Richard Kelly: Why The Man Behind Donnie Darko Stopped Making Movies

By Drew Dietsch | Published

This article is more than 2 years old

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Writer/director Richard Kelly on the set of Donnie Darko.

Richard Kelly seemed poised to make a real mark in the movie world. After his feature debut Donnie Darko, the twenty-six-year-old director was a hot ticket. But, over the years, his star faded and it’s left many to wonder exactly why this promising filmmaker never attained his full potential.

Let’s look at exactly what happened with Richard Kelly and why he’s been under the radar since his stellar debut.

Richard Kelly & Donnie Darko

Frank the Bunny, an ominous figure that plays a key role in Donnie Darko.

Richard Kelly came out the gate swinging with Donnie Darko, a strange genre-blending flick that seemed destined for cult status. Donnie Darko had a rough time at the box office. Its bizarro, unmarketable premise surely hurt its accessibility, but it also released shortly after 9/11 and the story does involve a jet engine crash. However, it found enormous success on home video and became an overnight word-of-mouth wonder.

Donnie Darko would cement a lot of metaphysical and sci-fi ideas that would continue to be present in Richard Kelly’s following films. Concepts like time travel, interdimensional beings, and the apocalypse would show up in his subsequent movies, but Donnie Darko was able to integrate those ideas into an emotional story about an outcast teenage boy. Though Kelly would return to Donnie Darko for a director’s cut that added in more context to the supernatural elements, it’s always been the affecting human drama and social satire that has clicked with viewers of Donnie Darko. That’s going to come into play later…

The most important takeaway here is that Donnie Darko established Richard Kelly as a talented newcomer to the world of genre filmmaking. Whatever he was going to do next would affect how audiences felt about his potential.

Southland Tales

Southland Tales was possibly to ambitious for its own good, but has it gotten better with age?

Though he’d written the screenplay for the Tony Scott true story thriller Domino, Richard Kelly didn’t directed anything after Donnie Darko for five years. Then he released Southland Tales, a sweeping opus that acted as a vicious satire on a number of topics including American politics, the military-industrial complex, alternative energy, and popular entertainment. Southland Tales played at the Cannes Film Festival and was infamously one of the most booed films in the festival’s history.

After this reception, Richard Kelly re-edited the film and took out 20-25 minutes of footage while also negotiating with Sony Pictures to give him additional funds to finish visual effects in the movie. Much like Donnie Darko, Southland Tales was a near-impossible film to market and it bombed at the box office. Unfortunately, it didn’t fare much better on home video.

However, Southland Tales has begun to see a reappraisal in recent years as its outlandish view of American excellence has become more like the real world. Still, it was a big knock against Richard Kelly’s momentum. He’d have to bounce back with something that could potentially have mainstream appeal.

The Box

The Box seemed like it was going to be exactly what Richard Kelly needed.

The Box sounded like the perfect vehicle for Richard Kelly to re-establish himself as a strong voice in the cinematic landscape. Based on a short story by horror master Richard Matheson, The Box was sold on a very simple premise: if you could press a button and get a million dollars but it meant a total stranger would die, would you press the button? It’s an easy-to-sell idea that got plugged into an effective period piece thriller.

Unfortunately, Richard Kelly once again went overboard with his wackier sci-fi concepts and it ended up diluting a lot of the excellent tension and dread he had built up in The Box. It’s commendable that a studio let Kelly do something so brazenly weird with his third act, but it also meant the movie was never going to be accepted by the mainstream. There are still those who think this movie is worthwhile, but this was such a blow to Kelly that it’s looking like it could be his final feature film.

Richard Kelly and James Marsden on the set of The Box.

Yes, Richard Kelly hasn’t directed a film in over a decade. According to an interview with The Independent, Kelly has worked on a number of projects without having his name credited. And he’s still committed to getting a project of his off the ground. But, his off-the-wall stories often get so crazy that he misses the human core of the tales he’s telling. This is certainly true for both Southland Tales and The Box. Hopefully, Kelly has figured out how to best tap into the emotive powers of his characters as he did in Donnie Darko.

Because the world needs filmmakers like Richard Kelly. He’s willing to go places that other storytellers aren’t. Even if you don’t like his vision, it’s impossible to argue that he doesn’t have a vision. Kelly is a skilled director and he deserves more chances at making the art he loves. Thankfully, there are rumblings that he might release his original extended cut and an even newer cut of Southland Tales. That could re-energize some interest in him. Here’s hoping it does and we can write up whatever Kelly’s next weird work will be.