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Home Entertainment: ’Southland Tales’ Bluray review

Out now.

Back in 2006, Southland Tales featured on many people’s most anticipated movie lists. The reason for so much excitement was that it had been created by Richard Kelly, the mastermind behind the phenomenal Donnie Darko. With such a solid debut, the world expected the moon from Kelly’s sophomore project, but with expectations so high, many were inevitably disappointed. The initial screening at Cannes was met with critical maulings, people walking out, and a general sense of despair. Things didn’t get any better upon release and the film has, over the years since, been treated like a dirty little secret.


Southland Tales is now about to arrive on Blu-ray via the brave folks at Arrow Video. The new release consists of both the original theatrical cut, as well as an extended director’s cut – the original Cannes version. Has fifteen years been long enough for Southland Tales to morph from bloated schizophrenic mess to misunderstood masterpiece? 

The answer to that question isn’t so simple, with the truth lying somewhere between the two. The film is still overtly and convolutedly twisted, but it’s not as unfathomably unbelievable as it was before. Original reviews and reactions called into question the validity of Kelly’s near-future American society. In 2006, it seemed unlikely that civil unrest, mistrust, and dastardly officials could shape the American landscape, and yet you only have to look at the events of the last twelve months to realise just how close to the mark Kelly actually was. This closer reflection of shocking societal norms actually helps make it more accessible and with less time spent on ridiculing the running of the world, you can actually focus more on the actual plot.  

Set in the year 2008 (which was the near future upon release), Southland Tales unfolds in a futuristic Los Angeles setting as it stands on the brink of a socio-economic and environmental crisis. The story joins action movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwyane Johnson) who is suffering with a chronic bout of amnesia. His journey for the truth about his identity leads him through the underbelly of LA and sees him encounter his ex-girlfriend, porn-star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and Ronald Taverner (Sean William Scott), a police officer intrinsically entwined with a world-changing conspiracy. 

Narratively falling someplace between Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and Johnny Mnemonic, Southland Tales requires the full commitment of its audience. Richard Kelly’s debut, Donnie Darko, was beloved, and despite a few moments of ambiguity, offers a fairly straight-forward story. Southland Tales cranks the obscurity, insanity, and ambiguity, sky-high and in doing so leaves the viewer scrambling to keep up. 

In the theatrical version, there’s an over-reliance on expositional narration via Justin Timberlake’s Pilot Abilene, which exists to help the viewer comprehend and digest who all the players are,and how they connect to one another. For once, it’s a necessary evil to decode the story. The Cannes cut kept narration to a more respectable minimum, but generated headache-inducing bewilderment. Ahead of the film’s initial release, Kelly produced a number of graphic novels that set up the world, this information was repackaged into the theatrical cut, but it is assumed that those going into the director’s cut have read this source material. It’s a big ask for most viewers, graphic novels and their ilk being the kind of thing you track down after watching and enjoying a film, to fully flesh it out. This makes the narration in the theatrical cut vital to the structure, though the quantity is so huge that almost all of the first hour plays out accompanied by vocals, which makes the on-screen action tricky to focus on.  

After the critical success of Donnie Darko, Kelly had everyone in Hollywood clamouring to work with him. Rather than cast some really big names however, he opted to fill the film with a combination of overlooked familiar faces and those on the brink of mega-stardom. This decision produced what has become one of the most eclectic casts committed to film, having the likes of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sean William Scott rub shoulders with Mandy Moore, Christopher Lambert, Miranda Richardson, and Amy Poehler. Southland Tales famously also stars Dwayne Johnson and Justin Timberlake in two of the more central roles. Their inclusion in movies is fairly standard casting these days – Johnson in particular is now seen as one of the most bankable actors around – yet upon release, they were head scratching casting choices. Johnson was still heavily tied to his Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson trailer credit, and Timberlake was fresh from his N*Sync days, complete with his signature boyband curls. The melting pot of actors makes for a somewhat confusing cacophony especially when coupled with Kelly’s desire to have the bulk of them play against type. 

It wasn’t just the plot that made Donnie Darko so interesting, it was also the manner in which Kelly chose to tell the story. His choice of camerawork in several scenes are still spoken about today, the highlight being the introduction to the school set to Tears for Fears’ ‘Head Over Heels’. The camera pans around the school switching between varying speeds as it effortlessly spotlights the important characters within the setting. Kelly seeks to replicate these flourishes, one blimp-set party sequence towards the end echoing Donnie Darko’s school scene. Sadly it doesn’t quite work and feels more like a desperate attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle than respectfully pay homage to it. The standout within Southland Tales comes as Timberlake’s Abilene lip syncs to The Killers. It’s eerily unhinged and, even if it seems completely at odds with everything else in the movie, embeds itself in the memory. 

Southland Tales has certainly become an easier watch, and clearly has a more contemporary aspect to its social commentary. It does however, still contain enough elements of insanity to knock some viewers off course. 

Southland Tales arrives on Blu-ray via Arrow Video on Monday 25th January 2021.

Southland Tales

Kat Hughes

Southland Tales


Although historically panned, the years appear to have been kind to Kelly’s sophomore project with Southland Tales a much more palatable prospect for modern times.


Kat Hughes is a UK born film critic and interviewer who has a passion for horror films. An editor for THN, Kat is also a Rotten Tomatoes Approved Critic. She has bylines with Ghouls Magazine, Arrow Video, Film Stories, Certified Forgotten and FILMHOUNDS and has had essays published in home entertainment releases by Vinegar Syndrome and Second Sight. When not writing about horror, Kat hosts micro podcast Movies with Mummy along with her five-year-old daughter.


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