Much to its merit, Donnie Darko never bothers to commit to being a satire, an art flick or a psychological thriller. I have the feeling that if an attempt had been made to pigeon hole Donnie Darko into any one of those genres the movie would have failed. Instead, by sampling from all three and then some, Richard Kelly gives us an fresh and imaginative film, that besides it’s stupid name and ludicrous ending, kept me interested, excited and happy all the way through. I have to note, that not only did this Kelly kid write and direct Donnei Darko, but it is his first time at both. Good for him. Hopefully he won’t do Sorority Boys II: Even More Dumb next. Unfortunately, I know Hollywood… Donnie Darko is most successful as a satire of suburban life. The thriller aspects were neat, but not frightening, not thought provoking. Casting Patrick Swayze as a pedophile is the artistic statement of the year.
Donnie Darko starts off great; Holmes Osborne, who played the dad in Bring It On, and is the dad in this one, blasts his daughter Elizabeth, the horribly cute Maggie Gyllenhall, with a leaf blower. Actually, it really started with Donnie out “sleep walking” again. There were lots of fades and long shots, which were supposed to make you feel Donnie’s confusion and isolation. I began thinking to myself, “Lord. Why do all movies have to suck so much ass?” But then Daddy Darko blasted Daughter Darko in the face and the butt with the above-mentioned leaf blower, and everything felt fine. We next see all the Darkos sitting down for dinner and hear the first line spoken in the movie, “I think I’m going to vote for Dukakis.” Then Elizabeth calls Donnie a fuck-ass and Donnie tells her to go “suck a fuck.” It reminded me of dinner with my family back in 1988.
However, why the hell was the film set in 1988? I am going to chalk this up to first time enthusiasm. Remember when you got laid for the first time and you desperately wanted to get you and your friend into every possible position, regardless of quality or duration? That is sort of what Kelly did with Donnie Darko. Yeah, it is possible to go back in time if you make a movie. It helps if you have a reason to, and the only reason I saw was to show some funny Bush and Dukakis clips. Yes the clips were funny, but did nothing for the plot. The entire film has this mixed up, schizophrenic feel to it, and it works.
I’m not sure what it is with cinematic man-sized evil bunnies tormenting people in dreams and hallucinations in 2001, but not only does Donnie Darko have a devil rabbit ordering him about, but Gal, the protagonist in the incredible Sexy Beast has one giving him trouble as well. What is even weirder, is that both movies are by first time directors. Spooky. Maybe they had to watch Harvey all the time in film school? Frank, the Rabbit in Donnie Darko, is pretty cool and fairly sinister. Until he takes his mask off. I am only mentioning this because it ties into the weird time-traveler/cop-out/weak-ass ending.
What I find most interesting about Donnie Darko is that the sub plot is a hell of a lot stronger than the actual plot. I don’t even know if I can call it a sub plot. Instead, I will say that the hilarious string of events that surround Donnie and the actual plot are much more compelling than the story. The plot is that Donnie is told by Frank the sinister rabbit that the world is ending in a month. Not only that, the rabbit wants him to commit all sorts of violent acts, like flooding his school and burning down Patrick Swayze’s house. This of course upsets Donnie very much and he has to stab at the mirror and chase tubes of light all over his house. In the end, rather than letting his girlfriend die, Donnie chooses to go back in time so a 747 engine can fall on him. Think Romeo and Juliet meets you and your friends with whisky, cocaine and Vicodin. It doesn’t have to make sense in the morning, because it makes a whole lot of sense at the time. Still, it is all pretty corny and unbelievable. The other shit that is going on, rules.
Patrick Swayze plays Jim Cunningham, a Tony Robbins type speaker who explains that everything in life is nothing more than a trade off between love and fear. He also has a dungeon filled with Kiddie porn. And when Donnie tells Jim Cunningham that he thinks he is, “The fucking antichrist!” I almost shit myself for a variety of reasons. Daddy Darko manages to steal my heart when he laughs about Donnie telling one of his teachers to shove a lesson plan up her ass. The supporting cast is very well put together even though most of the high school kids are obviously in their mid-twenties. Obviously.
Jake Gyllenhall is a middle of the road actor (See Bubble Boy) who does an admirable job playing a fucked up teenage schizophrenic. His dreamy good looks aside, it’s Gyllenhall’s delivery that carries the movie. Although, when Frank the satanic bunny gets a hold of him, the “scary Darko face” Gyllenhaal puts on is not scary and not dark. The face resembles what my friends do when we are drunk and taking pictures and I tell them to look mean. I never want to watch a movie and know that I could beat the bad guy in half with a loaf of bread. Evil, sinister men should linger. Especially since it turned out that he wasn’t crazy, just possessed by a mean bunny.
The movie manages to flush itself down the toilet in the last twenty minutes. It is a slow flush, but a stinker nonetheless. Donnie and his girlfriend (Jena Malone) have sex and it is the only poorly cut sequence in the movie. They kiss, and then they walk down the stairs in slow motion. Kelly might as well have shown them in sunglasses, it was so telegraphed. Then, they go to find old lady death who wrote the book about time travel that explains why Donnie’s family has Abyss-like tubes flowing out of their abdomens. Of course, the school bullies are in her house just standing there and they pull a knife on Donnie and beat up the girlfriend and she dies because the rabbit, who isn’t really the rabbit, runs her over with his orange Firebird and Donnie shoots the rabbit in the eye, which is supposed to be trippy because not only did he stab the rabbit in the eye, but the gun was given to him by one of the time-traveling wormhole things – point being, it is a really dumb, convoluted ending. If you can force yourself to get past Donnie Darko’s near lone weakness, it really is a good film.
I should warn you about Drew Barrymore, the other bad and only horrid part of Donnie Darko, stinking up the place as a misunderstood English teacher. I don’t think she actually ever went to school a day in her life. Her performance was like watching a fish flopping in the desert – she was lost every second she was on screen. I couldn’t figure out how Drew weaseled her way into the film until I saw her name credited as the executive producer. Cha-ching!
I am absolutely sick of watching DVD Extras. I heard a rumor that these were cool, but I had just eaten a really large hamburger. I’m going to let Erich explain them to you. Burp.
The special features are a breath of fresh air. They actually involve some creativity. On is an extended version of the self-help video-tape, with commentary from the “filmmakers.” It’s pretty funny, plus, when you’re watching the video by itself, you realize how much they nailed the cheap educational video. The music is perfect.
The weakness of Donnie Darko is probably that the ontology of the film is not adequately conveyed in the movie itself. Everything is there, but it’s not clear enough that the viewer could reasonably be expected to infer it. Now that the film’s on DVD, and the DVD points out everything you need to know. In a way, this approach is almost preferable. The ontology is so complex that explaining it in the film would mean a lot of dead weight, and it would still probably be too hard to understand on the first pass.
You get to read excerpts from the book Philosophy of Time, which Donnie finds so enlightening in the movie. It’s equally enlightening for the viewer. There’s an interesting question here about what counts as being part of the content of the film and what doesn’t, but I’ll ignore it. The commentary also helps, although you still have to put things together.
It took me a while to figure out, but here it is. I’m assuming you’ve seen the film and are intelligent. There can be breaches in time, like the one that causes the phantom jet engine to land on Donnie’s house. I think these have to be future to past breeches. When such a breech occurs, if an object falls through and interferes with the past, a parallel universe is formed in which the consequences of the breech take effect. Maybe this is better described as a competing universe. This universe runs its course until it gets to the point when the breech occurs. Here, I think, either one universe or the other prevails, depending on whether or not the artifact goes through the breech “again”. When things get to this point, Donnie is responsible for making sure the engine does not get sucked into the breech. How does he do it? He’s a super-hero. How else do you think he put the ax into the school mascot statue, which is made of steel and is like twelve feet high. When he does this, the competing universe in which the engine came out of nowhere, is totally expunged (possibly my favorite word!). It never happened. That’s what it means when everyone’s talking about the end of the world. With the deed undone, the engine crashes on the right day, when Donnie is in bed, and kills him. At least that’s as sensible an interpretation as I can produce.
Now, when the breech occurs, some people are killed in the competing universe. The DVD lists Frank and Gretchen, but it seems to me that Donnie’s mom and sister should also be included. They are the manipulated dead and they have a special motivation to repair the breech. The manipulated living are the people who don’t die. Donnie is the… fucking fuck, I can’t remember what he’s called, but he’s basically the chosen one– chosen by whoever chooses such things to be given the task of repairing the breech, or rather, to make sure nothing crosses the breech. He is given super powers to achieve the goal. One of the manipulated dead-Frank-is chosen as his guide. But everybody in the competing universe has a sense that something is off and they might take actions, maybe motivated subconsciously, to direct Donnie toward his goal, e.g. when Drew Barrymore’s character writes “Cellar Door” on the blackboard, hinting to Donnie that he should head toward Grandma Death’s cellar door.
Ah, Grandma Death. I’m not entirely sure how she fits in. As far as I can figure, she went through a similar experience at some point, and found out about this breech, or found out enough to know that she needed to do what she does in the film.
It’s convoluted, true. But it’s the most plausible time travel story I’ve ever seen in a movie. And it’s kind of fun to sort out too. Jonny’s wrong. The time travel stuff isn’t a weakness, it’s neat-o.