Article: Director 101 - Richard Kelly

After only three movies, Heather and Andrew break down the career highs and lows of director Richard Kelly.

"I'm really not crazy.
My eyes just look like that."

Writer-director Richard Kelly burst out of nowhere onto the film scene in 2001 with his cult favorite Donnie Darko and quickly earned the status of being the new millenia’s David Lynch.  Everything from a merchandise chain to books theorizing what was between the lines in his first feature were borne out of the young director’s newfound success.  But somewhere along the way, Mr. Kelly’s luck began to change with his follow-up features attempting to once again capture the lightning in the bottle caught by Darko as well as broadening his own cinematic horizons.  Open to debate in terms of each picture’s validity and place in the film world, The Movie Sleuth presents a unique focus on the short lived film career of a budding surrealist and purveyor of pure cinema.

Donnie Darko (2001 – written and directed by Richard Kelly)
The film that put Richard Kelly on the map, Donnie Darko is a crossbreed between John Hughes, David Lynch and even a hint of Steven Spielberg.  A high school oriented science fiction fantasy that dances between surreal comedy and schizophrenic freakout, the film concerns the titular teenage protagonist’s interior battle with what appear to be either apocalyptic visions from the distant future or pure unadulterated hallucinations.  Designed as an ensemble piece following Donnie’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) daily life as his bizarre premonitions foretold by a demonic 6 foot tall bunny rabbit named Frank (Harvey anyone?) incite increasingly destructive behavior from the teenage boy, Donnie Darko feels like a coming of age high school comedy with a gothic edge to the proceedings.  What sets Donnie apart from other maladjusted juvenile delinquents is that he actually wants to fulfill his thirst for knowledge, a progressive and healthy contrast to his penchant to destroy.  

"Uh yeah, I'm angsty.
This flippin' bunny
won't stop stealing my popcorn."
Early on we sense Donnie Darko is a parable about teen angst and adolescent intellectual yearning, but then it shifts gears and becomes an existentialist science fiction tale that either sheds light on self-actualization or depicts the implosion of a gifted youth.  By the film’s closing scenes, we’re not necessarily sure how to speak to the chain of events unfolding, only that its hero seems to have come closer to understanding his purpose in life.  One of the film’s greatest strengths is the refusal to provide answers to Donnie’s confounding journey, leaving the viewer alone in their interpretation of the teen’s foray into either wisdom or madness.  While detractors are quick to complain the lack of a more concrete answer speaks to lofty artistic pretension, Donnie Darko’s characters are so richly drawn with a fully realized portrait of adolescent frustration, that to provide a simple explanation would take away from the film’s timeless appeal.

Setting the mood almost immediately is Steven Poster’s deep blue cinematography, which looks and feels a bit like James Cameron with the low contrast of David Fincher.  From the opening shots of the morning sunrise with the camera slowing tracking towards Donnie awakening in the middle of the road, there’s an eerie, almost supernatural feel to the scenery as the confused hero rises to his feet.  Accentuating the almost ghostly visuals is the evocative score by Michael Andrews, with an almost dreamy choir underscored by a melancholy piano.  Taking cues from David Lynch’s composer Angelo Baladamenti during some of Donnie’s more unsettling encounters with his demonic imaginary friend is the use of ambience, sounding not unlike a boiler room.  Much like Lynch, the mood tends to shift abruptly between ethereal awe and visceral terror, providing viewers insight into Donnie’s anxieties and fears. 

A truly independent effects laden journey through time and space, Donnie Darko nearly disappeared into the vortex with its eponymous hero.   Facing a straight-to-video release before Drew Barrymore’s production company Flower Films ultimately provided a limited theatrical run, Donnie Darko quickly faded into obscurity.  Thanks to the success of the DVD release, however, Kelly’s offbeat sci-fi gem soon found reappraisal and blossomed into a cult phenomenon, prompting a theatrical re-release of the newly created Director’s Cut as well as spawning popular memorabilia including apparel and action figurines of Frank.  What was once a clandestine oddity known among devoted cinephiles suddenly became a trendy mainstream bandwagon the average moviegoer took a keen interest in being a part of.  Richard Kelly was now a director held in high regard in the film community.  But as with any first time director who piques before their career begins, what must go up will inevitably come down, a theory proved to many while remaining open to debate with others with the arrival of his next project, Southland Tales.

7/10 –Andrew Kotwicki

Southland Tales (2006 – written and directed by Richard Kelly)
“This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.”
Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s enthusiastic follow-up to his cult favorite Donnie Darko, presents another outlandish time paradoxical science fiction thriller/comedy ensemble mishmash of sorts.  Much like Donnie Darko, the film opens on its amnesiac action movie star Boxer Santaros (played excellently by Dwayne Johnson) awakening in the middle of the desert of Lake Mead, Nevada, confused and frightened by circumstances suggesting he was placed there purposely for reasons unknown. After disappearing from his wife Madeline Frost (Mandy Moore) and her high profile political family, Santaros and porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) pen a screenplay for his next potential project The Power, a tale of sociopolitical apocalypse. To prepare for the new role, Santaros is set up on a “ride along” with Police Officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), an Iraq war veteran who isn’t entirely who he seems.  Little does Santaros know, but the entire “ride along” was orchestrated by a terrorist group called The Neo-Marxist party. And that’s just a handful of information commencing the gigantic Easter egg hunt Southland Tales embarks on, intertwining several storylines like a bike wheel with all the spokes leading to a holistic base.

"I guess after all this time
I figured out what the Rock was
cookin'. It's a face. A
god damned face."
Now if that wasn’t enough to digest, the cast will surely stuff you up. After the aforementioned, the cast is hugely famous with names like, Amy Poelher, Eli Roth, Jon Lovitz, Jeneane Garofalo, Christopher Lambert, Cheri Oteri, and Justin Timberlake! Justin Timberlake’s character is not only the first person you see after the prelude, but he also narrates the entire movie. He plays a war veteran named Pilot Abiline and is outstanding, especially in one scene in particular. Of course this wouldn’t be a Richard Kelly movie without frontman Holmes Osborne, best remembered as Donnie Darko’s father.  Theoretically, you could make the argument Donnie Darko and Southland Tales take place simultaneously in alternative dimensions, as they are set exactly 20 years apart from each other and follow similar paths. Time travel and portals are prominent in both movies, with the leads on a quest to seek out their unknown destinies careening towards apocalyptic tragedy ultimately leaving viewers with more questions than answers. And what would a Richard Kelly film be without an all-girl dance group tying everything together. Maybe a little farfetched, but both movies execute this identical scenario flawlessly.

Richard Kelly also released three prequel graphic novels to prepare viewers. Unfortunately, this didn’t help shuttle the movie at all. Where Donnie Darko struck a chord with audiences, Southland Tales did the exact opposite. Opening in rough form at about 160 minutes at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, the film was immediately branded as the worst film to ever play there. Kelly responded by striking a deal with Sony Pictures to recut the film in exchange for more money to finish the film’s visual effects, bringing it to a length of approximately 145 minutes. Much like Donnie Darko’s initial release, Southland Tales died a quiet death theatrically before developing a cult following on DVD. Southland Tale is mind bending, funny, dark, beautifully shot, and holds the perfect music that ironically helps fill in the emptiness the lead feels. Considered by many to be a misfire, it is absolutely worth a look and is damn entertaining with witty and dry humor outside the normal comedy. Whether or not you walk away with an understanding of Southland Tales won’t take away from the cerebral flirtation. Feeling backed into a corner by Southland, Kelly then set his sights on a more commercial project that would be an easier sell for studios: The Box. Sadly, where many saw Southland as a career ender for the young writer-director, The Box drove the nail further into the coffin than anyone (including Kelly die-hards) could have anticipated.

7/10 – Heather Contreras

The Box (2009 – directed by Richard Kelly)
After the debacle of Southland Tales, Richard Kelly set his sights on a more commercial project to rebuild his career: an adaptation of the Richard Matheson short story Button, Button.  Previously adapted into a 1980s Twilight Zone episode before the film was ultimately renamed The Box and reset in the 1970s, it tells the story of a married couple with a son, Arthur (James Mardsen) and Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz).  Struggling to make ends meet between Norma’s teaching stint and Arthur’s dwindling engineering profession at NASA, the duo is visited seemingly at random by a mysterious disfigured man named Mr. Steward (Frank Langella) who presents to them a wooden box with a button on top.  The catch is deceptively simple: whoever presses the button on the box will receive $1 million, meanwhile someone unknown to them in the world will die.  Like all classic Twilight Zone fables, the tale is a morality play asking viewers what they would do in the same situation as Arthur and Norma struggle to come to a decision about whether or not they should push the button.

"Well. It's damp and warm. I'm all in."
At first, Kelly’s $30 million effort and semi-autobiographical interpretation of Matheson’s short story seems promising, with the usual Kelly regulars such as Holmes Osborne and Lisa Wyatt turning up.  Visually it’s undoubtedly the director’s most polished film with spectacular NASA set pieces lensed by Steven Poster’s dreamy cinematography.  The performances by Diaz and Mardsen are strong and convey a sense of confused apprehension with respect to whether or not the box’s button should be pushed.  Equally exciting for the project is an original score by the band Arcade Fire, which remains unreleased on any commercial audio format.  However, Richard Kelly himself stated his goal was to expand the short story beyond the confines of its initial 6 page length and despite Matheson’s full participation in the project, it is here that The Box takes an abrupt swan dive off the deep end into la-la land.  Much like Southland Tales, the film begins leaping about increasingly bizarre scenarios at random with a fixation on water held in suspended animation, teleportation, supernatural powers, secret interplanetary missions and…

If Kelly’s aims with The Box were to broaden his horizons and reach out to a wider audience with something more accessible, he just couldn’t help himself by engaging in his usual surrealist indulgences that border on the paranoid schizophrenia of his eponymous hero in Donnie Darko.  In short, The Box goes crazy at the halfway mark and never looks back.  Its like two disparately, diametrically opposed movies were sandwiched together in under two hours.  As with Southland Tales, nothing is resolved as Kelly fights tooth and nail to shake his audience off the track with informational and sensory overload.  While that worked to a certain degree in the director’s earlier pictures, The Box’s jarring changeover threatens to obliterate the fledgling director’s attempt to rekindle his now flailing career.  Also unlike the aforementioned features, The Box is curiously lacking in the humor that kept viewers on board with whatever strange twists and turns down the rabbit hole his films would take.

Needless to say, people were fed up with Kelly’s shenanigans and dabblings in the incomprehensible and weird.  The film bombed at the box office and was universally savaged by both critics and the few moviegoers who saw it, with the market research firm CinemaScore branding the film with an F based on audience reactions.  While one can never accuse Mr. Kelly of being unambitious or unoriginal, a case can absolutely be made for his lack of discipline.  Donnie Darko and Southland Tales may have been outlandish and perhaps incoherent, but at least they were consistent and announced their peculiar intentions early on.  With The Box, instead of merely opening doors that pose more questions than answers, it really feels like the film leaps off of a cliff to its own death.  Since the film’s release, Kelly has had yet to secure work in film direction or earn back critical adulation.  If he ever does come back to the silver screen, hopefully he’ll learn that a little creative restraint goes a long way.

5/10 – Andrew Kotwicki