This role was the first time that The Rock attempted it in his career.
Southland Tales: 2020 was a remarkable movie year in many ways. One anomaly that stands out is the absence of a new movie by Dwayne, “The Rock” Johnson. Johnson is often cited as Hollywood’s most brutal working man. He consistently opens at least one film every year and is one of the few remaining movie stars who can draw a crowd just by his name.
Johnson is the perfect action star. However, with a few exceptions, Johnson has remained within his comfort zone as the charismatic, gruff lead with a killer grin and hilarious one-liners. Johnson’s roles in Central Intelligence, the rebooted Jumanji franchise, and Snitch have allowed him to experiment with comedy and self-awareness. However, he still has his natural talents and doesn’t venture too far from his comfort zone.
Johnson has not taken the riskier roles of a meathead criminal and an animated musical role as Moana, even though he was asked to do more. This is despite having worked with more established auteurs than Johnson. Johnson has been so consistent in staying in his lane that it is ironic that he started his career with a bizarre performance in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. This satire of Bush-era anxieties has gone from being a festival bomb to becoming a cult favorite in fifteen years.
Kelly’s debut Donnie Darko received a lot of praise. Kelly received a budget from the studio to realize his dream project, unlike today’s system, which would have immediately offered him a job as a hired gun in a comic book or tentpole franchise. Southland Tales is an explosive takedown of the military-industrial complex, celebrity cultures, and political divisions. It’s complicated by a timeline rift that allows multiple characters to have doppelgangers.
Although it was initially dismissed as a pseudo-Mulholland Drive, which wasn’t funny enough for satire or focused enough for a narrative, Southland Tales is now a sharp and sometimes prophetic look at American ugliness. It’s messy, funny, and terrifying. The film’s absurd take on the national collapse resonates even more in the Trump era. Kelly has been very active in discussing the film’s changing reputation and recently sat down for a long discussion with Collider’s Gregory Lawrence about the film’s legacy, including Johnson’s impact on his career.
The cast has many names, including Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sean William Scott. Justin Timberlake is also featured. But, Johnson is the central figure of the complex narrative as Boxer Santaros, an action movie star who is amnesiac and has ties to the Republican Party. He became involved in a neo-Marxist movement that sought to overthrow the surveillance state. The premise suggests that Johnson would play the first of many self-aware but standard action roles. However, Santaros is unlike anything he has ever done or any other character he has attempted since.
Santaros was a movie star, not unlike Johnson, but his memory loss makes him an oddly anxious, self-serious buffoon obsessed with destiny. Johnson is strangely sincere and unafraid of being a joke in a film that is often best understood through multiple layers of irony. Stars is a chess player in a war between radical revolutionaries, oppressive conservatives, and Johnson. When Southland Tales attempts to promote deep meditation, Santatros’s words lead the hypnotic chaos.
Johnson started to leave his WWE identity in 2006 to pursue a career as a filmmaker. Although his roles in The Mummy Returns, The Rundown, and Walking Tall clearly showed that Johnson was a star to be watched, he was still the king of broad entertainment due to bombs like Doom, Be Cool, and Walking Tall. Southland Tales wasn’t another popcorn movie aimed at a general audience. It was an ambitious science fiction project by a respected up-and-comer that would shed Johnson’s wrestling persona and establish Johnson as a serious actor with enough range to take on challenging roles.
Southland Tales would undoubtedly be challenging for any actor. A line like “I’m a pimp, and pimps do not commit suicide” is just a trailer tag; it is impossible to believe that the film’s 144 minutes is anything but a challenge. Kelly’s strange dialogue required Johnson to address complex philosophical concepts such as memory and identity while balancing references to a story so dense it took a comic-book prequel saga to comprehend.
Because Santaros’s role in the story changes, it takes time to pinpoint his exact role. Do you imagine him as an American star or as an audience avatar? Are you the main character in this apocalyptic reckoning or just an observer? Are you unsure if he is trying to be sympathetic or disgustingly dim? It needs to be clarified, as with everything else in Southland Tales.
Your evaluation of Johnson’s performance will likely reflect your opinion of the film. Johnson is pretty good. Johnson’s physicality, uncomfortably, and nervous ticks feel like Jim Carrey or early Dustin Hoffman. However, the film has a different energy. Kelly often stated that he wanted his cast to be outside their comfort zones. But Johnson’s physicality and uncomfortability with character roles make for some beautiful zaniness.
As with everything in Southland Tales, it’s hard not to admire Johnson’s dedication. Unfortunately, this role has been hidden behind his many successes. Johnson is charismatic, and I would be OK seeing him again in summer blockbusters. He has the rare ability to save dying franchises while making bad movies watchable. But, a man who can take as many defeats as he wants on screen might be willing to take some risks now and again.
Southland Tales premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on March 21, 2006. This is often the worst premiere of the festival’s history. Cannes is not unfamiliar with booing classic films ( Taxi Driver, and The Tree of Life, to name just two). Still, Roger Ebert described himself as “dazed. confused. bewildered. bored. affronted by the boos all around” and its impact on Kelly.
Johnson may have tried this before, or perhaps the experience scared him away from doing anything similar. However, seeing him give his star power to an offbeat role would be interesting. It’s obvious what The Rock can do, but it would be more fascinating to see him try more than he can handle.