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Richard Kelly: An Absent Auteur

Sometimes a director comes along that makes a first film so impactful, so beloved and adored that any follow up is always going to fall short. One such director is Richard Kelly, who made a beloved favourite with Donnie Darko when he was only 24 years old earning comparisons to the work of David Lynch and many awards. Following this, there were two other efforts that fell short in many regards in the eyes of the audience, and Kelly has struggled to get anything made since when he should really be six films deep now in terms of directing.

So, what happened? Let’s take a look…

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly

In 2001 shortly after the fateful events of September 11th, Donnie Darko appeared in theatres in the united states. Saddled with an unfortunate ad campaign that made it look like a ‘by the number’s’ teen slasher, the film quickly disappeared despite being generally well received and acclaimed. Those who went to see it saw what Empire magazine called one year later “A mini-masterpiece.” Donnie Darko is many things—a satire of the ‘80s political landscape under Ronald Reagan, a surreal time travel saga that stands up to the best of Twin Peaks closing hours and ultimately a tragic tale of a troubled hero. Despite the initial disappearing act, one year later the film received a five-star Empire review when it came out in the UK. It came out and it stayed in cinemas, and it stayed, and stayed. The film became a massive cult success in the country to the point where the cover of Mad World by Gary Jules featured in the film ended up becoming the number one song in the charts that following Christmas. Two years after the film became something of a generational touchstone, Kelly released a ‘Directors Cut’ which improved the sound mix, added some details and polished some effects and messed with the soundtrack. This was the rare occasion where a director’s cut didn’t improve the film that was initially released. The new version tried to explain too much by adding frames from the book of time travel featured in the movie—it felt unnecessary and didn’t quite understand why everyone fell for the film in the first place.

Following the success of Donnie Darko, another one of Kelly’s screenplays went into production under the direction of Tony Scott. Domino was the highly satirical and occasionally hallucinogenic story of real-life model turned bounty hunter Domino Harvey who was played in the film by a miscast Keira Knightly. Although the film has moments of brilliance, the film itself is occasionally something of a nightmare to sit through. It suffers from the same thing that plagued the late Tony Scott’s later films in that the camerawork suffers from a serious case of ADD with the point of view being unnecessarily thrown around, and the film causing a certain amount of motion sickness. The film did very little at the box office and remains a curiosity rather than the counter culture classic it could have been.

Around the time of Darko’s box office success in the UK, Kelly was briefly attached to the film Knowing which would later come out in 2009 under the direction of Alex Proyas. The Nicolas Cage-starring film definitely feels like what a follow up to Darko should have been, and remains fairly underrated to this day thanks to initially not very kind reviews upon release. In early 2005 a website appeared which was connected to Richard Kelly’s next directorial project, that film would be called Southland Tales and was pitched as a sci-fi satire musical comedy somewhere between Philip K. Dick and Andy Warhol. It would prove to be something of a milestone in Richard Kelly’s young career, and not for the best reasons.

Southland Tales

Written in the wake of the September 11th attacks, in 2005 the cast was assembled and included Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Seann William Scott and Sarah Michelle Gellar as the three leads and then a supporting cast that was like a who’s who of pop culture at the time including Amy Poehler, Justin Timberlake, Kevin Smith and Mandy Moore. The film then went into production in August of 2005. Crucially when it came time to finish the film, Kelly sent a rough cut to the folks at the Cannes Film Festival, thinking it would never be accepted, but somehow it was, and its debut at the festival was…well, a disaster. The film was met with a critical drubbing, called overlong, impenetrable and shrill by some. As a result, the film was dumped for domestic distribution by original distributor Universal and then Kelly went to Sony to get financing to finish the effects and trim the cut down to a more commercial length. During the wait for the film to be released, Kelly and Brett Wedele released a three-part (originally intended to be six) graphic novel prequel throughout 2006 and early 2007 that would flesh out the narrative and feed into the eventual release. The version of Southland Tales that garnered a limited release in late 2007 was around twenty minutes shorter than the version screened at Cannes and featured a voiceover by Justin Timberlake’s scarred soldier that started the film and explained much of the prequel novels content. The film wasn’t better reviewed than the first version, and quickly disappeared at the box office.

When I finally got to see the film, it was fascinating to me, Southland Tales has moments of absolute brilliance. A hallucinatory musical number, tracking shots set to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Rock playing against type and a truly great performance by Seann William Scott. The main problem is that it feels like you are landed right in the middle of a mini-series that has already been on for three hours and its largely impenetrable if you haven’t read the prequel saga. It is not a film I could recommend to everyone, the sense of humour ping pongs between gross-out, genuine pointed satire and annoyance. There are so many good moments though, and a genuine sadness to what Kelly is pointing at which was wrong with the world at the time, that I find myself going back to the film again and again. It’s like a flawed time capsule of where we were last decade and along with Green Day’s American Idiot, is one of the more interesting products of its time.

When it came time for the home and broadcast versions of Southland Tales there was something of a schism due to distribution rights with the longer version shown at Cannes being the one that appeared. This version it could be argued is the better cut of the film. A lot of the more annoying things added to over-explain what was happening are excised and a crucial scene regarding a character’s motivation is moved earlier, which you could argue makes the eventual conclusion make a lot more sense. Kelly has said in interviews that neither version represents his true vision and hopes that one day he will present the world with the final version of the troubled tale.

It was in the couple of months leading up to the Cannes disaster that Kelly started the production company Darko Entertainment. The company went on to produce Bobcat Goldthwait’s acclaimed Worlds Best Dad starring the late Robin Williams and then Goldthwait’s follow up God Bless America. They also produced a few black comedies such as I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Operation Endgame as well as Jason Bateman’s underrated directorial effort Bad Words in 2013.

The Box

In the wake of Donnie Darko’s cult success, it was announced that Kelly would team up with also then hot director Eli Roth for a new version of Richard Matheson’s story Button, Button from The Twilight Zone to be titled The Box. With his highest budget so far of 30 million dollars, production on The Box began in late 2007 with Kelly directing rather than Roth and a cast including Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella. During production, Kelly claimed that the film was a period piece and would not be as soundtrack heavy as his previous work, although members of Arcade Fire were hired to provide the film with its score. The film received a wide release in late 2009 and garnered mixed reviews and was a disappointment at the box office. The Box concerns a middle-class couple in ‘70s Virginia who are visited by a disfigured man carrying a box with a red button. The couple are informed that they can press the button and receive one million dollars but somebody somewhere in the world will die. Presented with this moral quandary, things get weird, then weirder, then rapidly out of control. They soon realise that they are part of a bigger and more far-reaching scheme by forces they do not understand. The box office failure of The Box is one of the more baffling things of recent times. Here was a film with a killer hook, a real conversation starter along the lines of Indecent Proposal with shades of The Ring, and that alone should have been packing them in. It helps that the film is actually really good as well. The screenplay is a lot more streamlined than Southland Tales or Donnie Darko and yet still allows Kelly to indulge in many of his obsessions carrying over from previous movies. It could well have been that the ad campaign—focussing mainly on the presence of Diaz—didn’t adequately explain what the premise was, or it could just have been a matter of bad timing so soon after what was seen as a disaster in Southland Tales, but The Box remains underrated and generally underseen to this day.

Following the poor box office of The Box, Richard Kelly was attached to direct Amicus starring Nicolas Cage which would have told the true story of a record executive who hires a hitman to kill his family which has so far failed to go into production. There was then Corpus Christi which went so far as to cast Edgar Ramirez as an Iraq war veteran who befriends a local Texas bigwig in the titular town. More recently there was something called Soulmates which has also failed to materialise. Recently with the release of a new 4k restoration of Donnie Darko, Kelly during the publicity tour mentioned that he did have an idea for a true sequel which would ignore the straight to DVD S. Darko from 2009 but so far, any further news on that has also been unavailable.

This year it will mark ten years since The Box appeared in theatres. Director Kevin Smith has said of Kelly that he could and should be directing movies in the same leagues as Christopher Nolan but lacks the backing of a major studio with faith in his vision. The simple fact may be that Kelly may have come to directing around twenty years too late. The place for the surreal, satirical visions that made David Lynch, Alex Cox, Terry Gilliam and John Carpenter the auteurs we know and love has passed in favour of safety and remakes. Financers would rather put money into an established, straightforward narrative than take a risk which has left talent languishing and heading to the streaming sites. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before we see Richard Kelly direct again, I suspect his true masterpiece may still be ahead of him.


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Written by Christopher Holt

Christopher Holt lives on the outskirts of London in the United Kingdom where he fights off evil in the local woods, goes skateboarding at night and somehow finds the time to write novels in between all of this.

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