Donnie Darko: the missing link between Spielberg, King and Stranger Things

Fifteen years ago it marked Richard Kelly out as a great new director. So what went wrong?

I miss Richard Kelly. His much-loved directorial debut Donnie Darko (which is about to be re-released in cinemas) turned 15 this year and it sure feels like a long time has passed since its slow-burning rise to cult success in the period after September the 11th (it was released on 26 October). I always thought it chimed with the wounded, depressive feelings of that time in the same way that, say, Band Of Brothers chimed with the more gung-ho sentiments then convulsing the country. It teemed with interesting ideas (reflective of Kelly’s youthful energy; he was 26) – so many that it was a miracle the movie kept hold of them all. Like The Matrix two years earlier, Donnie Darko became the subject of many a beetle-browed academic monograph and much furious internet-geek debate.

It wanted to do and be everything: to incorporate time travel, giant bunnies and mental illness in a Steven Spielberg suburb and a Stephen King-style high school, add teen romance and death, and moral quandaries and self-doubt. Among other things it’s a key linking work between the actual Spielberg-King 1980s and their fond reiteration in Stranger Things.

With Darko, Kelly managed to hold it all together. One got the impression he had shoved an entire lifetime’s worth of movies, sci-fi novels, stoner ideas and college philosophy classes into his debut, as if he was afraid if he didn’t squeeze it all in he’d never get another chance to say it all.

For Southland Tales, the follow-up, Kelly had lots more new ideas, and enough material for four movies by another director; except these four movies were all having a fight. He was a young director with backers eager to let him rip, and he blew it all on one chaotic three-hour extravaganza (like Paul Thomas Anderson with Magnolia, though Anderson succeeded). This time, too many ideas was Kelly’s downfall. I can only watch any random 40 minutes of Southland Tales before it wears me down with its hectoring ambition, sprawl and volume. It’s fascinating, but hard to love.

Predictably, his next movie, 2009’s The Box, felt like a chastening rebuke: tiny budget, begrudging backers, no profit, gone in a week. In mere years, Kelly had gone from hubris to nemesis, Hollywood-style. Or had the ideas simply run out? Either way, he’s has made nothing since.

Fifteen years ago, I held Donnie Darko to my heart, admitting its shortcomings even then (those CGI wormholes looked a lot like windsock condoms), but thinking we had a great new American director on our hands. Prove me wrong, Richard Kelly.

Donnie Darko is back in cinemas from Friday 23 December


John Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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