Southland Tales wants to do a lot of things. Part of the movie is a satire about the dumbing down of American discourse a la Idiocracy. Part of the movie is noir inspired, with blackmail, corrupt cops and a double cross of a politician. Part of the movie is a commentary on post Patriot act America and has the paranoid vibes of a 70's conspiracy movie. There are elements that are David Lynchian - a hero with amnesia a la Mulholland Drive, double identities a la Lost Highway, random little people a la Twin Peaks - as well as science fiction elements about time travel, perpetual motion machines and futuristic zeppelins. Oh, and did I mention all the quotes from the Book of Revelations in the narration, because the film takes place right before the Apocalypse?
But of all the flavors that can be found in Southland Tales, the one that stood out to me the most was the Magnolia-strain. The same way that Paul Thomas Anderson decided to follow up to his first big hit Boogie Nights with a movie that was overflowing with ambition but underflowing (if that's a word) with structure, Richard Kelly decided to follow up his breakthrough Donnie Darko with this movie, and the same strain of indulgence appears in both movies. Both Magnolia and Southland Tales have too many ideas and too many stories they can't quite connect together, and when the stitching starts to seem like it can't hold it all together their directors cut to a music video or an act of God.
The biggest difference between the two movies is that while Anderson's stories don't always connect in plot terms they are all exploring the same themes and with similar tones. In contrast, Kelly is mixing satirical tangents in with metaphysical concepts and more or less serious political commentary, so the juggling act is a lot harder to pull off. But even if Anderson is more successful at what he's doing, both of them should get some credit for their ambition. One of the hardest things for human beings to wrap their heads around is the idea of simultaneity. As individual animals we are hardwired to see the world from our limited egotistical perspective, but the truth is that every perspective is occurring at the same time and all of them are equally true; your suffering doesn't invalidate someone else's apathy or joy. It's a fundamental truth that should be explored in art more, because art should be about connecting people and sharing their perspectives, but you don't see that idea being explored in films very much because it's almost impossible to do that while staying in conventional narrative structures. Basically, the only people who are willing to try it are pretentious hotshots that somehow got handed a blank check, so god bless Anderson and Kelly for shooting the moon, despite all the risks it meant for their career.
Southland Tales is such a complicated swamp of a movie that calling it good or bad doesn't make sense. There is no feasible way to make the case that the whole thing hangs together, but anyone who isn't intrigued by at least one of the strains in the movie probably wasn't paying attention. It doesn't reach the levels of emotional catharsis that Magnolia has, but then again, it does have a stoner firing a bazooka at a zeppelin from the roof of a levitating ice cream truck, and that has to count for something.