Say Something Nice: SOUTHLAND TALES

How Richard Kelly's insane passion project taught Andrew to love Dwayne Johnson.

Movie fans know all too well that you have to wade through a lot of disappointment to find the good stuff. And it’s not always some binary pile-sorting of "good movies" and "bad movies"; sometimes there’s quality material smack in the middle of the muck. Say Something Nice is dedicated to those gems - memorable, standout, even great moments from movies that...well, aren’t. 

Richard Kelly’s second feature Southland Tales was never going to live up to the hype generated by his debut, Donnie Darko. A jumble of ideas without the craft of Darko or even the insane Twilight Zone escalation of Kelly’s subsequent film The Box, it’s hard to summarise or even remember what Southland Tales is about. When it debuted at Cannes, the critical backlash was so powerful that it even managed to taint Darko, sparking questions as to whether that film’s cult success was merely a fluke.

Southland Tales’ day-old tossed salad of ideas includes: nuclear war, government surveillance, perpetual energy machines, holes in the fabric of spacetime, the end of the world, clones, pornstars, Marxism, zeppelins, ESP, and a musical number featuring Justin Timberlake lip-syncing to The Killers. The supporting cast includes Jon Lovitz, Christopher Lambert, Wallace Shawn, and Zelda Rubinstein. It’s a wild ride and it’s hard not to feel discombobulated once you get off. But it also includes one key element that forever changed my outlook on popular cinema: Dwayne Johnson.

I was a latecomer when it came to Johnson appreciation. Wrestling was always “a sport” to me when Johnson was known as The Rock - I hadn’t yet been awoken to its power as story and spectacle - so I could only know him from his movie output. But up until that point, Johnson’s acting career consisted mostly of shoddy actioners like Doom, shoddier comedies like The Game Plan, or the shoddiest CG character in history in The Mummy Returns. He hadn’t even joined the revitalised Fast & Furious series yet - another piece of pop culture I was un-hip to at the time. I’d flat-out avoided most of Johnson’s movies and never paid attention to wrestling, so my opinion of him was mostly based on the silly stupidity of his nickname. For a (then) too-cool-for-school little dickwad like myself, he wasn’t worth my time.

Turns out it’s only when you get a little older - and watch Southland Tales - that you learn how wrong your younger self was.

Johnson plays an action star named Boxer Santaros, who suffers both from amnesia and from a crippling case of self-importance. He’s got a new movie he wants to make, set in an apocalyptic scenario mirroring that of Southland Tales itself. Pitching the film to Seann William Scott’s policeman Roland Taverner, Santaros delivers an impassioned speech on the subject of the film:

The rotation of the Earth is slowing down at a rate of point zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero six miles per hour each day, disrupting the chemical equilibrium in the human brain, causing very irrational criminal behavior. [...] Oh, he can't stop it. There is no stopping what can't be stopped. Only God can stop it. [...] So in the end, I die in a very tragic downtown shootout while whispering my theory to Dr. Muriel Fox, the oceanography disaster specialist. [...] My character...his name is Jericho Kane.

Later, in the middle of his ride-along with Taverner, Santaros spouts this amazing monologue:

It all hinges on a top secret experiment. A young couple comes home from the hospital with a newborn baby. A week goes by and the baby still hasn't produced a bowel movement. [...] This is a very special baby. This baby processes energy differently. Every time it farts, it creates a small earthquake. The prophecy of Jericho Kane says that there will be one final thermonuclear baby fart which will then trigger the apocalypse.

It’s important to remember that Boxer Santaros - and Dwayne Johnson’s performance of him - is one hundred percent dead serious about this film of his. So impassioned is Santaros, and so insane is his pitch, it’s hard to tell whether it’s meant to be a parody of Richard Kelly himself, or a reflection of him. But regardless, Johnson delivers this surreal material with a straight-faced confidence that cemented him - in my esteem, at least - as a comedy performer par excellence. Kelly edits his rants perfectly, as well, refusing to succumb to the incredulous reaction cutaways that would fill a less earnest movie - Seann William Scott is, improbably, the straight man in this pairing. Santaros’ monologues are the high point of the film, and if Kelly had approached his own work with the focus of Dwayne Johnson, it’d be significantly better.

I’d watch a whole movie about Boxer Santaros attempting to make escalatingly arcane science fiction movies while rapidly losing his mind. The paranoia that overtakes Santaros (and Johnson’s nervous, finger-tenting performance) is just as hilarious as his grandiose plot pontification. The story wraps him up in a whole range of weirdness that’s still fuzzy to me in hindsight, but it hardly matters. He’s a muscular, white-singleted conspiracy theorist with a penchant for technobabble and storytelling, and I love it. Boxer Santaros is king.

Dwayne Johnson doesn’t save Southland Tales. The film still ultimately collapses under the weight of its multiple core conceits and its own self-importance. But Johnson is a crystal-clear shining light in the middle of a confusing morass, the one thing that kept me going in the two-hour-plus slog to the end credits. So I look back on Southland Tales fondly, not for the film itself, but for introducing me to an actor who I now consider a reliable source of entertainment even in sub-par material. I might have been late to the game in understanding Dwayne Johnson’s singular charisma, but I’m trying to make up for it.

If you decide to watch Southland Tales just for Dwayne Johnson, be aware: it’s a bumpy ride. Don’t let it get to you. Just take to heart Santaros’ best line:

“I’m a pimp. And pimps don’t commit suicide.”