Five great debut directors who made bad follow-ups

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The guy that made Donnie Darko also made Southland Tales. Here are four other directors who made a terrible mistake.

Last week I caught Scott Cooper’s second feature Out of the Furnace, a murky crime thriller packed with an A-list cast. The general consensus appears to be that it’s a mediocre follow-up, and I have to agree. It’s a shame, for Cooper’s 2009 debut, Crazy Heart, was met with critical and commercial success, leading to an Oscar win for Jeff Bridges. It appears Scott Cooper isn’t alone as a filmmaker that began strong but returned with a poor follow-up. Here are my top five.


Jonathan Glazer

birth nicole kidman

Sexy Beast jumped onto the bandwagon of the British gangster film fad in the late 90s and early 00s. It had quintessentially British cinematic and cultural tropes of impoverished cockney gangsters and retirement on the Spanish coast line. It had solid performances from its leads, earning Sir Ben Kingsley an Oscar nomination. With such success, Glazer moved to Hollywood for a follow-up.

Birth was a spiritual thriller about a 10-year-old claiming to be the reincarnation of Anna’s (Nicole Kidman) late husband Sean. The film is as absurd as the premise, with plotholes becoming more frequent and greater in expanse as the narrative progresses. The character’s responses to the child’s claims lack rationality, so even via the plotholes the character’s inconsistent behaviour will alienate audiences.


Neill Blomkamp

elysium matt damon

District 9 was what the entertainment industry would call a sleeper hit, a film featuring an unknown team and minimal marketing, but earning international recognition. The film is a poignant modern example of using the sci-fi genre to explore contemporary socio-political themes. What prevented this film from becoming too preachy were the defined characters, the exploration of the alien culture and their clashes with the South African authorities.

Blomkamp knows how to use the sci-fi genre as allegory, as he had hoped to do with Elysium, which attempted to explore class divide. The result was an underwhelming, preachy sci-fi film. It never explored the dimensions of this divide between Earth inhabitants and the luxurious space station. It featured a simplified “us and them” paradigm and the characters were more like caricatures.


Frank Miller

the spirit

This entry is slightly cheating, as Miller’s debut was a co-directorial one, alongside auteurs Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, for Sin City. In making this neo-noir comic adaptation of his material, Frank Miller had some of the most talented filmmakers acquainted with the genre. Sin City was a success, with its talented ensemble cast and use of colour processing. This success led to producers thinking that Miller could have a directorial career in cinema, and with such confidence they gave him a bigger budget for his next production.

What was left was the abysmal The Spirit, which was much less of a film influenced by Sin City but more of a failed replica. The film was a tonally uneven crime flick with questionable performances. Was it a comedy or thriller? Was it a cop drama or a superhero film? Answer is: you probably never saw it. It bombed at the box office and rightly so.


Richard Kelly

southland tales

Donnie Darko was an interesting indie sci-fi film set in suburban Americana. It told the story of the titular character (Jake Gyllenhaal), who begins to see apparitions of people’s fate as he deals with a potential anomaly in the universe. It is an eerie picture that fuses teenage angst of individuality with the notion of one’s futility in the cosmos. The confusing narrative forced viewers to ponder the themes and it soon became a cult hit. As Donnie Darko was written and directed by Richard Kelly, studios were confident in giving him a bigger budget to explore other themes.

Kelly’s second film, Southland Tales, was a satirical commentary on the military-industrial complex in post-9/11 America and the infotainment industry, set in an alternate reality. Alongside these two large scopes were themes of police brutality, fascism, neo-Marxism, feminism, time travel, identity, celebrity stardom, ethics of pornography and commercialism. As one can see, the major issue with this film is there’s too much crammed in. Rather than integrate these themes into the narrative, the film attempts to scrutinise them individually and becomes an incoherent mess. The ensemble cast makes it difficult to follow as to which is character is aligned to which side. To make matters worse, Southland Tales is tonally uneven.


Kevin Costner

the postman kevin costner

Dances With Wolves was the astounding directorial debut by Kevin Costner, set during the American Civil War. It tackled cultural differences and acceptance between the Americans and Native Americans with a degree of honesty, albeit in a populist Hollywood fashion. Such was the film’s impact, subsequent films like Avatar have found it difficult not to draw comparison. It was clear that this rising American actor understood good filmmaking, in making poignant and easily accessible stories.

So the big question is: what the hell happened with The Postman? Costner’s second picture featured such an unprecedented dip in quality, one has to wonder where all that creative inspiration went, or, for the former film, where did it all come from? The Postman was well-meaning but incredibly self-indulgent, especially the Jesus-like connotations Costner makes between his character, his direction and himself. To make matters worse, it’s three hours in length, making the post-apocalyptic tale ever more arduous.


Featured image: Lionsgate

Inset images: New Line Cinema; TriStar; Lionsgate; Samuel Goldwyn Films; Pictures Warner Bros

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