting. However, the film has grown on me quite a bit. The more I’ve seen it, the more certain aspects of the film gel together, as is the case with Donnie Darko. There is an element of mystery within the film, and it leaves you contemplating the events long after you have seen it. Part of the fun is figuring it all out.

Honestly, what’s not to love about Southland?! It’s one of the most random film experiences in a long time, and with a cast this diverse and a script this wild, the curiosity value alone should be a definite draw for many a cinephile. Yes, the film is flawed. I do not believe that this is the final cut. I believe it could be better, and it isn’t nearly as epic as Donnie Darko. However, Kelly can’t live under the shadow of his first feature forever, and we as fans and audiences should not expect that of any artist. The film is what it is – a sci-fi/comedy/musical experience that should not be missed. Kelly is a master at creating the perfect atmosphere, not to mention the perfect soundtrack – Moby’s score is simply amazing – and the cinematography rocks. As for the critics, see it for yourself.

This is not a film that can be easily dismissed without further inspection. Love it or hate it, this is not a throwaway. This is art in the truest sense of the word. This is Richard Kelly’s imagination unleashed. Don’t miss it!

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