Last weekend, I revisited an experience that I’ll never forget. I went across wormholes, met giant demonic bunny rabbits, flooded my school, attempted time travel, and followed a spherical energy field coming out of my chest into fantastical places. Then after that, I swore off shrooms for good after running my car into a tree and re-watched Donnie Darko to ease me off my crying fetal position of withdrawal and inadequacy.
Stupid joke aside, when I started getting into movies in the 8th grade, I watched Donnie Darko to disappointment. I heard tons of great things about it, how it was a cult classic, how it was a surprisingly deep sci-fi character study with existential themes wrapped inside it, all in the context of an ’80s coming of age story that uses the apocalypse as a representation of it’s title character’s angst. So when I finally rented it back when Blockbuster still apparently existed, I…liked it, but felt that all its promise and potential was thrown out the door in favor of confusion for the sake of confusion.
Today, however, my snobby-ness has grown to a point that I appreciate the medium of film much differently, as well as more substantially. Hell, when I first saw Mulholland Dr, I didn’t get it and even wrote a review at how much the ending pissed me off. Now, I love the movie and the way it warps with reality and fantasy so inventively, and even better is showing it to more people who have no idea what insanity they’re getting into.
But what exactly got me into re-visiting Mr. Darko’s strangely hypnotic world. well, I was showing my sister The Nines one day, a film that I included in my Top 15 Movies You Probably Haven’t Tried (That You Totally Should Try) List, and in the blurb, I said and I quote “If you love Donnie Darko, you’ll love The Nines.” Re-watching it, I started to compare it to my long, long-ago experience with Darko, and was thinking about how superior I thought The Nines was, until I thought to myself, “Do I really think that? Or is my memory of the movie fuzzy?”
Needless to say, I saw that the local library had the DVD available to rent a couple days later, so I whipped it up and brought it home for a magical night of hallucinatory weirdness (not gay).
And, surprisingly enough, my appreciation for the film has grown. I loved the movie, this time. I was able to get lost into its strange but true-to-life, fully-realized, Reagan-era suburb and the ending wasn’t nearly as confusing as I remembered it being. Though to be fair, after seeing all of David Lynch’s more abstract work, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Miranda July’s The Future, Richard Kelly’s own Southland Tales, and other more abstract and confusing work, Donnie Darko is just more accessible by comparison.
Though, to the movie’s credit, unlike Richard Kelly’s later efforts, Donnie Darko gives the audience enough material to actually interpret the ending in your own way without being completely befuddled by it, which is what I think makes it much more than just Kelly simply “trying” to be incomprehensible to make himself look deep. He clearly knows what he’s doing and trying to say; hell, he knows it even in Southland Tales and The Box. But what separates Darko from the latter two films is a key element: Control.
Kelly, as a person, simply fascinates me, for some reason. He has crazy high ambitions, none of his films have ever made money at the box-office, Darko became a massive cult hit, he’s praised as Generation X’s David Lynch at the time, makes Southland Tales 5 or so years later, which, like it or not, is one of the most audacious to ever be made, and he becomes one of the most reviled men in movie-geek history.
I wanna know what that’s like in his shoes. He clearly is a smart guy, even his train-wrecks show flashes of brilliance in them. It’s just that he has a hard time with the word “restraint”. Either way, I’d much rather have a guy with tons of creativity and no restraint, than a man with testicles for brains and authoritative control. And I’d much rather watch Southland Tales ten times then see Cowboys & Aliens or Transformers: Dark of the Moon a second time.
The main reason why Donnie Darko works so well in comparison to Southalnd Tales and The Box (Both of those movies I actually like, but will acknowledge how terribly flawed they are) is that Richard Kelly doesn’t veer off too far into la-la-land. While there’s plenty of crazy stuff involving giant demonic bunny rabbits, time travel, a looming apocalypse, wormholes, and a mysterious jet engine, the film is still grounded in reality thanks to remarkable character development.
There’s a reason why everyone considers Gyllenhaal as “the guy who played Donnie Darko”, and that’s because it is probably his most defining work. Richard Kelly’s offbeat writing only works when good actors are saying his lines, and all of the actors in Darko are cast exceptionally well, with special mention to Gyllenhaal, who is convincing as a young adult who is completely driven by angst, and doesn’t wish to have the responsibility of saving the world.
As angsty as Donnie is, we still care about him. It’s hard to see why exactly he is as angsty as he is. He has parents that deeply love him, nothing truly traumatic has happened to him before the movie’s starting point, he even gets a girlfriend as the movie begins, and at school he’s…well, he’s kind of bullied by a couple jerk-asses (one of which being Seth Rogen), but his teachers at least are…oh yeah, his gym teacher is a total bitch. Well, even with those poos in the fruit basket (I can’t believe I wrote that, either), it isn’t really enough to bring him down, right?
Well, apparently not. Donnie’s problems stem more from the psychological front than anything else. There’s just something about him that troubles him. Perhaps it’s the fact that the world is closing in on him. That life has unreasonably high expectation for him, and he doesn’t know what to do in the face of the world. He wishes to destroy the world, “just to see what happens when they tear the world apart. They want to change things.”
That last line is important because it is a quote from a Graham Green short story called The Destructors that is referenced in the film, as well as mirrors the acts of vandalism that Donnie performs throughout the course of the movie. Richard Kelly does a good job at keeping things symbolic in a way that isn’t completely incomprehensible. Donnie’s actions mirror those of the short story, and also reflect the theme that destruction can become an act of creation which factors heavily into the whole “sacrifice” element that happens in the film’s ending.
Another thing that I didn’t notice in my first viewing was the setting, which takes place in an ’80s Reagan-era suburb that eerily evokes classic John Hughes films. I honestly couldn’t believe that I missed this factor when I first saw it. Though to be fair, as an 8th grader, your eye for politically historical contexts is limited, but the second Maggie Gyllenhaal said “I’m voting for Dukakis”, it boggled my mind for a bit that I didn’t notice that until now. Especially since there are title cards that deliberately give out THE DATE AND YEAR THE MOVIE TAKES PLACE IN. God I was stupid back then…
The movie brings back nostalgia for classic ’80s John Hughes films without completely aping from them. It finds its own voice, yet still allows you to remember a time when friends would ride their bikes to investigate the neighborhood recluse.
Finally, there’s the ending. As I said before, I was able to understand it better the second time around, but it’s still an interesting enigma, pardon the name-drop. While I understood the time-travel elements well, such as where exactly the jet engine came from, how it leads Donnie back into his bed on October 2nd, allows him to undo all the bad things that happen with a sacrifice, death as an act of creation, the death of his mother and sister in the plane turn into the death Donnie that ultimately saves his mother and sister in another timeline as well as Gretchen, etc., etc.
What makes it work is not that it’s confusing or multi-layered, but that it focuses on the emotions in the center. We feel like we’ve experienced a significant portion of Donnie’s life, and we feel like we’ve come to know him, and in turn, care about what happens to him. This makes the ending work on a human level as well as a psychological level, which can be said for the entire movie.
This is why Southland Tales and The Box don’t work nearly as well. They forget that a midst the chaos of confusion is a person that we can understand. I am still waiting for Richard Kelly to make a truly great successor to Darko some time. It would be nice to see, after being ridiculed several times, he’ll come back on top and show us all the true genius that is hiding inside his ego. He just needs some restraint. And a rabbit named Frank.
That is all.