With The Box hitting theaters this weekend, we're about to get another dose of director Richard Kelly's evolving mythos, which began with Donnie Darko and continued with Southland Tales. So what is Kelly's Darko Mythos?
When a creator invents a fairly consistent set of rules, images, and characters in his or her fiction, often they get referred to collectively as a "mythos" (like the Cthulhu Mythos) or a "verse" (like the Whedonverse). Kelly has said explicitly that there are interconnected ideas underpinning his cult hit Donnie Darko, weirdo political epic Southland Tales, and forthcoming movie The Box (opening tomorrow). Kelly's movies are deliberately crafted to remain open to many interpretations. But there are a few consistent themes that form the shadowy pillars of what I've come to think of as the Darko Mythos.
In Donnie Darko, the half-mad protagonist Donnie is given a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel by one of his teachers. Reading it, he realizes that he's accidentally entered a "tangent universe" created by a rift or portal in space-time. Tangent universes diverge from reality very dramatically, are extremely unstable, and eventually come to an abrupt end. It appears that Donnie may have entered the tangent universe when a jet engine crashes into his bedroom while he's out sleepwalking with shady figure in a bunny suit named Frank (who turns out to be a figure from Donnie's future). Donnie lives in the tangent universe for a month, then travels back in time to the moment when the jet engine crashes into his room - only this time, he's in the bed. His death allows several other characters to live, and it's possible that they remember the tangent universe in dreams.
Critics have suggested that Southland Tales may also be set in a tangent universe, because the graphic novels accompanying the film describe several of the characters traveling through space-time rifts. The movie begins with two characters, Roland and Boxer, driving through a rift and traveling back in time for an hour. Southland Tales also tells the story of an alternate United States which has been attacked with nukes and hit by an energy crisis nearly as dire as peak oil. It's possible this entire vision of the United States is a tangent universe, which is destroyed at the end of the movie when the twins Ronald and Roland Tavener rise above Los Angeles in a floating ice cream truck and touch their hands together.
Time travel, in the Darko Mythos, is associated with relatively short-lived, parallel worlds headed for an apocalypse.
water flows through everyone and everything
As Kelly told us earlier today, he includes a lot of water imagery in his work because he thinks it represents a force that connects humans with each other and the water-logged Earth itself. In Donnie Darko, many of the characters (including Donnie) sprout long, watery tentacles that emerge from their chests. These watery appendages are connected with the way people move through time, and they are sometimes depicted as tunnels. You could call them souls, or simply a representation of the water that every human - no matter how despised or despicable - carries within them.
Water plays a role in Southland Tales as well. A crazed inventor at the Treer Corporation has created something called "fluid karma" that uses quantum particles to generate energy. It's touted as a replacement for oil, but also seems to be causing rifts in space-time.
Look out for water symbolism in The Box, too. A very strong theme in the Darko Mythos is that all human beings are connected. Every death leads to someone else's survival, and every crime is counterbalanced by an act of (sometimes bizarre) justice. People transform each other's lives across time and vast distances without realizing it.
One of the iconic moments in Donnie Darko is when Donnie looks into the mirror and sees Frank in his bunny suit. There are several scenes where we look out of the mirror into Donnie's face, and watch him pounding against the mirror with his fists or a knife as the surface of the mirror ripples like water. In Southland Tales, the mirroring is even more bizarre. Two of the main characters are twins (or possibly just alternate versions of the same guy) named Ronald and Roland Tavener. Meanwhile, a character named Boxer (played by Dwayne "Rock" Johnson) has traveled back in time via a tangent universe, but his original self has died (which you see in this image of him looking at his own dead body).
In a world riddled with alternate universes, where everybody is connected, it's no surprise that doubling is a major aspect of the Darko Mythos. The mirror represents another version of the self, or perhaps just an imperfect way of looking at yourself. Either way, mirrors in the Darko Mythos remind us that we can never truly know ourselves. Even when we stare right into our faces, we see something mysterious.
apocalypse and redemption
The Darko Mythos possesses what you might call an agnostic form of Christianity. The trajectory of tangent universes seems to be an apocalypse that also inspires redemption: One of the notable aspects of Donnie Darko is that nearly every character is redeemed in some way, partly as a result of Donnie's actions. Even the seemingly-evil bunny Frank finds redemption in the end, when we discover that he's just a regular kid whose death in the tangent universe has turned him into one of the "manipulated dead."
Southland Tales is in some ways a retelling of the Book of Revelation from the New Testament, so it's packed with Christian imagery. But it's also full of psychic porn stars and sympathetic neo-Marxists, who seem to have claims to truth that are equal to the claims of the Bible. I'm going out on a limb here, but I'd venture to say that Kelly's view of redemption is a surreal blend of Christian spiritual love, carnal connection, and Marxist social justice. There is never any specific "God" in Kelly's work, but characters find something akin to godliness when they see and acknowledge their primal connection to other people.
Holiness and redemption in the Darko Mythos often involve a character or characters sacrificing themselves to save other people or to make the world a better place. These are not sacrifices to appease a Christian God, but rather to affirm the connectedness of all humanity. These are sacrifices even a neo-Marxist could get behind, because they aren't about going to heaven, but instead preserving the physical, carnal, human world.
military industrial entertainment complex
Southland Tales is about what happens to the United States when Republicans expand the USA-Patriot Act massively in the wake of nuclear attacks, and then institute a special surveillance agency called USIDent. It's also about how Hollywood movies and reality shows on the internet have intermingled to create a giant war of propaganda and counter-propaganda fought entirely on screen. At the same time, there are hints of government experiments with space-time that may have led to the surreal world of the movie itself, where neo-Marxists and internet porn stars are trying to subvert the surveillance state.
In Donnie Darko, the fate of the tangent universe hinges on a massive airplane engine that travels through time and eventually crushes Donnie. Even though his characters wade through mirrors and erupt with time-traveling spiritual essences, Kelly's Darko Mythos is packed with images drawn from the world of industrial technology.
You can expect to see more of this in The Box, whose main characters are part of the NASA Langley Research Center community. (In fact, The Box has a Space Age era origin in a Richard Matheson short story called "Button, Button" published in 1970.)
The Darko Mythos is also saturated with entertainment technology, from movies to the Web. During one of the pivotal moments in Donnie Darko, Frank opens a portal in a movie screen where Evil Dead is playing, and we see time/water swirling around in the center of an image from Sam Raimi's classic horror movie. One of the main characters in Southland Tales, internet porn reality star Krysta has developed precognition and written about the future of the world in a weird screenplay called "The Power," which is about a porn star trying to save the world (this subplot is mostly in the graphic novels associated with Southland Tales, not in the movie).
Ultimately the Darko Mythos is exploring mysticism in a world ruled by industry and the pseudo-rationalism of high tech propaganda. His characters, through excursions into madness and horror, always discover that beneath the trappings of modern life there lurks a primal spirit that connects all of us - across time and between mirror universes. It's a spirit that flows like water through everyone, from pornographers and NASA engineers to Christians and snotty teenage girls in the Sparkle Motion dance troupe. It's even in you.
Salon's summary of Southland Tales helped me immeasurably in writing this.