Graeme Robertson kicks off a new series looking at directors who damaged their careers; first up is Richard Kelly…
Richard Kelly is very much a case of a bright talent burning out before it really gets a chance to flourish.
Kelly hit the high mark right out of the gate with his mind-bending debut Donnie Darko (2001), which despite being a box office failure, won high praise and has since become a cult hit, as well as making a star out of its leading man Jake Gyllenhaal in the process.
It didn’t hurt that it helped bring renewed fame to the Tears for Fears classic Mad World as covered by Gary Jules, which has scored all manner of depressing montages and adverts ever since, and became subsequently the most depressing Christmas No. 1 in UK chart history.
So given that he started his career on a high, filmgoers had even higher expectations for Kelly’s eventual follow-up to his popular debut, that film would ultimately be Southland Tales.
Southland Tales was to be a complex, satirical, drama set during an alternate history World War III, using this fictional conflict to examine issues relating the ongoing War on Terror, depicting the ultimate nightmare scenario as a potential outcome of this controversial conflict.
To tell this complicated tale, Kelly enlisted a varied ensemble cast, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sean William Scott and Justin Timberlake; not exactly the sort of cast you imagine when you think “high calibre” drama, but people figured that with an interesting, well-told story, the film could still be a worthy follow up to Kelly’s acclaimed debut.
Unfortunately the film would prove to be a failure, debuting at the 2006 Cannes film festival to scathing reviews, with Jason Solomons of The Observer saying that “Southland Tales was so bad it made me wonder if [Kelly] had ever met a human being” before going on to say that the film “may be one of the worst films ever presented in [Cannes] competition.”
The negative reception at Cannes ultimately led to Kelly taking the film away and re-editing it, cutting it down to the basic plot points, and shortening the runtime in the hope of improving it and possibly getting a better reception on release from the general public.
Unfortunately, the reception didn’t get much better with more hostile reviews greeting the film upon general release in late 2006, with one quote from David Edelstein of New York Magazine writing that “Kelly aims high and must have shot off his own ear, which is the only way to account for the dialogue.”
While the film did receive some defenders who appreciated its ambitious nature, the overall tepid reaction, not to mention box office failure – grossing a mere $374,743 worldwide – ensured that Kelly would struggle to enjoy the same level of adoration and anticipation for future projects.
Kelly’s next project would be The Box (2009), an adaptation of the Richard Matheson short story “Button Button” (1970), starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella. The aim of the film was an attempt to achieve a degree of commercial success with Kelly stating that the film represented his hope “to make a film that is incredibly suspenseful and broadly commercial, while still retaining my artistic sensibility.”
Ultimately the film would receive mixed reviews from critics and be virtually ignored by by audiences, resulting in another box office failure for Kelly who hasn’t directed since.
The decline of the career of Richard Kelly is a fairly sad one in my view – after all, Donnie Darko is a brilliant film, with a fascinating story that truly deserves to enjoy multiple viewings to be really understood and appreciated.
I have debated with people who insist that Donnie Darko is one of the best films ever made for this very reason – that its complexity is what makes it brilliant and iconic.
Southland Tales while viewed as a pretentious, self-indulgent mess by most viewers still has a small devoted cult following, with many arguing about the film’s meanings and praising it for its satirical and political commentary.
Don’t expect many people to talk about The Box, though. I don’t think anyone saw that.
I think that Richard Kelly is very much a case of a “one hit wonder” director, hitting it big with an acclaimed debut, which perhaps placed an inordinate amount of pressure on him to deliver a worthy follow-up – one that he, nor most directors for that matter, couldn’t manage to do.
Whether Kelly will be able to get his career back on track is anyone’s guess at this point, but let’s hope he does, as I’d like to think that he still has some interesting stories to tell.
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