Credit: SXSW
by Luke Gorham Featured Film

Only the Good Survive — Dutch Southern [SXSW ’23 Review]

March 24, 2023

Best known as one of three credited writers on Joseph Kahn’s 14-minute Power Rangers (2015) short — alongside the director and James Van Der Beek, in what had to have been a pull-a-name-from-a-hat collaboration — Dutch Southern’s debut feature Only the Good Survive is the kind of film that feels lab-created to divide audiences. It boasts a massive, conspicuous personality, which will likely work wonders for those already attuned to its wavelength — basically, endless winking punctuated by lo-fi practical gore effects — while proving insufferable for the quirk-allergic. 

Narratively, Only the Good Survive adopts the familiar Usual Suspects posture, with small town sheriff Cole Mack (Frederick Weller) interrogating young Brea (Sidney Flanigan) about the brutal events of the hours prior. The film is thus dominated by flashback, as Brea recounts a twisty, unreliable recent past: after her boyfriend Ry (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) discovers, by chance, some incredibly valuable gold coins at a local farmer’s home, he, along with local psycho — and apparent mint nerd — Erve (Will Ropp) and neighborhood enforcer Dev (Darius Fraser) concoct an unsophisticated heist scheme that relies on the God-fearing rubes going to church. Brea takes on the role of lookout, but of course things immediately go wrong; specifically, in the form of discovering not gold, but a baby in a cage.

Only the Good Survive, then, reveals itself not to be the heist film it initially suggests — the machinations and orchestrations of the caper are only barely explicated in a brief planning montage, then immediately disrupted, then abandoned — but rather a fairly bald-faced attempt at camp horror-comedy. You see, what the quartet instead find is what they believe to be some kind of paganistic cabal who steals babies (by cutting them out of late-pregnancy women’s bellies) in order to use them for blood sacrifices and sex (yes, unconscionable child sexual abuse is lackadaisically used as plot fodder here). It’s clear that Southern is attempting to send up our current era of QAnon-driven conspiracy culture in the broadest terms possible — perhaps believing that by saturing the film in ludicrous affectation, he’s condemning the essential absurdity of America’s MAGA substrate — but it’s all undermined by the aggressively annoying smirk the film wears in every scene. A baby in a cage — we get it, the iconography is bluntly legible, but a better film wouldn’t have been so hyperactively excited by its own designs from frame one. That Wayfair isn’t namechecked is the only bit of restraint to be found in the entire film.

Southern furthers the film’s oppressively grating sheen with nearly every visual choice here. The camera rarely rests across the film’s runtime, all manner of movements and angles employed to establish its particular coy character. The flashbacks are frequently lit in garish color, a few pointless animated overlays are tossed around, and performers are asked to affect a performative style of speech and plaster on the kind of smiles audiences saw in Smile, just to remind us that what we’re witnessing in these scenes aren’t the actual events. But it’s impossible for that ever to be far from our minds because the film also constantly cuts to an interrupting Cole, asking questions and poking holes; it’s unclear if this is all in an effort to reorient our perceptions or if Southern is under the impression that the formal tête-à-tête that Cole and Brea are sharing is somehow comedically appealing. 

And so, a film that initially appears to suggest something like the Nee brothers’ Band of Robbers proves instead to be angling for Edgar Wright lite, flailing wildly in the attempt. Passion is of course essential to the success of any project, but there’s an exasperating giddiness, barrelling into the self-satisfied, that pervades the whole of the film. All of its attempts at reference and homage and meta-ness are limp. At one point, a character observes, “I can’t tell if this is supposed to be comedy or horror.” Southern clearly intends it to be both, and it succeeds as neither. But the more damning indictment is in how difficult it is to even care to answer.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 12.