Why I Love… #51: Donnie Darko

Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), Gretchen (Jena Malone) and Frank (James Duval) take in a movie.
Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), Gretchen (Jena Malone) and Frank (James Duval) take in a movie.

Year: 2001

Director: Richard Kelly

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), Jena Malone (Gretchen Ross), Mary McDonnell (Rose Darko), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Elizabeth Darko), Patrick Swayze (Jim Cunningham), Drew Barrymore (Karen Pomeroy), Noah Wyle (Prof. Monnitoff), Holmes Osborne (Eddie Darko), Beth Grant (Kitty Farmer), Katharine Ross (Dr. Lilian Thurman)

Genre: Drama / Science Fiction

I’m going to start this one off a little bit hipster, for that I apologise. I saw Donnie Darko on its initial limited cinematic release back in 2001, when the critics were lauding it but the general public was largely unknowing. I’m like James Murphy on LCD Soundsystem’s (utterly superb) single “Losing My Edge”, shouting out my cool cred. I was there. Before the 2002 re-release that got people talking, before DVD sales made the film ubiquitous, before Gary Jules and Michael Andrews’ cut of “Mad World” became overplayed at Christmas. I was there. And it was a delightful, quixotic movie experience. It still is. Hipster cred falls away here. Donnie Darko rocks, whenever, however you find it.

I do admit it was fun, those first few months, in a I-know-something-you-don’t-know kind of way. “There’s this movie you must see.” I’d been drawn to it by scattered reviews that formed a collage in my mind. This movie was, supposedly, like a cross between Heathers and Twin Peaks via the mind’s eye of John Hughes. That’s a good sell no matter what the year. And certainly watching the film it feels defiantly ‘cult’, knowingly ‘different’. But that outsider feeling is entirely appropriate given the teen angst storyline.

Anchored by a career-making (and still career-best) performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as the title character, Donnie Darko is one of those rare, literate movies that taps into the teenage mindset with respect and empathy, instead of fobbing a generation off as adults-in-the-making, spoiled or troublesome brats that will turn into real people eventually. The John Hughes flavour is enhanced by the 80’s setting, but there’s also a dash of Richard Linklater about Donnie Darko. Importantly however, Richard Kelly’s film rises above its influences. It has the strength and distinctiveness to stand tall by itself. Just witness the bravura introduction to the town high school set to Tears For Fears’ “Head Over Heels”.

If you’re not familiar with the film, it follows the adventures of smart-yet-troubled student Donnie Darko, a boy haunted by visions of a masked man in a rabbit costume who foretells the end of the world. It’s up to Donnie to make sense of these visions, as he gets wrapped up in theories of time travel and the attention of local new girl Gretchen Ross. The film’s finale swirls into a maelstrom of supernatural activity as Donnie himself faces emotional catharsis. The film loops around, tying itself like a shoelace, leaving the viewer to unknot things if they so desire.

The confusion often caused by this unconventional resolution often draws most of the focus when talking about Donnie Darko, and whilst there are satisfying conclusions to draw here, this fascination with solving Kelly’s riddles can deflect from the larger accomplishments and simple pleasures of the film.

One imagines Richard Kelly weaving this story together amid a stack of sci-fi short stories, looking for a way to fuse  fantastic notions with real world characters. He succeeded, but it is the humanity that enriches Donnie Darko. The central family ring true here (helped no end by Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s real-life sibling bond). They’re also a refreshingly healthy family unit. Donnie’s parents are supportive and loving. Mary McDonnell’s sensitive and caring mother Rose complimented by Holmes Osborne’s easy-natured white-collar father Eddie. Donnie may be in therapy, but Kelly refuses to lazily lay blame for his woes at home. He allows Donnie more complexity than that. He isn’t just an ‘x’ on a Life Line.

It’s easy to forget how funny Kelly’s movie is. A lot of this humour centres around Beth Grant’s hysterical grotesque Kitty Farmer and Swayze’s self-help predator Jim Cunningham; a two-pronged lampooning of knee-jerk hypocrisy and conservatism which – along with Kelly’s obvious favour for progressive teaching methods – keenly places Donnie Darko as a ‘lefty’ comedy. See also the fun poked at the Bush/Dukakis political race.

But calling Donnie Darko a political film is misleading. Not to sound trite, but more than anything this is a film about being human; making connections, realising what’s important and what’s worth making sacrifices for. Donnie’s confessional talks with his therapist reveal a central character of the kind of depth rarely offered in today’s cinema. Donnie has thoughts and fears and ideas. There may be plenty of plot here, but there’s even more character. Making Donnie and those around him believable seals the deal for the more incredible moments.

This is perhaps the secret to the film’s success. Setting the film in the 80’s already lends the movie a strong sense of nostalgia. Like Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin SuicidesDonnie Darko encourages us to remember. Milestones like first love. Adolescent heartache. The self-absorbed pangs of longing to belong, to fit in or stand out. To make your mark and be understood.

Cinephiles can enjoy the nods to the likes of Back To The Future or Blue Velvet (the fat guy who watches Donnie and Gretchen recalls the dog-walking neighbour from Lynch’s film). Mainstream audiences can attach themselves to the rich characters. Genre fans can get a kick out of seeing some of their favourite staples reconfigured in ways we rarely see (like Drive, you can openly read Donnie Darko as an alternative superhero movie).

Kelly has struggled – and failed – to recreate the kind of magic he wrought here. Like the best debuts there’s a sense of all-or-nothing about Donnie Darko. Of making something as good and as filled with ideas and feelings as can be, in case you don’t get another shot. It has a beating heart, pumping with the creativity and enthusiasm of the people who brought it into being. I hope Kelly once again finds it in him to balance elements as well as he did here.

Anyway, I can hear the audience shouting for me to get off the stage. With its frequent bargain bin pricing, it’s easy to take Donnie Darko for granted, or forget its ability to draw you in. I still get goosebumps during that closing montage, regardless of over-familiarity. If you’ve not watched it for a while, do yourself a favour and revisit. You may be surprised at how easy it is to sink back in. And if you’re new to it, please, join the club. We’re not elitist. Everyone is welcome.

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