In the 18 months since its tumultuous unveiling at the Cannes Film Festival, Southland Tales has become more myth than movie.
Initial expectations for the film were at a high because it marked the second feature from writer-director Richard Kelly, the follow-up to his 2001 slow-building cult sensation Donnie Darko. Following the disastrous, spirit-crushing reviews out of Cannes - "overwrought but underwhelming" read a sample notice - Southland seemed to vanish into thin air, becoming a thing of conjecture and rumor. When was it coming out? How much would be changed or cut? And, perhaps most of all, why had Kelly made such an outrageously audacious sci-fi/political thriller/satire in the first place?
"I'm a bit of a masochist," Kelly remarked recently. "I had obviously bitten off more than I could chew, and the challenge since Cannes has been to not choke, to digest it and swallow it."
When the film finally hits theaters tomorrow, shorn of roughly 20 minutes from the Cannes cut, it will be the version Kelly considers finished and complete. The film doesn't have an opening date in Baltimore but will be shown in Washington.
"It's tough to ask for more money when your movie has been slaughtered at a major film festival," Kelly said. "But when Sony gave me that money, I fell back in love with the movie again. I got to finally see it as I always wanted it."
"This is definitely Southland Tales," said Kelly's longtime producer, Sean McKittrick, looking to put aside any presumptions that this is somehow a bowdlerized or abbreviated version of the film.
Much like Donnie Darko, Southland Tales is a perfectly imperfect movie, one which is nearly impossible to describe in the neat, compact logline-ology of contemporary Hollywood. Set in 2008, after domestic nuclear attacks in 2005, the film's interwoven story strands include an amnesiac movie star, a gang of absurdist revolutionaries, a team of shady executives, a troubled vet, a crooked cop, kidnapped twins, various dignitaries, politicians and bureaucrats, and a porn starlet turned ambitious entrepreneur who delivers one of the film's signature lines: "Scientists are saying that the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted."
If audiences, particularly younger ones, don't seem inclined to show up for old-guard stars such as Robert Redford and Meryl Streep gabbing about foreign policy, Kelly's strategy is to load Southland Tales with current cultural figures such as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Justin Timberlake, subversively hiding his idealism and anger beneath a veneer of pop confectionery.
An art film harboring blockbuster aspirations, Southland Tales utilizes the broad screens and booming sound systems of the multiplex to take its dystopian cultural critiques directly to the daydreaming nation that is perhaps least likely to seek out its head-spinning message of resistance.
"You go to a newsstand, and it's Britney Spears and Iraq," Kelly said. "And it's understandable to eventually feel like 'No more Iraq. Give me more Britney.' We live in a world of media overload, saturated with information, and the movie needed to feel like it had that stimuli."
As to why he felt emboldened to make a film as ambitious and complicated as Southland Tales, Kelly said, "It felt like I was making this movie as if it were my last, like I'll never get this chance again. So I just decided to go for it."
The 32-year-old Kelly has been called a one-hit wonder and a hack. He also has been hailed as nothing less than a genius. Kelly's two efforts as a director also have a preoccupation with time travel and the existence of multidimensional reality.
"Nothing surprises me anymore that comes out of his mind," McKittrick said. "Nothing at all."
As Southland Tales finally opens, Kelly and McKittrick are to begin shooting The Box, an adaptation of a Richard Matheson short story about a mysterious delivery, starring Cameron Diaz.
"I feel like The Box will be my first grown-up movie," Kelly said, "and Southland Tales is my last film as the rebellious punk kid.
"I'd taken all these risks," Kelly said of his determination to see Southland Tales released, "gotten all these actors to work for me for next to nothing, and everyone put their faith in me, their time and their effort. I had to see it through to the end. I could not live with myself if I had not finished the film properly and gotten it into theaters. Even if it opens and closes in a week, I got it to the screen."
Mark Olsen writes for the Los Angeles Times.