This week sees the release of John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary.” Among the many things the film is—a black comedy; a murder mystery; a dark-hearted fable; an anti-authoritarian screed—it is also a second film, coming on the heels of an admired debut, “The Guard.” “Calvary” is such a specific film, so unlike most anything else you’ll see this year, that it doesn’t easily lend itself to generalizations about the shape of the director’s career at this early stage, however in the feel of McDonagh digging in, getting into heavier, darker and less compromising territory, we can see a valid, some would say admirable, response to the challenges of the sophomore film.
The “difficult second album” syndrome affects filmmakers as much, if not more than musicians, especially those who have found a degree of success with their first outing. Do they try to replicate that film’s success? Do they simply expand on it with a larger budget? do they do a 180 and head off in the entirely opposite direction? Or do they struggle, laboring under the fear that perhaps they only ever had the one film in them?
Here we run down a selection of 20 films, each the second film of a director who’d found success of some kind with their debut. Please note we’re not suggesting these 20 are the best 20 sophomore films ever, nor that the filmmakers on the list are the most notable 20 filmmakers we could think of—we’re fairly sure most of you already know the stories of Orson Welles’ and Quentin Tarantino’s second films, for example. Instead, we’ve chosen our picks off a broad (though U.S.-centric) base, with an eye to showing the spectrum of responses to the specific challenges of the second feature film (narrative features only), and those who succeeded, those who stumbled, and those who seemed, just two films in, to have already burned out.
Richard Kelly - "Southland Tales" (2006)
More or less the poster boy for a precipitous sophomoric fall from dizzying debut heights, Richard Kelly’s plasticky, outrageous and completely incomprehensible follow-up to “Donnie Darko” feels similarly like a prime example of what results when a director’s early success (at a very young age) goes straight to his head. “Southland Tales” is a mess, but it’s an immensely grandiose mess. But all things it’s not—”Donnie Darko”; a real story; any actual good—can obscure what it is, and that is an ambitious experiment, albeit one that failed, in fusing an exuberant, candy-pop-culture sensibility onto serious-minded dystopian science fiction. It’s just a terrible shame that its sparks of cleverness (borne out when real-life events such as the passing of the Patriot Act started to ape the events of the film) are buried in the slag heap of so much cereal-box gimcrackery, from the tic-laden, mannered performances from Dwayne Johnson, as a compromised amnesiac boxer and Sarah Michelle Gellar, pinkly playing a porn star, to the overstuffed and undeveloped subplots. It’s a film catastrophic enough to have sent former wunderkind Kelly to director jail subsequently, only emerging to make “The Box” in 2009. And frankly, if that’s what a chastened, older, wiser Kelly looks like, we’ll take the fearless, ditzy hokum of “Southland Tales” any day.
Lynne Ramsay - “Morvern Callar” (2002)
Lynne Ramsay’s 1999 debut “Ratcatcher” was close to exceptional, but it also fit quite neatly into the long British cinema tradition of kitchen-sink drama. Three years later, Ramsay followed it up with “Morvern Callar,” an adaptation of the novel by Scottish writer Alan Warner, and it was just as exceptional, and much more singular and distinctive. Samantha Morton, in a startling performance, plays the title character, who wakes up to discover that her boyfriend has killed himself. Inheriting a mixtape he made for her, and an unpublished manuscript of a novel that she puts her name on, she heads to Spain in an attempt to sell it to a publisher. But plot really couldn’t be less important: this is a tone poem more than anything else, a woozy, gorgeous, defiantly interior character piece, that’s both artfully quote-unquote difficult, and curiously watchable. Alwin Kuchler’s photography is remarkable, but it’s as much a treat for the ears as it is for the eyes: the carefully curated soundtrack, raging from Can and The Velvet Underground to Aphex Twin and Nancy Sinatra, is a hall-of-famer, and crucially is basically inseparable from the film as a whole. We’d call it an extended music video, but that feels like much more of a backhanded compliment than we mean…
Cameron Crowe - “Singles” (1992)
Having given teen courtship and heartbreak one of its better screen outings with his script for “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” and then doing it all over again with 1989 directorial debut “Say Anything,” Cameron Crowe turned his attentions to twentysomethings with “Singles.” Presciently predicting the grunge boom (the film actually shot at the tail end of 1990, but was held for eighteen months until Nirvana and co. blew up, at which point Warner Bros. realized what they had), Crowe’s film focuses particularly on a pair of Seattle neighbors: Steve (Campbell Scott), negotiating a fledgling affair with Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), and Janet (Bridget Fonda), who has a tempestuous on-off thing with rocker Cliff (Matt Dillon). Crowe’s usual incisive feel for relationships is firmly on display, although the film feels skewed: Fonda and Dillon’s strand is much more compelling than the charming but bland one with Scott and Sedgwick. And it feels more sitcom-y than his other films, though in part that’s because of the way it proved so influential throughout the 1990s, not just on big-screen knock-offs like “Reality Bites,” but on the likes of “Friends” as well. But the film does have a winning specificity to it thanks to the setting and time: key Seattle bands like Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains cameo, alongside with a curious rare acting appearance from Tim Burton.
Steven Soderbergh - "Kafka" (1991)
As stellar debuts go, it doesn’t get much more dream-scenario than your first, low budget indie winning the Palme d’Or, but that, among other landmarks detailed here, is exactly what Steven Soderbergh achieved with “sex, lies and videotape.” But he was already in production on his second film, a re-imagining of elements of Franz Kafka’s life and work into a, well, Kafka-esque story in its own right. It’s a film that still feels like the cuckoo in the nest of Soderbergh’s filmography—an exquisitely mounted movie that shows oceans of filmmaking talent and chutzpah, but in which thematically Soderbergh’s youth and inexperience show—it strives for depth and weightiness but ends up rather convoluted and a little ponderous. Sophomoric, you could say. Still, it’s very far from the flop it was hailed as at the time, if nothing else, it looks scrumptious in its German expressionism-influenced black and white photography (that briefly changes to desaturated color), and Jeremy Irons along with Theresa Russell and great supporting cast including Joel Grey, Ian Holm, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jeroen Krabbe, Alec Guinness all turn in memorable work, not to mention Keith Allen and Simon McBurney as a couple of Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee-like clerks.
Kimberley Peirce - “Stop-Loss” (2008)
The theaters of 2007 and 2008 were littered with movies attempting to deal with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that American audiences simply weren’t ready to deal with. While “Stop-Loss,” the second film from director Kimberley Peirce, isn’t perfect, it is a sincere and searing look at the difficulties faced by soldiers both in combat, and when they return to home to be mistreated by the nation they were attempting to defend. Nine years on from acclaimed debut “Boys Don’t Cry,” Peirce focuses on three soldiers in particular: haunted Staff Sergeant Brandon (Ryan Phillipe), increasingly unhinged Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and straight-arrow Steve (Channing Tatum), who think they’re out only to learn that the Army’s stop-loss policy, where terms of service can be involuntarily extended, means they’ll be returning to combat. Peirce makes parallels with the Vietnam draft fairly explicitly (down to the dash to the border), and there’s a fierce anger that shines through, just as in her debut, but also the same humanism. And you can’t fault her casting instincts: she was on the Channing Tatum train while most others thought of him as the guy from that dancing movie, and he, along with Gordon-Levitt, Phillippe and the rest of the fine ensemble, are all very strong. A shame her equally belated third film “Carrie” was something of a let-down in comparison, then.