This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Johann Rucker’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Richard Kelly fascinates me to no end.
With a debut as strong as 2001's Donnie Darko, he immediately set himself apart from his peers with a style and voice that was perfect for America in the wake of 9/11. DD is a film largely about fear and what it can do to people, warping and contorting them into husks. The fear of death, the unknown, diversity, etc. all of these were explored at length in Kelly's vision of 80's suburbia, with Jake Gyllenhaal as his muse. Lots of good stuff there, but he'd have to follow it up big-time.
And he did. Sorta. Southland Tales is bigger on every level than Donnie Darko, but this scale is rarely ever earned. The way Kelly handles scope is off-putting to me; there are moments of grandiosity in Darko - the time warps and town swallowing come to mind - but they are earned by both the story and characters. Southland starts out massive and balloons out of fucking control. It's a marvel to watch this film implode, bursting at the seams with thematic heft.
Here, Kelly further explores his fears. These range from paranoia surrounding surveillance, big government, politics, the oil crisis, perpetual war, etc. and are all significant and deserve to be explored. Hell, he even gets religious with it in a way that feels super neat, using Justin Timberlake as a pseudo-Metatron, narrating the film through biblical quotation and intense allegory. There's so much here, but none of it is explored justly and what we're left with are the severed stumps of various other films.
I can see a version of this being palatable. It's there. His vision of post-apocalyptic LA is awesome and Southland is unlike anything I've ever seen. Kelly uses his ensemble by playing to their weaknesses rather than catering to their strengths. The Rock plays a manic and paranoid amnesiac politician, Sean William Scott is a straight-laced cop, and Justin Timberlake the agent of destruction, sucked of all charm that makes him Justin Fucking Timberlake.