Richard Kelly is smarter than you. Let me backup for a minute. Director and screenwriter Richard Kelly turns 40 on Saturday, and in the fourteen years since he entered the feature film business, he’s only made three films. While he’s carved out a niche for himself in the cult movie circuit, he’s never achieved the kind of critical praise or budgetary freedom his contemporaries have been afforded. Since his last film was released in 2009, Kelly has seen two films languish in development hell (Corpus Christi and Amicus) while an untold number of screenplays, including an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, have never made any movement towards production. With his small, visually diverse, and intellectually stimulating body of work, Kelly is one of the most interesting filmmakers in the industry, even if his grand ideas don’t always hit their mark. Comprised of a medley of influences ranging from Terry Gilliam, Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler, Richard Matheson, and T.S. Eliot, Richard Kelly’s films manage to strike a unique, undefinable tone and defy the boundaries of genre in a way that’s rarely seen outside of literature. If he’d chosen to write novels instead of screenplays, there’s a strong chance Kelly could have been the heir apparent to any of the aforementioned names (save Gilliam). But as a maker of films and not novels, his work is messy, and at times self-indulgent, in a way that many critics and audience members reject, and in a way that I can’t help but admire.

While far from perfect, each of Kelly’s films feels like he explored the ideas to their fullest potential, as if he was never going to make another movie again and wanted to get everything he had up on the screen. Does that make for a good director? A good screenwriter? In most cases it doesn’t, but in Kelly’s case I think it does. Because even with his weighty concepts, odd stylistic decisions, and penchant for pushing the narrative past the audience’s patience threshold, Richard Kelly can see past the bullshit of high-school drama, Hollywood, politics, and domestic issues and capture the post-modern soul of America. So why hasn’t he made a film in over half a decade? Because Richard Kelly is smarter than you, smarter than me, and smarter than most of Hollywood’s movers and shakers. We like our films to be neat, categorized, and to be judged by how effectively plot points can be traced from A to B. Our narrative cinematic history, less than 100 years old, is still mostly bound by our basic understanding of the novel. But Kelly pushed beyond that, attempting to do what his modernist and post-modernist influences did with fiction and bring that to film. While I certainly don’t want every film to attempt that, I am after all bound to certain narrative traditions, it would be a shame if Kelly didn’t get a chance to continue to make films the way only he can. We put a lot of stake in auteur theory and perfection when it comes to directors and screenwriters, but I also think there’s a lot to be said for those wonderfully imperfect artists who swing for the fences and let the bat go flying. So Happy Birthday, Richard Kelly; we’re eagerly anticipating your next film.

Donnie Darko (2001)

Pandora Cinema/New Market Films

Pandora Cinema/New Market Films

Richard Kelly’s first feature film is also his most approachable, which is why it’s his most watched (even from a cult film standard). For many teenagers in 2001 and the decade after, Donnie Darko was top-notch filmmaking, regardless of whether the film’s twisty time travel rules were easy to follow. A mix of music video sensibilities and existential science-fiction, Donnie Darko was visually cool, quotable, and a badge of cinematic honor for angsty teens who knew where to find a Hot Topic. In fact, I thought it was so cool that when asked to bring in and read our favorite poem during High School English, I chose Donnie’s poem (yes, I was that guy). But is Donnie Darko still cool, complex, and all the things we once thought it was?

The time loop at the center of the film’s story is still twisty enough to give audiences a pause, and the personal wormhole is still one of the most unique visuals used to explore the subject. But with the growing popularity of time travel in pop culture within the past decade, the film may seem far more straightforward than it once did. But the personal journey Donnie faces, the end of the world he’s faced with, is so personal and small in scale that it seems almost lyrical, especially compared to the much larger canvases Kelly used in his later films.

A lot of what Donnie Darko gets right comes from the casting. Not only does it feature a memorable supporting cast comprised of Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Seth Rogen, Jenna Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Beth Grant, it also helped to make Jake Gyllenhaal a household name. Gyllenhaal’s performance, while later cited as a textbook definition of emo, is also deeply affecting. Donnie’s morose romanticism, darkly comedic timing, and slightly unhinged world-view made him a post-millennial Holden Caulfield. While parts of my feelings on the film are trapped in nostalgia, Donnie Darko remains one of the best explorations of high school in the early millennium and the ennui of suburbia. Its literary depth, plot points, and interactive website that are left to unpack after the film’s conclusion are evidence that, even from the beginning, Kelly was interested in more than film existing in a 2D space.

Southland Tales (2006)

Samuel Goldwyn Films/Destination Films

Samuel Goldwyn Films/Destination Films

When Southland Tales premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006, it was booed, and when it was released in theaters, it was critically panned, earning only a little over 350 thousand of its 17 million dollar budget. In some ways it’s easy to understand why. Southland Tales is a gonzo and unfocused takedown of the patriot act, gas guzzling, and Hollywood that straddles the line between good and bad movie like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

In statements made to Variety and British public service station Channel 4, Kelly referred to the film as “a musical in the post-modern sense” as well as a “strange hybrid of the sensibilities of Andy Warhol and Phillip K. Dick.” The story, made up of animated comic panels, news briefs, ads, musical numbers, and action movie aesthetics, centers on the final three days before the end of the world. The narrative shifts between the interconnected stories of an actor with political ties (Dwayne Johnson), a porn star with prophetic visions of the future (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a cop whose soul has been split into two by a hole in the space time continuum (Sean William Scott) and a disfigured Iraq war veteran (Justin Timberlake) who quotes the Book of Revelations and T.S. Eliot. Weaving in and out of the already complicated plot are side stories and glorified cameos played by the likes of Amy Poehler, Kevin Smith, Wallace Shawn, Jon Lovitz, and Mandy Moore.

Clocking in at 159 minutes (and that’s with a studio-mandated edit) Southland Tales is overly long, and yet not long enough to fully explore all the ideas Kelly puts out. But the ideas that aren’t in the film are part of what makes Southland Tales such an interesting experiment. The film is only comprised of Chapters IV, V, and VI of the story, while the first three chapters were published as comic books. While the film itself can still be followed, the comic books, online story material, and soundtrack comprised of original songs by Moby create a multimedia experience unlike anything that had ever been attempted before or since. In an ambitious stab at allowing form to mirror content, Richard Kelly is concerned with dimensional travel on a narrative level, while also creating a movie that creates an experience outside the 2D screen. There’s part of me that thinks the film is a great work ahead of its time (I’m probably one of the only people in the world who owns a Southland Tales t-shirt), and part of me that thinks it’s an ambitious failure. In either case, there’s no doubt that Southland Tales is transdimensional.

The Box (2009)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. Pictures

Based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” (which was made into a Twilight Zone episode in 1986), The Box is Kelly’s most commercial film. The setup is simple yet engaging: A couple (played by Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) receives a box from a mysterious stranger (Frank Langella). The couple is told if they push the button housed inside the box, two things will happen. They will receive one million dollars, and someone they don’t know will die. The short story is a rather straightforward morality tale, and for the first 40 minutes, The Box seems relatively restrained. But after those forty minutes, the plot of the short story concludes and Kelly leads viewers into a complicated tale of a higher intelligence experimenting and running tests of human morality to determine whether they are worth saving. After the satire and bright color palate of Southland Tales, The Box is a strikingly humorless affair, with an ending that didn’t sit well with most audiences.

There are parts of The Box that are expertly paced and tense, but as the film’s themes become weightier some of that tension dissolves, though the film does become more interesting. While it’s clear that Kelly is more restrained with this studio-driven film, The Box is still driven by Kelly’s fascination with dimensional travel (the afterlife in this case) and literary references. It’s The Twilight Zone by way of Sarte. (No Exit plays heavily into the film.) While the fate of the world is still at stake, as it always is with Kelly’s films, The Box’s scale and personal interest in its characters feels more akin to Donnie Darko but without the memorable performances to elevate it.

What I find most interesting about this film, released at the end of the first decade of the millennium, is how it feels connected to Kelly’s other films. Richard Kelly’s career is inextricably linked to the tragedy and aftermath of 9/11, and its bearing on his films is inescapable. Donnie Darko, released in October of 2001, directly deals with a plane crash; unveiling the corruption of those in power, Southland Tales is defined by the Iraq War, Patriot Act, and Bush Administration; The Box considers humanity’s place in the world, our selfish interests and predilection towards greed and consumerism. And as our world moves past the decade defined by 9/11 and into new conflicts, Kelly’s career has rather aptly stalled. Richard Kelly’s films form a thematic trilogy of post-9/11 America, one just as messy, interesting, tragic, and alluring as our own millennial culture.