In 2001, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko opened in theatres. With only a limited release, just 58 screens across the US it wasn’t able to set the box office alight, with a domestic gross of around $520,000, and $4.1M worldwide. When it came to DVD, however, it found a new lease of life. With some interesting extras on the disc, and the release of The Donnie Darko book which included pages from ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’, we could delve deeper into the mythos of the movie.

 Word spread, DVD’s began to fly off the shelves, and people found a place in their hearts for Kelly’s masterpiece. It provoked discussion, it divided opinions. Most of all, it made people think. Donnie Darko became a cult classic, it made a star of lead actor Jake Gyllenhall, and it catapulted it’s talented director into the public consciousness. Donnie Darko was Kelly’s first feature. He had made Darko on a low budget of less than $5m, and it was the story and thought provoking narrative that made Darko such a popular film.

 The eventual success of the movie meant that Kelly was afforded a higher budget for his highly anticipated follow up, around $17M. Southland Tales was to be an epic story, with some big names attached. Casting and early details about the plot raised some eyebrows. An ex-wrestler, a pop star and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a tale about an apocalypse, and the end of the world? Trust was put in Kelly by his fans however, after all, Donnie Darko wouldn’t have looked so hot on paper either.

 The movie debuted to an icy reception at the Cannes Film Festival. Following rumours of re-shoots and extensive re-editing, Southland Tales was heavily delayed. A graphic novel series meant to lead in to it’s release was reduced in size, due to Kelly’s struggles with the film. Any name value Kelly had with mainstream movie goers was gone, and it was only the internet fans still waiting for Kelly’s epic. Eventually, Southland was given a very limited release, at just 63 theatres, and grossed just $366,000 worldwide.

 Kelly didn’t get to make the movie he wanted. His real vision had been for a four hour epic, a dream that inevitably had to be compromised. Would Southland Tales have been a better movie if Kelly had had his way? Possibly not. Southland was intrinsically flawed, an over indulgent, over ambitious hodge podge of great ideas and poor execution. Unfortunately, unlike Donnie Darko, Southland did not get a new lease of life on DVD either. There was really not much positive buzz about it even from a lot of the directors staunchest fans.

 Kelly acquiesced to the Hollywood system for his third film, and opted for a more mainstream studio picture. Moreover, his movie The Box would not be based on one of his own original ideas, but on the Richard Matheson shoort story Button, Button. He was compromising his creative vision for a fair budget, and a nationwide theatrical release. The source material was however open to interpretation, and the director was able to put his own creative spin and unique ideas to the story. With a couple of A-list, though not overly expensive stars, The Box was a very conservative project in contrast to his last movie.

 Kelly is a very talented film maker, and internet movie fans were looking forward to his next work. The problem is, the general public, the cinema patrons that push a good opening up to a big opening, don’t know who Kelly is. With limited theatrical runs for Darko and Tales, he has never really hit the headlines. Coupled with the lack of real star power in the movie, and a cerebral storyline that is difficult to convey in a trailer, it was always going to struggle at the box office. And it has, having made just $13.5M in it’s first two weeks, against a production budget of $30M. Worldwide, it will make a profit by the end of it’s run, but only a small one.

 Kelly continues to complement his movies with extra content, in the case of The Box it’s another book, that features in the movie, and is available online. His movies work best backed up by internet material, and insider information. That’s why the failure of Southland Tales and The Box might not necessarily be a bad thing, for fans of the film maker at least. Tales was over indulgent, The Box too much of a compromise. Kelly’s films, his stories and ideas, are just not meant for mainstream audiences.

 If he is forced to go back to basics, with a low budget film and intelligent storyline, it may result in another great film like Donnie Darko. With his ambitions reigned in, and no studio execs looking over his shoulder, Kelly could once again show what a great artist he is. It’s most director’s dream to be able to make the films they want with the financial backing and clout of a major hollywood studio. But the truth is, Kelly is an auteur, and much better off working completely independently. I’m looking forward to his next project, whatever it may be, as it may just be the best film he ever makes.


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