Southland Tales

Southland Tales ★★★★★

I've said before that this is the best film of its decade, and I stand by that statement. Yes, some of the magic has dulled by this viewing (I've seen it some 30 or forty time in the five years since it's release) but it still stands above its peers as an utter masterpiece.

Last month I saw the documentary Room 237, an examination of The Shining. One of the points that film made was in the care devoted to the set design by Kubrick, to the point where they show pictures of him hand-placing each can on the shelves in the food stores. The general idea is that that care to even the smallest of details is what set Kubrick apart of other filmmakers. Well, Southland Tales is the same way. There's a level of detail here most films would never bother with. Richard Kelly packs an astounding amount of information into the frame, some essential, some just there for tone. It's obvious in the USIDENT sequences, but even more astounding in the film proper. Kelly could have let the set do the work for him (Venice Beach is interesting enough on its own) but Kelly completely transforms it into his own world in ways big and small. Case in point (and something I just noticed this viewing): in the arms dealer's truck, on the wall covered by guns, there's graffiti. It sounds incidental, and maybe it is, but someone had to to go the trouble of spraying that graffiti, graffiti that you can barely see since it's covered by gun racks (And then you get thinking of how graffiti got on the inside of an ice cream truck, which ends up painting a wonderful picture of the country Kelly's America has become). That's a level of devotion and craft most directors don't even consider.

I honestly don't get what it is people don't like about this film. It's simply bursting with imagination and creativity. Every actor is giving it their absolute all (Dwayne Johnson and Justin Timberlake especially. Good god those two can act). The film is full of wit and pathos, iconic moments and shocking reversals. It's a master director doing what he does best.

The moment that everyone talks about in this movie is Justin Timberlake's dream sequence, and while it's amazing, it's not the moment I want to focus in on. And I'm sorry, but there's going to be minor spoilers from here on out (though I will be vague).

The dance that ends this film is one of the greatest moments in film history. And it's not because the song (Moby's Memory Gospel) is amazing, though it is. Or because it's a powerful climax, a moment of pure passion after two and a half hours of build up, though it is. Or because of the way Kelly cuts between the dance and the destruction that's ravaging California, though it's amazing. Or because of the amazing chemistry between Johnson, Mandy Moore and Sarah Michelle Gellar, though you could cut it with a knife.

No, the reason it's one of the greatest scenes in movie history is because of a moment near the end. Moore and Gellar stop, face each other, and for the first time in the movie, they speak the truth, and then begin to dance. It's a moment that makes me cry every time (hell, I'm tearing up just thinking about it). Because Kelly has created a world so damaged by the horrors enacted upon it, and so obsessed with its games and sides that nobody is ever able to speak truthfully to each other. Think of the basic plot, of two amnesiacs being manipulated and lied to about their very nature. Think of the constant double crosses and betrayals. Think of the number of characters who work in porn, an industry devoted to the false recreation of the most basic human act of all. Think of the way both USIDENT and USIDEATH falsify moments the audience has seen played out. Think of how the nuclear strike at the beginning is shown as found footage, an style that is inherently biased. Think of Dion and Dream's elaborate makeup. The constant use of hallucinogenic drugs. The fog that blankets everything. The way everyone says "The Southland" instead of "California." The constant quoting of classic poetry. The delayed reaction in the mirror. The Book of Revelations motif. The use of the singer from the most bizarre moment of Mulholland Dr. The way everyone begins acting like they're in Johnson and Gellar's screenplay.

It's artifice, all of it. And incredibly entertaining artifice. But that's what makes the moments where people put the artifice aside as powerful as they are. The despondent look on Timberlake's face at the end of his dream sequence. The dance between Johnson, Gellar and Moore. The confession that ends the film.

Timberlake constantly says the world will not end with a whim, but with a bang. That bang is not the explosion that occurs at the end of the film. It's the refusal of artifice, the abandonment of endless partisan fighting the acceptance of truth.

Because when all is said and done, the rioters stop fighting and they start dancing.

And that is what makes all the difference.

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