8. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

Gretchen: “You’re weird.”

Donnie: “Sorry.”

Gretchen: “No, it was a compliment.”

Must See (Theatrical Cut)

-or-
Recommended (Director’s Cut)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Kelly

FEATURING: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnel, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Kathryn Ross

PLOT:  Troubled teen Donnie sees visions of a six foot tall demonic bunny rabbit named Frank, who demands that he commit acts of vandalism in a sleepy suburban town in 1988.  Donnie narrowly escapes a freak accident when a jet engine crashes into his bedroom after Frank has awoken him and called him away.  Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, on Halloween night, and Donnie attempts to figure out what he can do to save the world while simultaneously dealing with a new girlfriend, bullies, a motivational speaker he sees as a cult leader, and ever-escalating hallucinations.

donnie_darko

BACKGROUND:

  • This was the first feature film for writer/director Richard Kelly.
  • With Barrymore, Swayze and Ross attached, there was a tremendous buzz for the film going into the Sundance Festival.  The movie was not a hit at there, however, and was only picked up for limited theatrical distribution by Newmarket Films at the last moment.
  • Although Donnie Darko was initially a flop on its domestic release, a strong showing overseas helped it to nearly break even.  The film then became a cult hit on video, earning back more than double its production cost.
  • The director’s cut, containing about 20 minutes of extra footage and including pages from the fictional book “The Philosophy of Time Travel,”  was released in 2004.  It was controversial due to the added footage, which  caused some fans to complain that Kelly didn’t seem to understand his own movie.
  • Kelly created a website (now hosted at donniedarkofilm.com), which is structured like a puzzle.  Navigating the website can reveal supplemental material and backstory to the film.
  • Donnie Darko is one of the most talked about films on the Internet, with several competing fan sites and FAQ’s that attempt to clarify and explain the convoluted plot.
  • Followed by a poorly received direct-to-video sequel about Donnie’s sister called S. Darko (2009), which angered many fans.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Frank, the six-foot tall man dressed in a twisted, metallic bunny suit, who only Donnie can see.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDDonnie Darko at first appears to be a dizzying collision of genres, themes and ideas.  For the first few reels of the film, the audience can have no conception where the film is heading.  The director drops clues through these opening segments that appear at the time to be simply bizarre, but spark numerous “a-ha!” moments later, when incidents that seemed like throwaway moments or coincidences at the first glance turn out to make a sort of sense.  The identity of Frank, the demonic bunny, is the most thrillingly chilling such moment.  Donnie Darko creates a sense of wonder and mystery throughout its running time, and sparks hope and faith in the watcher that all will be made clear before the curtain drops.   It nests this expectancy inside a bed of genuine empathy for tormented Donnie and his colorful cast of supporting characters.  But perhaps the weirdest thing about Donnie Darko is that it asks us to take its plot at face value; it works very hard to try to convince us that what appear on the surface to be the hallucinations of a paranoid schizophrenic teenager are, in fact, real occurrences with a metaphysical explanation.

Original trailer for Donnie Darko

COMMENTS: Even putting the mindbending plot aside for a moment (we’ll come back to that subject), Donnie Darko would be weird just because of the incredible shifts in style.  At times, writer/director Richard Kelly seems to be channeling: John Hughes.  The Last Temptation of ChristThe Catcher in the Rye.  One of Quentin Tarantino’s absurdist pop-culture rants.  An episode of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.  David Lynch.  At times, the movie seems to be: a black comedy.  A high concept science fiction picture.  A character study.  A parody of 80s teen comedies.  An avant-garde surrealist film.

But the various ingredients never seem jarring.  They blend into a coherent whole, like the ingredients in a stew.  Kelly wears his influences on his sleeve, but he creates an entirely new and unique universe out of these elements: the universe of Donnie Darko, easily one of the most original films of the young millennium.

The production seems to have been as blessed as the initial marketing of the film was cursed.  Kelly seems nothing at all like a first-time feature director.  His visual choices are mature and confident.  The film is bookended by two magnificent 80s era musical montages.  The first, set to “Head Over Heels”, is a technically magnificent one-take tracking shot that snakes throughout Donnie’s school, introducing several minor characters.  The second, set to “Mad World”, is a heart-wrenching epilogue, following each character in the aftermath of the climax, rising from minor to major characters until stopping just before an emotionally devastating (and mysterious) shared moment between the two most important people in Donnie’s life.

Kelly also manages a cumbersome cast of varying experience levels masterfully.  Credit for the memorable characterizations ultimately stems from the script.  With so many characters playing a part in the story—the entire community of fictional Middlesex, Virginia is affected in some way by Donnie’s every act—it would be impossible not to construct some of the characters out of psychological cardboard.  Donnie Darko‘s villains are caricatures and pure objects of satire, but they play their role perfectly and don’t detract from the richness of character achieved by the rest of the cast.  Each member of the ensemble cast has only a few minutes of screen-time to make an impact, and most of them nail that moment.  Particularly praiseworthy are wine-swilling but loving mom Rose Darko (Mary McDonnel), suave and sleazy motivational speaker Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), and Jolene Purdy as Cherita Chen, the mercilessly teased, earmuff-wearing exchange student who exists to illuminate Donnie’s compassion.

Then there’s Donnie himself (Jake Gyllenhaal ).  He first appears in the guise of an insolent teen, swearing at his sister at the dinner table, smoking cigarettes, and wandering off whenever he pleases.  Then, he becomes as a figure of menace; he’s terrifying when his face sinks into that brooding frown, he pulls his sweatshirt hood up over his head, and he skulks out into the night to do Frank’s bidding.  Then, Donnie is a lone voice of reason, a prophet calling out Pharisees on their pedestals.  Finally, he ends up an object of compassion, and a genuine hero.

And, there’s one character who can’t be forgotten: Frank, who’s little more than a mask and a computer-altered voice, but who upstages even Donnie.

But, for all the originality on display, because of its convoluted and confounding plot Donnie Darko will forever remain a flawed (and therefore, perhaps more interesting) masterpiece.  Difficult to follow in theaters, where there is no rewind button to review key scenes, Donnie Darko had major critics scratching their heads as they exited the darkened moviehouses.   While watching the movie for the first time, there’s the sense that Kelly has carefully laid out a number of fascinating strands that could resolve the film, followed by a sinking feeling when it seems he ultimately picks the most implausible and least satisfying one of all.

But the movie stays with you afterward, despite confusion and disappointment, lingering in your imagination as you try to tie up loose ends and figure out the meaning to it all.

Kelly only exacerbated the problem of the unsatisfying plot resolution after the movie’s release by starting the Donnie Darko website and producing director’s commentaries that strongly defended the literal interpretation of a film that yearned for a satisfying symbolic interpretation.  An Internet cult picked up on Kelly’s cues, creating numerous FAQ’s that purported to explain the literal plot.

The film’s most ardent defenders insist that the film makes perfect logical sense, if you just think about it hard enough.  The film’s most ardent defenders are wrong.  I think that, because the film’s trajectory makes such perfect emotional sense, they’re desperate for it to also make literal narrative sense. But it doesn’t, no matter how deftly Kelly twists or how much supplemental material he produces.  (I hate to give away spoilers for a film, but I’ve created a special post, Why Donnie Darko’s Literal Plot Doesn’t Make Sense [And Why It Doesn’t Matter], to refute the film’s literal plot).

Despite his public defenses of the film’s plot, there is some reason to suspect that Kelly is just trying to make it as challenging and polished as possible, rather than trying to push his interpretation as the “correct” way to view the film.  First, he literally labels a crucial plot device as a deus ex machina, even drawing extra attention to it by having his main character mutter the phrase.  Writers who want their plots to be taken seriously usually try to hide the use of an improbable contrivance, not draw attention to it.   Second, there is a point in the film where Donnie is talking to his science teacher and the conversation is leading them towards a paradox which will be impossible to resolve.  The teacher pleads out of the conversation because God has been mentioned, saying “I could lose my job” (despite the fact that he teaches at a private, not public, school).  Donnie, who was a few moments ago in the heat of a passionate argument, accepts his demurral with surprising complacency.  This acceptance foreshadows the attitude Kelly will demand the viewer adopt when he springs his paradox on them: that they voluntarily shut off the rational voice in their own head and accept events at face value, as Donnie calmly accepts his teacher’s refusal to delve further into the mysteries.

Most importantly, Kelly is too smart of a guy to believe in his own gobbledygook.  In his DVD commentary, he describes the plot as “absurd” and one that deliberately relies on “comic book logic,” at the same time he tries his damnedest to defend it.  In the end, he concedes that the audience will have to decide whether the events of Donnie Darko “really happened” or whether they were “just Donnie’s dream.”   Usually, the “it was just a dream” ending is a cop-out by a writer who can’t figure out how to end his story, but here it actually works.  The plot of Donnie Darko is exactly the kind of grandiose, apocalyptic fantasy that a brilliant but troubled, possibly schizophrenic teenager would have.  In a movie where the central character is a bright adolescent who refuses to accept society’s standard lines, Donnie’s pseudo-sensible solution to finding meaning in his life makes perfect sense.  The genius of Kelly’s film is that it recaptures the integrity, the naivete, and the longing to recreate the world in a better way that’s the hallmark of adolescence at its best.  And the movie accomplishes this feat while creating a sense of mystery and dreamlike wonder that lingers long after the credits roll.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If this movie ever figured out what it wanted to be when it grows up, it would be a terrific one.”–Bib Graham, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

“’Donnie Darko’ is a stunning technical accomplishment that virtually bursts with noise, ideas and references, but it’s fundamentally a gracefully crafted movie that’s about human beings and not images… Kelly himself has suggested that ‘Donnie Darko’ is the story of Holden Caulfield filtered through the paranoid sci-fi consciousness of Philip K. Dick, but frankly he’s selling himself short; whatever its flaws, this movie is more soulful and less self-absorbed than those sources might suggest.” –Andrew O’Hehir, Salon (DVD)

“In [my] 2001 review, I found a lot to admire and enjoy in ‘Donnie Darko,’ … My objection was that you couldn’t understand the movie, which seemed to have parts on order. With the director’s cut, I knew going in that I wouldn’t understand it, so perhaps I was able to accept it in a different way. I ignored logic and responded to tone, and liked it more…. ‘Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut’ is alive, original and intriguing. It’s about a character who has no explanation for what is happening in his life, and is set in a world that cannot account for prescient rabbits named Frank. I think, after all, I am happier that the movie doesn’t have closure. What kind of closure could there be?”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (Director’s Cut review)

OFFICIAL SITE: Donnie Darko

IMDB LINK: Donnie Darko (2001)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:  This site’s own Why Donnie Darko’s Literal Plot Doesn’t Make Sense (And Why It Doesn’t Matter)

Stainless Steel Rat’s Donnie Darko FAQ

Everything You Were Afraid to Ask About ‘Donnie Darko’ – a lucid plot explanation from Salon.com

Donnie Darko in His Mind’s Eye – a Freudian interpretation of Donnie Darko by Jim Emerson

Cellar Door – a collection of Donnie Darko resources and links for the hardcore fan, including the pages from The Philosophy of Time Travel

DVD INFO: Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut (buy) is available in a two-disc special edition, featuring Richard Kelly’s commentary with fellow hip director Kevin Smith, a production diary, and a two short documentaries focusing on fans reactions to the film.

The tighter theatrical cut (buy) is superior to the director’s cut, and contains two separate commentary tracks, deleted scenes and other featurettes that don’t appear on the Director’s Cut.  Unfortunately, it is harder to find than the Director’s Cut edition.  In fact, I am afraid that DVDs of the original cut will be discontinued and become collector’s items, which would be a crime.    It appears that the upcoming Blu-Ray release will contain the theatrical cut, probably in an attempt to encourage people to buy an entirely new machine to watch the original masterpiece. 

NOTE (2/13/2009):  My pessimism turned out to be unwarranted, as the Blu-Ray version (buy) contains both cuts of the movie, as it should, making this the definitive Donnie Darko disc–for those who have Blu-Ray.

5 thoughts on “8. DONNIE DARKO (2001)”

  1. I am in agreement with you about this film.

    The original cut leaves the “mystery” unsolved, and thus makes it a movie about existential angst, which can never really be solved. Especially when you’re in the midst of high school insecurities. The emotional core of the movie is more true than any literal interpretation. It’s the best “teenage angst” film I’ve ever seen.

    Richard Kelly seems to have thrown that away in the interest of making his story more explicit. His “Director’s Cut” makes the sci-fi and deus-ex-machina elements manifest. The convoluted sci-fi elements (which I agree were the literal meaning of the movie) are the least interesting parts of the movie. The original Donnie Darko confusion was the hook to the movie.

  2. SPOIILER ALERT – SPOILER ALERT – SPOILER ALERT

    (If you’ve seen the film, now read on…)

    One very obvious point about this movie which everybody seems to miss is that, quite apart from all its pretensions to philosophical depth, on another level it’s simply a ferocious parody of two old Frank Capra movies, both starring James Stewart.

    In “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the opening scene shows the hero on the verge of committing suicide because he considers his life to be a worthless catalogue of failure, but he is talked out of it by an angel who reveals to him how much worse off the world would have been without the contribution he has made simply by existing – the exact opposite of Donnie Darko’s situation!

    And in “Harvey” the hero is thought by his relatives to be insane because he claims that his best friend is a giant anthropomorphic rabbit whom only he can see. The creature (actually a “pooka”, whatever that is) does of course genuinely exist, and uses its supernatural powers, combined with its anarchic but basically good-natured personality, to make life much more complicated, but more fun and therefore ultimately better for anyone who isn’t too uptight to play along.

    Again, Harvey and Frank share a desire to guide the protagonist in a certain direction, mostly by playing elaborate practical jokes, but Frank is the exact opposite of Harvey’s well-meaning merry prankster. Though they are of course both six-foot-tall bipedal bunnies – can this possibly be a coincidence?

    So really all this film is doing is taking a slice of grotesquely over-sweetened good old American schmaltz that airs every Xmas and is universally acclaimed as a masterpiece, despite being so sugary that diabetics shouldn’t even watch the trailer, throw in a few motifs from another similar film by the same director, and filter it through nihilistic goth sensibilities until Jimmy Stewart becomes a sulky teen whose ultimate purpose in life is to do us all a favour by dying.

    Or am I simply reading too little into a movie which I personally think is massively overrated because people mistook doom-and-gloom-laden muddle for philosophical depth, and the presence of a freaky-looking rabbit-person for artistic genius?

    Frankly I suspect that “Donnie Darko” was never meant to be anything more than a sly dig at a horribly sentimental old Frank Capra film, and the director was amazed when people started reading all these profound meanings into it, but played along because clearly he was onto a good thing. This might explain why he has been unable to create a satisfactory follow-up now that he’s trying to be deep and meaningful on purpose.

    By the way, on a related note, readers might like to look out for a short film which I think won an award in the UK a few years ago. It’s called “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life”, and assuming I’m right about “Donnie Darko”, it makes pretty much the same joke in a much neater package, and with lots more laughs. I daresay it’s on YouTube somewhere, though since it’s fairly recent, it probably isn’t meant to be.

    1. You may be on to something, Dr. O. Many people have commented on the connection to Harvey (I didn’t address it because I haven’t seen the James Stewart movie and there was plenty of other stuff to talk about). I hadn’t thought of the similarity to It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s a good observation.

      The only point I’d disagree with you on is your assertion that Kelly wasn’t deliberately trying to be profound. Listening to the director’s commentary, I found Kelly to be very smart but very pretentious in his vision, and not always in total control of his material—almost a gifted adolescent, just like Donnie himself.

      “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life” is currently in the review queue. It’s available through Netflix and other commercial outlets.

  3. Good Capra observation.

    I think Kelly started out with a very clear-cut science fiction idea about his story. There is a correct literal interpretation of Donnie Darko. Unfortunately, it’s probably the weakest link of the film. Once you understand what’s really going on, you lose the “philosophical muddle” that Kelly introduced as a smoke screen.

    In the original cut, you just don’t have enough information to figure out the story. You then have to superimpose your own ideas onto the structure of the film. It’s that ambiguity that I think makes the film. Donnie Darko works best as an exploration of the angst of existence, specifically the big questions you worry about as a teenager.

    I think Kelly erred in releasing a director’s cut, which makes the sci-fi elements more explicit. There’s a reason David Lynch never explains his movies. Literalism removes the weird space that exists in ambiguity.

    Kelly hasn’t yet lived up to the promise of his freshman effort. Maybe he and Mark Z. Danielewski should get together and talk about the perils of cult status.

  4. I agree with the Capra comparisons but will go one further: I think “Darko” along with “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Little Miss Sunshine” belong to a group of movies that want to expose ’80s nostalgia (or all nostalgia, for that matter) for the cheap, rose-colored fraud that it is. There’s a feeling from all three of these movies that the 80s (or adolescence in general) was not the best time of one’s life, and that in fact there was a lot of crap going on that we didn’t understand and which jaundices our backward view. I think of the homecoming dance scene in “Napoleon Dynamite” where the song “Forever Young” plays on, and it asks if anyone really wants to live forever. (Not surprisingly, two of the movies I mentioned– “Darko” and “Dynamite” –bring up time travel at some point) I watch all three of these movies grateful that I outgrew those days and that I never ever have to look back on it unless I choose. And I think the Capra parrallels, if not intentional on the director’s part, are at least valid critcisms.

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