“I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier / I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier / I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier…”
In an American flag-festooned arcade, Justin Timberlake lip-syncs the anthemic refrain from The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done,” staring down the camera as he bats smoke machine smoke from his eyes, swinging his arms and his Budweiser around with abandon. The menace in his gaze distinguishes this Timberlake from the slinky pop crooner of many an aughts tween’s dream – so too the scar that snakes from over one eyebrow down to the corner of his lips; a sinister question mark sans tittle. Dog tags hang against a white t-shirt caked with blood, in contradiction to at least half the phrase he’s mouthing, over and over again.
A drug-induced vision in music video form, the electrifying sequence that marks the midpoint of Richard Kelly’s Pynchonian disasterpiece Southland Tales (2006), his Book of Revelation-riffing follow-up to Donnie Darko (2001), is considered by the film’s writer-director to be its “heart and soul”1 – and The Killers’ track so essential that he shot the sequence before he’d even obtained the rights (much to the consternation of his producers).
Timberlake plays movie star turned prophetic war vet Pilot Abilene – who was shipped back from Iraq, one of the few survivors of an MK Ultra-esque plot by alternative energy behemoth Treer, with veins pumped full of a potent compound dubbed “fluid karma” and a face marred in a friendly fire incident. Pilot’s is but one of the unwieldy number of plot threads that make up Kelly’s dystopian tapestry – in terms of screen time, he’s a minor player compared with Dwayne Johnson’s twitchy action star, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s entrepreneurial porn actress, and the twin cops played by Seann William ‘Stifler’ Scott – but it’s his narration that shepherds the film from beginning to apocalyptic end.
And in a film brimming with bizarro referential names (Baron Von Westphalen; Martin Kefauver; Jericho Cane), Pilot’s might be the only one to have its referent advertised in-text: Southland Tales opens on an alternate version of the recent past, with the nuking of Abilene, Texas on Independence Day, 2005 – an event that catalyses World War III. In Kelly’s blown-out 9/11 metaphor, one can safely hazard a metonymic relation between Abilene the city, itself a stand-in for the entire nation, and Abilene the man – both left reeling, reckless, from a blow dealt with no forewarning.
Killers’ front-man Brandon Flowers wrote “All These Things That I’ve Done” after learning of a musical mentorship initiative by the U.S. Army for soldiers who had returned from Iraq wounded or with PTSD. Endowed with oracular prescience thanks to fluid karma, Pilot knows he’s beyond saving (though his lumbering course through the arcade is flanked by a host of sexy platinum-wigged nurses, who strut and circle him adoringly, he exhibits only fleeting interest in their curative charms), and that humanity is too. He abandons his lip-sync routine before the song is spent: as Flowers pours out his heart – “While everyone’s lost, the battle is won / With all these things that I’ve done” – Pilot pours out his beer over his head.