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Southland Tales opens with a boy’s birthday party being interrupted by the detonation of a nuclear bomb. It only gets wilder from there. Over the course of its 2 hours and 24 minutes, Southland Tales features a group of activists who try to combat police brutality with performance art, an ad where two cars have sex with each other, interdimensional travel, a scarred Justin Timberlake lip-synching to The Killers, an arms dealer (played by Christopher Lambert) who operates out of an ice cream truck that begins levitating in the movie’s climax and Wallace Shawn as a sadistic Marxist with an affinity for ornate robes. Those are but a fraction of Southland Tales’ eccentricities. It’s a deeply strange, specific, arguably incomplete film. It's alienated many, but won the everlasting loyalty of some. It’s easily the most ambitious thing writer/director Richard Kelly has ever worked on. Yet, for all its deep weirdness and the increasingly apocalyptic tone it takes, Southland Tales is perhaps most unsettling when normality slinks in alongside its fever dream.
The detonation of nuclear weapons on US soil naturally has dramatic consequences. Mass surveillance becomes openly public and perpetual in the form of a system called USIdent. Violent hardline Marxism experiences a major resurgence. Armed soldiers patrol public places and watch over drunken revelers with high-powered sniper rifles, authorized to shoot troublemakers on sight. World War III is ongoing, covered in regular updates through various news services. The draft is back in force. The American flag is posted and flown everywhere, as though its image could be a band-aid for the world’s ever increasing and exponentially multiplying calamities. Southland Tales’ America is a dystopia.
The scariest thing about Southland Tales is the way it makes its horrors and paranoia normal within its world. USIdent’s operators are sadistic creeps, and they slake their need for cruelty in an office, behind desks. The organization’s head (Miranda Richardson) sits in her chair, surrounded by monitors displaying an ever-rotating barrage of surveillance footage, and she snacks on chips as she orders people killed. When people are inevitably shot in the street, panic and fear still take hold and crowds scatter. But the rifle emplacements and the armed patrols haven’t left Los Angeles’ streets barren and doors shuttered. The boardwalk snipers cover is packed to the gills. A tourist trap bar (with a Karl Marx themed dropbox in its bathroom) is hopping with happy drinkers, and they greet a would-be assassin pulling out a collapsible staff and dramatically twirling it with mild surprise rather than alarm.
The police have become utterly unrestrained by the law, treat violence as the proper response to anything and still offer a movie star (Dwayne Johnson playing gloriously against type as an easily rattled dweeb) a ride-along so that he can research a role. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s ex-adult-actress-turned-reality-star is trying to unravel the pending armageddon with the pieces she has of the greater puzzle. Simultaneously, she brings her entourage and camera crew with her. Her friends wear clothing with her brand. They all make a point of drinking the energy drink she developed. Brand promotion continues, even as the situation becomes progressively direr. Even the leader of the murderous Neo-Marxist cadre takes time to get freshened up and dressed before launching his mega zeppelin and implementing his master plan. As he waits for the players to assemble, he and his right hand (Bai Ling) get genuinely into the party they are throwing.
Southland Tales is not a subtle movie, but that does not mean it does not pay attention to its own intricacies. Mass surveillance is far more frightening when it is taken as a largely unquestioned part of everyday life than it is as a hidden scheme perpetuated by nefarious figures in smoky rooms. Excepting the Neo-Marxist faction’s open loathing, USIdent is not viewed as a gross violation of civil liberties, but as a part of everyday life in Los Angeles. Control does not always manifest as a boot stamping on a face forever. It can just as easily be a giant inflatable eagle with a stars-and-stripes body that fits right in alongside the Bud Light surfboards and roving bands of all gender Solo cup brandishing bros it looms over.
Paranoia and despair have not just been weaponized in Southland Tales. They have been normalized. The internet is absolutely being censored. The people with power won’t do anything. You are being watched. Not because the government is out to get you, but because everyone is being watched as a matter of course. The draft is back, and capital w War will never end, even if individual conflicts eventually die down. Johnson’s addled, amnesiac actor Boxer Santaros is simultaneously trying to figure out what on earth happened to him during a mysterious excursion to the desert and working to put together his next film. What else is he to do? The world will keep turning, and everyone must get by one way or another. Mostly people take the horror as a given. If they suffer, they try to ignore it. If they choose to fight, they’ll usually aim more for simple destruction rather than attacking the roots of the problem. If they profit, they’ll brush it off. After all, it is normal. And normal has an insidious knack for its own preservation.
In its last act, the apocalypse Southland Tales has been building to arrives in full force. The status quo falls violently. Christopher Lambert’s ice cream truck/mobile weapons depot begins flying up to the mega zeppelin, which a terrified young drug dealer (Spring’s Lou Taylor Pucci) brings down with a Syrian rocket launcher before flinging himself into the abyss. And as Dwayne Johnson waits for the rocket to strike, Kelly offers a partial solution to the all-too-regular nightmare world of his film. Sean William Scott literally confronts himself, torn up with guilt and self-loathing for injuring a friend (Timberlake) in Fallujah. “Friendly fire,” the despairing Scott repeats, almost sobbing. “I forgive you,” the resolute Scott replies each time. The message takes. Scott admits that something is wrong, that he had believed his actions to be inevitable and irredeemable. By confronting his wrongs head on and accepting the truth of what he has done, Scott breaks out of the bleak malaise that has overwhelmed Southland Tales. The world is not set. Absolute control does not have to be normal. Whatever else may be said about the picture’s ending, perhaps the strangest moment in an incredibly strange film, Scott ends the movie at peace with himself. What seems normal does not have to be normal. Dystopias, even the most insidious and ingrained, can be broken.