"Southland Tales" is the perfect hot mess of a movie for the 4th of July in the hellscape of 2020

Southland Tales has long occupied a special place in my heart. The only thing I knew about it was that it was written and directed by Richard Kelly, the guy who made Donnie Darko, and starred my cousin's former high school baseball teammate, the Rock, in a dramatic role. So I ordered it on Netflix DVD in the summer of 2007, and popped it in while I did some laundry, only half paying attention.

Reader, Southland Tales is not a movie to half-pay attention to. Hell, even your full attention won't do it justice.

I was so confused by the end of that first viewing that I went and read the Wikipedia plot summary, which made it sound like the most ambitiously epic end-of-days political sci-fi movie based on the Book of Revelations. So I immediately re-watched it … and still only barely understood what was being implied as a "plot" that fit kind of loosely within the framework of that Wikipedia plot summary. Then my roommates came home, and I forced them to watch it with me — my third viewing of the day — and frankly, I still don't think they've forgiven me.

I have remained fascinated by this glorious trainwreck of a movie ever since that first accidental triple-viewing, even seeking out bootlegs of the infamous Cannes cut (which is neither better, nor worse, but rather, a different disaster of beautiful ambition). I'm not alone in this captivation; the movie has developed a cult following of people who love it both for and in spite of itself. Writer Abraham Riesman did a great interview with Richard Kelly back in 2013 that gets at the source of this obsession — an unmatched ambition and a deep appreciation for literary canon, in a film that gleefully marries high-brow and low-brow while cramming 30 frames worth of shooting-for-the-moon into every second of footage even as it fails to reach that lofty goal nearly every time. Kelly is an Icarus, and Southland Tales is like watching the wax wings fall even as the feathers and melting paraffin burns your eyes.

The plot of the movie is famously difficult to explain (although Salon made a valiant effort to do so many years ago). Part of the problem is that half of the story is conveyed in a little-read graphic novel prequel trilogy, also written by Kelly. While these books were released as supplemental promotional material for the film (which utterly bombed in the box office), they're actually quite integral to the story. Kelly has recently announced that he plans to — eventually, at some point — release an Ultimate Cut of the movie that combines the film with animated segments representing the graphic novels, so the whole thing might actually make sense for once.

But I only recently read the actual graphic novels, which also include pages from a screenplay written by a character in the movie (Krysta Now, a psychic stripper slash self-help guru played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) that serves as a both prophecy and a plot engine for the movie in which it exists. And this re-discovery helped me realize just how perfectly suited the film is for right now. It's set over 4th of July weekend (although it is 2007 in the film, in an alternate reality). Alternative energy, the war on terror, mass surveillance, drug abuse, racist police brutality, psychological warfare, environmentalism, neo-Marxist radicals, and endtimes prophecies all intersect — and, like those fucking murder hornets, utterly mind-boggling details are inexplicably introduced and then promptly disappear again without explanation (did I mention there's time travel, too? Yeah it's not really spelled out well but it's a crucial detail that you'll probably miss). Like our current political climate, everything awful happens at once as if the entire reality is just one big sacrificial offering to feed the insatiable egos of celebrities and Republicans, and then Justin Timberlake does an interpretive dance about PTSD from the war in Afghanistan set to a song by the Killers:

This movie is fucking insane. It is an utter disaster full of never-ending wonder set on the brink of a collapsing reality. And that's kind of how it feels to exist in the world right now. Which is strangely comforting.

Southland Tales Was Exactly Ten Years Ahead of Its Time [Frederick Blichert / Vice]

Everything you were afraid to ask about Southland Tales [Thomas Rogers / Salon]

Anatomy of a Cannes Disaster: What Happened After Southland Tales Was Booed [Tatiana Siegel / The Hollywood Reporter]

Unraveling the Inside Story of Southland Tales [Abraham Riesman / Vice]