The Box is a flop. It opened sixth, behind Paranormal Activity, which had already been in wide release for a couple of weeks and was past the momentum of Halloween weekend. Moviegoers hated the film according to CinemaScore, a company that does exit polling of real audiences on Friday nights; people they spoke with gave the film an F. The Box made almost 8 million dollars its first weekend and it’s dead in the water now; the movie’s 30 million dollar budget will never be recouped in theaters.

This is very bad news for Richard Kelly, who is coming off a film that was widely seen as a flat out disaster, Southland Tales*. You can lose money in Hollywood if the films you’re making are massive cult successes or awards magnets, and The Box and Southland Tales are neither. It’s looking more and more like Kelly’s initial cult success with Donnie Darko was a fluke, and Monday November 9th, when the final actual numbers came in for The Box, could not have been a good day for whatever project Kelly had planned next.

Which wouldn’t be that big of a deal if Kelly wasn’t such a good director. The Box ultimately fails narratively and thematically, but it’s a complete winner cinematically, a truly moody, atmospheric, taut and superbly crafted film. Say what you will about Southland Tales - and I’ll say it’s barely watchable – but the film looks great and Kelly does pull off some interesting things amidst the mess and incoherence.

The reality is that Richard Kelly simply isn’t a writer. His last two films are failures on the script level, and watching the Donnie Darko Director’s Cut reveals that Kelly likely didn’t understand what it was that made his own film so popular. Again, it’s Kelly failing as a writer.

So Richard Kelly finds himself at a crossroads. His budgets have been getting bigger, but he’s not been able to make something that connects with audiences (or critics). His skills as a visual storyteller have sharpened, but his skills as a screenwriter remain woefully underdeveloped. Richard Kelly will still get to make movies – it’s going to take another two flops to really, truly kill his career – but he really only has two options.

The first option is to continue writing his own films and move into very low budget filmmaking. It’s likely that Kelly’s name can get a couple of decent actors and together they can drag a small, small film to profitability. What’s less likely is that Kelly’s vision can be contained in a 5 million dollar film these days. Even if he’s able to scale his personal obsessions – people making sacrificial choices, water tendrils, explanatory books – his style is one that works best at a lower mid-level budget at least. But if Kelly wants to continue telling his own brand of half-baked scifi stories, he’s going to have to settle for doing it on the cheap.

The other option is that Kelly suck it up and film someone else’s script. I don’t doubt that a strong blueprint will give Kelly the foundation he needs to make his best movie yet. There’s no shame in shooting a script you didn’t write – not everybody is going to be Woody Allen, and even Oliver Stone, who wrote his own best movies, shoots other people’s scripts. It’s obvious that Kelly has certain things that he likes to revisit (even if those things don’t actually ‘make any sense’), and there’s no reason he couldn’t get those elements into a project someone else originates. Hell, the auteur theory was built on directors who shot other people’s scripts. Howard Hawks didn’t write Rio Bravo and Alfred Hitchcock didn’t write Psycho; a good director can develop someone else’s material in a way that fits their style.

For me the second option is the only way for Kelly to go. I don’t feel like Kelly has as much to say as he thinks he does, but I do think he has really interesting ways to say it. Leash his directorial talent to a strong screenwriter – maybe even someone with whom he can collaborate again and again, someone who understands what Kelly wants and knows how to put it on paper – and Richard Kelly can finally make good on the promise that the original cut of Donnie Darko showed.

* it was widely seen as such because it was a disaster. The movie was despised at Cannes and then recut; the 15-17 million dollar film made about a quarter of a million dollars in the US and less than that worldwide.

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