Going South

Donnie Darko follow-up debuts at Cannes

Yesterday, Empire referred to Southland Tales as our most anticipated movie of the festival. Well, as we all well know, anticipation can be a dangerous thing, hyping expectation above reasonable levels. Even so, even detatching ourselves from the sweet memories of Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly's difficult second movie sadly proves a heavy-duty disappointment.

Indeed, the critical reaction has almost unanimously been negative, with some seasoned Cannes-goers insisting it's actually the worst movie they've ever seen in competition here. During the screening, the walkouts started at around 20 minutes in, and there was a slow haemorrhage of audience members throughout. During the closing credits, Blur sing, "Come on, come on, come on, get through it" – a sentiment which most viewers sympathised with as they shuffled out following just over two-and-a-half hours of… Well, what exactly?

After opening with a chilling home-video witnessing of a rogue nuclear explosion in Abilene, Texas in 2005, the story jumps forward three years to a bizarre parrallel-reality Los Angeles where the ensuing energy crisis has led a bunch of people who look like the future dudes from Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure to invent a perpetual motion machine that harnesses the ocean's power to produce a fuel they call "fluid karma".

Meanwhile, movie star The Rock wakes up on a beach with amnesia, hooks up with porn star Sarah Michelle Gellar, and together they try to hawk a script about the world's end, which is apparently an unwitting prophecy. Supposedly guiding us through all this via an overused voiceover is Justin Timberlake's facially scarred Iraq-veteran, who simultaneously relates the tale of Seann William Scott's kidnapped cop and his treacherous identical twin, who becomes involved in a "neo-Marxist" plot to spark a riot.

It's an overambitious muddle of a satire, referencing everything from TS Eliot and Robert Frost to Dungeons & Dragons and dodgy ‘80s action movies (Christopher Lambert cameos as an arms-dealing ice cream van driver). The most obvious movie touchstones are Alex Cox's Repo Man, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (in fact, Kelly describes Southland Tales as "a spiritual remake" of that ‘50s noir masterpiece) and Kelly's own Donnie Darko.

When told about the walkouts afterwards, Kelly conceeded that, "I always thought the film would certainly push buttons, and I think it will continue to."

"The film is meant to be a tapestry of ideas," he went on, "all related to some of the biggest issues that we're facing right now. Homeland security, alternative fuel, our increasing obsession with celebrity and how celebrity now intertwines with politics… The problem we're facing isn't simple, and I think the film is meant to experienced like a puzzle. I think this is a film that needs to be experienced in more than one viewing, to fully comprehend the intricacies of it."

With that movie getting on for three hours long, Kelly's asking a lot of his fans. Here's hoping the Cannes reaction will prompt a merciless re-edit; even so, though – and it chokes us up to even be typing this – it's hard to see what can be salvaged. Sob…