I found out quite unexpectedly about Jaime Grijalba's challenging Richard Kelly blogathon at his Exodus 8:2 site; had the maverick Eric Kuersten at Acidemic not provided a submission of his own, I likely would not have heard about it at all. But since it's going on, it provides me an opportunity to yet again race under the wire to offer my thoughts on the much-battered sophomore outing from the ballsy writer/director.
Having seen all three of his theatrical features, and also Tony Scott's film of his screenplay of DOMINO, a theme has come to my mind that I don't see much exploration of. For all the expansive environments he presents, be it the suburban playground of DONNIE DARKO or the penultimate days of apocalypse in cosmopolis in SOUTHLAND TALES, or the southwest social junkyard of DOMINO, all of his produced screenplays also suggest that, quite possibly, these dramas exist entirely within the mindscape of one of the movie's characters, as purgative fantasies.
For an obvious example, at its core, DONNIE DARKO is a retelling of Ambrose Bierce's AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE, only instead of a condemned soldier fantasizing of escape to home and wife, it is a troubled teen who, in the seconds he has to contemplate his death, purges his guilt for the tumult he's created by fantasizing that it's all for the best, and he will be vindicated by his family and peers. The haunting, Kieslowski-esque "Mad World" montage serves the latter purpose - even Patrick Swayze's false healer/pedophile character can sense the loss, because while his career is ruined in Donnie's alternate reality, it brings a closure to his double life that he will still be tortured by in a Donnie-less world. All the allusions to theosophy and portals could just as easily be deathbed notions of escape from his environment, or perhaps his transition into another existential plane, a theme revisited in Kelly's adaptation of Richard Matheson's story "Button, Button" into THE BOX. For a more opaque example, Museum of Cinema proprietor Blake Etheridge has posited that in Kelly's screenplay for DOMINO, the events described to government investigator Taryn Mills by Domino Harvey are entirely a lucid mescaline fever dream; Domino has been earning a living as a bounty hunter, but the events which brought her into custody are by no means as colorfully bizarre as she is describing them. Consequently, with SOUTHLAND TALES, while Kelly would like the viewer to plunge into the adjuncts to the film (the prequel comic books, Krysta Now's website, Boxer Santoros' MySpace page) and immerse themselves in the side details of his ambitious vision, they're all red herrings, entertaining but non-essential, in the same manner that "The Philosophy of Time Travel" is an engaging but ultimately needless sidebar to DONNIE DARKO.
Before I go any further, I want to give a huge acknowledgement (and some web hits, I hope) to the excellent and provocative critic Kim Nicolini, whose wildly enthusiastic review of SOUTHLAND TALES back in 2008 inspired my own analysis, which I initially offered only to her and a few messageboard denizens. Kim had eagerly devoured all the extracurricular material Kelly created and thus included them in her analysis of the film, so it feels a little funny that I am also praising it while dismissing said added material which was partly integral to her enjoyment. But then, much like Hercule Poirot stated in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, this mystery has a simple solution and a complex solution, and perhaps they are both correct.
SOUTHLAND TALES is another extended fantasy, though despite the constant allusions to "the end" not a deathbed fantasy. To me, almost all of the sprawling tale is a somewhat drug-induced construct of Justin Timberlake's wounded war vet narrator Private Pilot Abilene, who is wrestling with how to deal with the injuries done to him, both by his best friend Taverner in combat, and by his country as a whole. Key to my reading is that aside from tertiary contact with minor characters, and his firing the fatal shot that kills a government mole (which would thus be an imaginary act through this reading), Abilene has no interaction with Boxer, Krysta, the Frost family, or any other of the ostensible leads of the story. Abilene lives separated from them all in medicated inertia amidst a hyperpoliticized America, angry with the friend who scarred him, the politicians who sent him to kill, the revolutionaries who failed to stop it, the celebrities who sold the war to him, etc.
So he begins to split these people as if they were all "good cop/bad cop" (literally for Scott's character Taverner), which allows him to explore and empathize with their redeeming qualities. By letting his imagination run wild, he finally begins to see that all causes can be corrupted, good souls make bad compromises - the duality of humanity is inescapable. And he sees how to reconcile those two halves, in the almost literal manner of his former best friend. Yes, the friendly fire incident left Abilene ugly and wounded, but it also got him out of the war zone, where he would have likely perished, and back to a semi-comfortable life in America. The "end of the world" he keeps talking of is not a literal one, but of the fogged, drugged world of hurt and anger he inhabits - the "bang" is the necessary rush of pain when the drugs are gone and he is fully conscious of everything that's happening. And now that Abilene can understand that his friend Taverner can be both source of his disfigurement and savior of his life, as can his country be, he can forgive them both and start his life anew.
I am always left to wonder if this is an autobiographical read on Kelly's behalf too. In interviews, Kelly has never been terribly vocal about politics (I've found no declared party affiliation) or religion (for all the constant notions of Christ figures in his movies, he professes to be an athiest). But when one considers that the Republican party is depicted as the initial antagonists of his story [though ultimately, every fringe group is shown to be venal and corrupt], and Dwayne Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar were registered Republicans during filming, that odd contrast offers intrigue. The film definitely takes a dim view of the Iraq war and its effect on society, but this spirit of collaboration with actors of an ostensibly polarized opinion to his parallels Abilene's resolution, as if to say Kelly once judged his stars by their politics, but now can see they had a sincere belief in the same manner he had one that was in opposition, and that all of them found flaws in those systems of belief.
On a dishier level, I'm also rather fond of the possible "shoot" aspect of the tensions between the characters played by "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE" alumnae Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, and Cheri Oteri. The four play characters very definitely at odds with each other, and each actor comes from a different incarnation of the show's history (Dunn and Lovitz sharing theirs). Again, there's no high profile accounts of any rivalries between the performers, but comedians are a family that can be both collaborative and savage, so when Poehler's character castigates Oteri's with "Just 'cause it's loud doesn't mean it's funny!", you are reminded that Oteri's "SNL" tenure consisted of portraying a lot of shrill characters, and Dunn's character's duplicitousness towards her cause may remind older fans of her rather self-serving refusal to work with shock comic Andrew "Dice" Clay when he appeared on the program. Comics do certainly love to milk dirty laundry for a laugh, so it wouldn't surprise me if Kelly encouraged the performers to improv and throw a few low blows.
I instinctively feel I'll always carry a minority opinion on SOUTHLAND TALES, and depending upon my debate opponent, I may not always be in the mood to defend it; if left to fight an army of snarksters fully bent on declaring it "Worst. Movie. Ever.", then, as the late Frankie Bastille once said, I may as well be Captain Kirk left to fight the Klingons in a Mercury fucking station wagon. But it's a film that's given me stimulation over repeat viewings, and for fans and foes of Richard Kelly's who aren't intimidated or annoyed by the film equivalent of an Everlasting Gobstopper, I would firmly say it's worth visiting multiple times as well.