Eleven years ago, with the release of Richard Kelly’s seminal cult classic Donnie Darko, the thought that I might be one day vying to defend this once prolific director to a dismissive general public and disenfranchised fanbase would have been as counter-intuitive as thoughts come.
Following the theatrical release of Kelly’s freshman effort – which introduced the world to not only one, but two Gyllenhaals – it was widely accepted that the director could in fact do no wrong, and that a long and illustrious career lay ahead as he continued to baffle audiences with his trans-dimensional tales of suburban apocalypse.
Since then, however, everything has changed: a divisive director’s cut, and unofficial sequel and a two poorly received releases later, Kelly is no longer held in such high esteem. He has been derided, his storytelling abilities questioned and his imagination mocked. Nonetheless, with the benefit of hindsight, I cannot help but challenge this new opinion of Kelly as a self-indulgent and impenetrable pulp-existentialist.
Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut
When Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko made its début back in 2001, the cinemagoing public was almost unanimous in its indifference. Well, it would have been if anyone had actually gone to see it. It wasn’t long, however, until overwhelming critical acclaim and persistent word of mouth spread and the film developed a dedicated cult following. With the film’s fans showing an insatiable thirst for more information, eager to make some sense of the film’s most enigmatic complexities, Kelly released a director’s cut in an attempt to maximise his audience’s enjoyment and understanding of the story.
For many, however, the release of the new cut of the movie had the opposite effect, with many viewer’s enjoyment of the film apparently mired by the new and extended scenes. In a somewhat predictable backlash on a film many hadn’t seen coming, stars were hastily deducted and Kelly’s abilities questioned due to a slightly altered pace and an additional 20 minutes of running time. As Kelly delved deeper into his film’s mythology and began to compromise the human element of his story in favour of a greater sense of narrative coherence, the director’s winning streak came to an almost immediate end, and he fell into an underserved disrepute that would haunt his next two features.
But Donnie Darko isn’t a lesser movie simply because Kelly has attempted to elaborate on his initial premise and endeavoured to find a clearer way of telling his story; if anything, it’s gained greater immersive value. The original film was ambitious enough, and while there might be those who miss the margin for interpretation provided by the missing pieces of the puzzle, they underestimate a version of the movie steeped in just as much ambiguity. It’s the same masterpiece, just with a different arrangement.
The story of Southland Tales‘ troubled production is infamous: lambasted following its début at Cannes, Richard Kelly’s follow-up to cult favourite Donnie Darko re-entered post production for a much needed emergency overhaul – in which the director hacked furiously at a movie rejected by critics as calamitous, self-indulgent and unsalvageable. Even in its heavily edited form, released theatrically eighteen months later, Kelly’s film failed to redeem itself in the eyes of most.
Southland Tales is the sort of movie that features two cars having sex, an unlimited fuel source that can also get you high, and which casts Justin Timberlake only to have him lip-sinc to The Killers’ All These Things That I’ve Done. It is a film of criss-crossing narratives, conflicting genres and one which has an opinion on just about everything. A post-apocalyptic satire with a dream sequence musical interlude, Kelly has constructed a sprawling narrative which encompasses everything from reality television and celebrity culture to terrorism, cyber-censorship and surveillance. Not to mention the important topic of teen horniness.
But while it might flirt with pretension and occasionally border on the obtuse, Southland Tales is better for its eccentricities than it is worse off. Kelly has crafted an intricate and rewarding tale that – while initially confounding – has more and more to give with every viewing. Casting actors otherwise pigeonholed, Kelly has wrung interesting – if hardly naturalistic – performances from Dwayne Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar, while finding an unexpected emotional centre with an uncharacteristically toned-down and heartfelt double-performance from professional idiot Seann William Scott.
Kelly’s most recent offering is a comparably personal tale of familial and philosophical conflict. Starring James Marsden and Cameron Diaz as partial representations of his parents, the film asks what you might do if offered extraordinary riches at the expense of the life of a stranger. With the couple’s decision leading them to discover a society rife with conspiracy and their deal with the devil having unforeseen implications for their only child, the two actors wring almost unbearable tension out of a relatively simple concept.
While the hallmarks of a Kelly production are indeed present and accounted for – from the inexplicable water coffins to the mind-bendingly poignant final reveal – The Box makes a conscious attempt to dial down the crazy in order to appeal to a wider audience. Although decidedly more commercial than Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, however, this is no Hollywood sell-out, the film proving characteristically rife with intrigue and underscored by a welcome intelligence.
With one character’s face blown off and another’s toes missing, this is a movie that spends as much time outside the box as it does within. Packing zombies, aliens and a twist that isn’t so much unpredictable as hauntingly inevitable, Kelly has produced another winning blend of genres that successfully transcends its constituent influences to become more than the sum of its parts. When such parts include an ex X-Man and Cameron “The Holiday” Diaz, that’s all the more surprising.
All in all, then, Richard Kelly isn’t some one-hit-wonder turned laughing stock. To write his movies off simply because they fail to live up to the standards set by his original cut of Donnie Darko would be to do his subsequent works a great disservice. He is an auteur, a filmmaker unwilling to compromise his own vision, however impenetrable and non-commercial it may prove. A Richard Kelly film is one that straddles genres, as well as time and space; one which casts actors against type and juxtaposes music with striking visuals; a movie which strains under the very weight of its filmmaker’s limitless ambition, with a bullet in its eye and a paradox at its heart.
With only three such films to his name, I can only hope that there are many more to come. And so should you.