When people talk about great modern film directors, one name comes up consistently among both film critics and moviegoers: Christopher Nolan. From his efforts to make a more serious and dramatic superhero film with the Batman series to his passion projects The Prestige and Inception, he’s one of the most loved, most praised and most popular directors of the past ten years.
And it’s not surprising because Nolan has made films that appeal to the more action oriented masses with the Batman films while also crafting puzzle narratives in his passion projects for the more high-minded moviegoers. Therefore, his two defining traits have been his value both as an entertainer and someone who crafts intelligent and provoking films. The problem is that while Nolan gets all the praise, there’s someone out there who is doing the same thing, but better. His name is Richard Kelly.
His debut was Donnie Darko, a cult hit on DVD that told the dark and bizarre tale of a high-school boy and his overgrown bunny…thingy. The blend of dark dread, brazen humor and mind-boggling plot made it one of the most unique and compelling films of the last decade. Here was a film that is bold, progressive and daring in all the ways that Nolan’s films are traditional, stifled and formulaic.
As much as Nolan is praised for his compelling plots, his films have striking similarities to previous films. One could even argue that a large body of his work , as well as his style, is taken from the film Heat. The Batman films play like typical crime dramas with unusual characters while Inception is essentially a typical heist film stuck within a Matrixesqe narrative construct. Granted, Memento and The Prestige stand as more original works, but both heavily rely in ridged and repeated plot frames in order to convey their stories.
Richard Kelly breaks away from the conventions by boldly going in a direction that isn’t afraid to be a bit confusing, a bit unusual and make the audience think about the film after they leave the theater. Donnie Darko would be a lot less interesting if everything was explained and Southland Tales would be a lesser film if it had to spend time establishing its world. There’s no explanation in Southland Tales as to why pimps do not commit suicide.
In a Nolan film, there would have to be rules, some backstory that established the history of pimps not committing suicide. The most egregious offender is Inception, a film so bogged down in establishing rules, explaining devices and developing a world that by the time the action kicks in there’s little chance of everything the audience has been taught being fulfilled in the setpieces. As wudiences have become more and more media savvy, it’s time to jostle them out of their comfort zones and present them with films that aren’t easy to follow.
Love him or hate him, but Richard Kelly never speaks down to the audience or forces them to endure scene upon scene of character explaining rules, reasons or motivations. Occasionally he might have to reveal an essential piece of information through exposition, but Kelly leaves a lot for the audience to figure out, which make his films are far more engaging and thought-provoking experience, films that are just as enthralling to debate over as they are to watch.
As much as The Box is universally hated, there’s something far more appealing about the Twilight Zone open-ended and unexplained nature of what is going on that draws the audience into trying to engage and understand the film. Nolan is so preoccupied establishing order that audiences won’t have to strain too hard to understand the nuance of his films. Kelly embraces the ambiguity and chaos of it all, lets his creativity run free, for good or ill, and it shows up on screen.
This also shows up in the way the directors visually craft their films. Christopher Nolan makes technically proficient and impressive films rooted in reality that have a visual allure to them. However, Richard Kelly embraces the surreal and dreamlike quality of films, from the bizarrely compelling image of a demented bunny in Donnie Darko to the surreal apocalyptic vision of Southland Tales.
Does this mean that Nolan is a bad director? No, but he’s not as exciting, fresh and creative as many make him out to be. He’s made some fantastic films, but they aren’t bold or daring films. The problem is that the film industry has reached a point of stagnation and in comparison to the regurgitation of sequels, remakes and rehashes, anyone who comes along and does something different and still makes it easy enough for everyone to follow is seen as a genius.
On the other hand, Richard Kelly is a director who makes films that are hard to understand without a high level of investment. Too many blow off his films as absurd nonsense, but there is a method to a madness, a pattern of meaning, association and connectivity which begins to emerge as one tries make sense of his films.
The industry is desperate need of dreamers who aren’t afraid to try dangerous and new ideas. Richard Kelly is such a dreamer, and while he’s managed to snag another film deal, I have a suspicion that he’s already had the rug pulled out from under him by the studios and the audience. Nolan is still making films a head above the rest of Hollywood, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t people out there who, if given the chance, could blow Nolan out of the water. I think it can be done. I think the next Stanley Kubrick is still out there, and I think we need more Richard Kellys dabbling in the boundaries of film instead of more Christopher Nolans attempting to refine mass entertainment.