Whether it’s the title character of Donnie Darko struggling to accept the existential pain that comes with that jump into adulthood, or Southland Tales hyperbolic politics forming an inevitable destruction of an entire society that has caved on itself, or The Box with which you press a button to accept monetary advantages at the expense of a stranger’s life. They’re three very different stories, but they’re all directed by Richard Kelly, they all have recurring thematic and symbolic footnotes – and they’re all quite critical of American life. They were also made in the height of the United States’ Bush administration, and they consecutively tell of the pre- and post-9/11 anxieties of the American people.
What’s interesting about Donnie Darko is that the film was made before 9/11, but released just a month afterward. There was some minor controversy around the film due to its use of “Arabic” font on the film’s poster (and in its opening and ending credits), as well as the plot revolving around a jet engine disaster. But the film is also a slice of Americana – a critical look at suburban America circa the late-80s, with Kelly drawing emphasis on the political weather at the time by incorporating the George H.W. Bush / Michael Dukakis election year into the background of the otherwise science fiction story, at hand. The title character goes through some fantastic situations involving time travel, parallel universes, and supernatural visions – but he’s also one with mental health issues, a disconnection with adulthood and adult priorities, and his name is like that of a comic book superhero. In essence, it’s a coming-of-age film, and the theme of him feeling disconnected and confused by the world around him is a universal one that may be responsible for its cult status over the years. Teenagers today, even, find themselves connecting to Donnie’s personal crises. Kelly’s screenplay also covers religion (a Catholic private school), materialism/celebrity (the dance group Sparkle Motion; the self-help tapes), and adult-to-adolescent relations (Drew Barrymore’s teacher character being told her methods aren’t on par with the structure of the school board).
But Donnie Darko came at a perfect time, at least when it came to allegorizing the heat of politics and their effects on the American nuclear family. It takes place in 1988, during the Iran conflicts which started with the Tanker War a year earlier, and was released after George W. Bush’s winning the U.S. presidency and the starting of the War on Terror following September 11th. The parallels are possibly even coincidental, but it doesn’t make them any less effective. And I think Kelly’s recognized this, the connection it had to his own political mindset with his storytelling, and so he continued on with this undercurrent by doing a follow-up, Southland Tales, which has a vignette-filled mess of a screenplay interested in everything and anything that would satirize the American climate in a post-Iraq War apocalypse.
In Southland Tales, there’s more of Kelly’s interests when it comes to science fiction. There are parallel universes (with this film, in particular, taking place completely in an alternate version of the Bush Administration of the time), there are atomic glitches that result in cloning, time travel by way of water, and people acting erratically when apocalyptic/supernatural/extraterrestrial phenomenon is taking place. There’s also loads of references to poets such as T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost, and extended setpieces that involve longtakes set to time-specific songs. In Donnie Darko, two sequences (set by Echo and the Bunnymen and Tears for Fears) that pan through the environment to introduce us to a plethora of characters. In Southland Tales, there’s a moment during the third act, where we experience every character we have learned sharing the same space on a zeppelin in the sky (set to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club). And that’s only one of about four or so music sequences, the best being a drug-induced dream sequence involving Justin Timberlake lip-syncing The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” while being surrounded by images of America circa every American war you can think of post-WWI.
Kelly’s ideas aren’t always at their most cohesive, because the man’s quite ambitious in loading every element of his stories with ideas that can’t even be contained in a couple of hours. Donnie Darko was accompanied by a website that helped the viewer “understand” his science fiction. Southland Tales, similarly, was accompanied by three comic books that helped aid an “understanding”. The man’s concepts are very in-depth, often to an unnecessary degree, but because of the confusion and the messiness of his scope, it’s not easy to completely write off one of his works, because they almost approach an avant-garde level of feeling. Quite easy to understand why one would hate his work, because it’s not entirely easy to love them. Donnie Darko connected to teen angst, but something like Southland Tales doesn’t have the same personable traits. It has an action movie star (played by an action movie star), a porn star (played by a sex icon from the 90s), a comedian (played by a comedian), and a singer-turned-actor (played by a singer-turned actor) – and it balances around twenty or so subplots, all with political ties, into two-and-a-half hours of jumbled pseudo-science. Hate is warranted; but the ambition, and consistency, of Kelly isn’t as easy to completely throw into the can. It’s a case of something that is hated for the same reason why someone like me actually admires it.
But can we discredit Southland Tales for how relevant it is when it came to showing an alternate reality to the War on Terror? The film is messy and chaotic, but it’s also about a country that has turned messy and chaotic during the hysteria of a new World War. People are being drafted and dying in combat, but those back in the homeland are still overcoming very true American ideals. There’s capitalism, as characters try to get movies made, energy drinks sold, and politicians in the spotlight. There’s political extremists on both sides of the fence, with an emphasis on a Marxist movement that has turned to violence and electoral skewing (by way of removing people’s fingers to sway votes). There’s also a highlight on a police state and government surveillance which, in a country terrified of both terrorists foreign and domestic in the height of war, have gone as far as to put cameras in every bathroom across the country. It may be bloated around Kelly’s more eccentric ideas of time travel and parallel universes, but the concepts are there, and they provoke enough thought on the current state of politics at its time – many of which have continued on into today’s political climate. Not unlike how Donnie Darko still involved us into erratic American behavior, as a society, in the heights of “fear” – a word uttered more than any other by that film’s ensemble of characters.
Following the election of Barack Obama into the presidency, Kelly’s The Box was released. As of today, he hasn’t made another film since – and it’s interesting the trajectory of his only three films were released before, during, and after the George W. Bush era. Kelly’s last film, and the one I believe wraps up a very consistent trilogy of thematic ideas, is set in the winter of 1976; a post-Vietnam era. Kelly’s film still exists in the realm of paranoia and hysteria by war, his nuclear family finding themselves in a financial crisis (possibly even at their own fault, considering all of the décor of their home, the car they drive, and the wife’s expensive collection of clothing). Like Donnie Darko, there are characters connected to a Catholic private school (Cameron Diaz’s character is a teacher there), and there are elements of water-induced time travel and parallel universes. On top of that, the plot incorporates an ambiguous addition of characters that may or may not be aliens, but also plug into the bizarre behavior of people in the height of something that is extraterrestrial. The Box is based on an episode of The Twilight Zone that was, likewise, based on a short story by Richard Matheson. Kelly’s ideas go further, and because they’re not accompanied by websites or comic books to help guide the viewer, it’s quite easy to get lost into its sci-fi – even if aspects of the science within his previous two films show up here. But then there’s Kelly’s socio- and psychological question. The fact they pressed the button, and this is just as relevant to the climate of Bush years as the other two films. And yes, more literary quotes.
Kelly’s films are political, but they’re still commendable in how they don’t necessarily seem to choose a stance. Politics are crucial, and the man’s interests in nuclear war and other kinds of disasters by hand of heated political means (which are presented, often, as unknown in origin) perfectly parallels with the years that the War on Terror began. All three films - whether taking place in 1976, 1988, or a fictional 2008 – are documents of post-9/11 America. Fears, anxieties, hysteria. A disconnect from individuality within the social climate of the period. It may be no coincidence that, to add onto the many auteur traits of his stories, all three films end with the crucial protagonist sacrificing themselves for a greater good.