Donnie Darko (2001)
The stuff that cult dreams are made of.
Donnie Darko is about a “troubled” teen in the ’80s who finds himself sleepwalking around town and taking orders from a guy in a demonic rabbit costume who claims that the kid’s got 28 days left to go before the world comes to an end. So as the clock ticks down to Godknowswhat, the kid starts going steady with the new girl at school, starts lashing out against the bullshit his teachers and guest speakers are trying to feed him, and he keeps on following orders that lead him down a path of arson, vandalism and time travel of all things.
Yeah, I’ve seen this one a good three times now, and each new time I go in thinking I’ve got some new piece of the puzzle figured out, I’m always amazed at how much I really have no fucking clue what’s going on. As it sometimes goes when time travel gets involved, Donnie Darko‘s a weird one, it’s a head trip that almost seems to operating on the same brainwaves as Primer at times, but that’s also a big reason people ended up going so ga-ga over it. That and Sparkle Motion, of course.
Folks, it ain’t often that direct-to-DVD movies wind up going from the bottom of the bargain bin to playing in theaters nation-wide, word on the street is that the process is actually more vice-versa. But I love that about this, that it fell through the cracks, that the moviegoing public realized this was something special and rallied behind it until it became a household name. And even though that little spiel doesn’t directly tie into to why I gave this an 8, it’s something worth noting ’cause it’s something that rarely ever happens.
If there’s anything I can say about Donnie Darko, it sure is new. Hard to thumb this as a high school drama, a dark comedy, a psychological thriller or a sci-fi time traveler because somehow it manages to be all four at once without imploding under its own weight. Geez, there are tons of moviesout there that you could pigeonhole into just one of those sub-genres that somehow manage to implode worse than Vulcan. And it works because it’s clear early on that writer/director Richard Kelly is marching to the beat of his own drum, that we’re not supposed to sit through this and be able to explain everything we just saw, that this isn’t your typical Hollywood three-Act offering.
And the more I think about it, the more I’m not really sure what it’s about. I dig the way Donnie stands as a middle finger to the adults in his life who think they’ve got it all figured out and are continually trying to get him to drink the Kool-Aid already, I dig Donnie as this credible embodiment of youth misunderstood, I dig the whole thing about him not wanting to die alone. But then you throw time travel into the mix, it becomes this completely different monster that’s at once out of place and actively tied into every other story line going on, and as much as I don’t understand it, I want to. It is confusing, although time travel’s been executed a whole lot worse.
There’s just so much more to this movie than what Kelly shows us, it’s the kind of thing I can see people buying books on and raiding message boards over for hours just to get the full picture and see what they missed. Like I said, this thing is operating on a different level, but that’s why it’s totally worth watching.
Then again, there are some parts of the script that I’m not so crazy about these days. Back when I first saw this in high school, I thought the dialogues about what a “fuckass” is and why Smurfette isn’t a skank despite what everyone tends to think were awesome. Now, they just seem random and the laughter is gone. Don’t know if it’s me or the movie, but there ya’ have it. Although it is still great when Donnie tells his gym teacher to forcibly insert the lifeline exercise card into her anus and I still get a kick out of Donnie’s dad quietly cheering for George Bush during a televised debate against Michael Dukakis. For the most part, the dialogue is pretty solid and there are some great moments with Donnie going off on people in public, but it’s not on the same level as the story driving it along.
Good cast though. Equally bizarre and hilarious that this came out the same year as the crowning achievement of Jake Gyllenhaal’s career, Bubble Boy, but he really is good as Donnie. Just a really good, surprisingly complicated character to begin with and I really liked the way Gyllenhaal played him down. So well done, Jake. And Maggie Gyllenhaal does her thing as Donnie’s sister; Drew Barrymore is here as the least believable high school English teacher I’ve ever seen; the late, great Patrick Swayze is a rip as a motivational speaker/snake oil salesman; Jena Malone (where the hell did she go?) is good as Donnie’s main squeeze; and Mary McDonnell (who I don’t really recognize from anything else) is also really good as Donnie’s mom. Also really liked the way she played it down. Her and Jake definitely got the memo on that one.
And I’m a big fan of the way Kelly introduces all the characters with two long shots through Donnie’s neighborhood and his school like a music video or something, just that we’re the 0nly ones hearing the tunes. Good songs, cool approach, I liked that.
Bonus points for featuring a young Seth Rogen as one of Donnie’s dickhead classmates whose first profound lines are, “I like your boobs.” A star is born, people.
Donnie Darko‘s one of those movies that I really like every time I see it but tend to forget about in between viewings. Don’t know why that is, maybe it’s because I have some stupid stigma against movies that every single kid I knew in college had a copy of. Whatever the reason, it is indeed very stupid. There’s always something to be said for smart, fresh movies that never seem to shed those qualities and keep you coming for multiple viewings, and while certain aspects of the script might not be as memorable as they once were, this movie deserves the hype that surrounds it.
Sweet soundtrack, too. Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, The Church, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division – all the best highlights of the ’80s without all the spandex and synthesizers. Hell to the yeah.