Donnie Darko review
Donnie Darko is the quintessential angsty teen movie from 2001, a film that helped define Richard Kelly’s career in perhaps a way he never realized. While Kelly has gone on to do other movies (Southland Tales, The Box), the mystique behind his debut has never dissipated. There’s a reason that Donnie Darko resonated with so many at the time, though: it artfully explored the darkness behind growing up, the confusion and fear of getting older and not knowing what comes next. While Kelly’s film developed a cult following shortly after its release, the mysteries of the film continue to engage; with Arrow Video’s Blu-Ray collection, Donnie Darko has traveled through time to impress a new age of viewers.
While Kelly sets his film in 1988, truthfully there’s no reason that Donnie Darko couldn’t feature any time period. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a typical troubled teenager struggling to figure out exactly what’s going on with his psychological state; he’s in therapy and he’s drawing as part of some creative release, but that hasn’t helped to quell the fear he continues to harbor, even when he can’t put it into words. Gyllenhaal captures the essence of Donnie, his haunted physique bearing an external expression of the turmoil inside the character. Despite that, though, Kelly’s script is often humorous as well, with Donnie finding avenues to lighten the mood even when he’s most definitely not okay.
All of that changes when a jet engine crashes into Donnie’s bedroom, an event that would have killed him had he actually been there. This sets off a chain of occurrences – meeting his girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone), seeing Frank the giant bunny (James Duval), being compelled to flood his school and burn down Jim Cunningham’s (Patrick Swayze) house – before Donnie realizes that perhaps he’s in a tangential universe, with the end of the world coming.
Kelly explores a lot of complex themes about time travel and psychology, and many of those add to the mysteries of the film. While Donnie eventually discovers a book about time travel written by his town’s Grandma Death – born Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland) – most of those elements don’t translate to the audience. Instead, Kelly offers up visual representations of fate and choice using watery spheres that travel out from a person’s solar plexus, leading them to their goal. While Donnie Darko doesn’t intentionally veil its science, Kelly’s writing often effectively leaves some of its most intriguing aspects unsaid, and instead focuses on Donnie’s issues and his relationship with Gretchen.
It adds pathos to Donnie’s character, a person who, despite his frustrations with self-help guru Jim Cunningham’s simplistic love/fear explanation about complicated human dilemmas, does struggle with fear. Kelly manages to pull a lot from Donnie’s troubled state, but the theme he keeps coming back to is the classic struggle to understand the universe and the search for God’s presence. It’s also about finding love in a kid who, at the start of the film, tells his sister to suck a fuck and allows his friends to ceaselessly mock an Asian girl at school.
That dynamic change occurs throughout Donnie Darko, and it all happens due to the film’s time travel philosophy. At the same time, though, there are multiple possible interpretations; Kelly’s ambiguity here is not just intentional but vital, an important distinction that does not always occur in films with open-ended plots. The viewer’s specific philosophy about life comes into play in the final moments of the film as Donnie sacrifices himself to save the ones he loves; one can view the film as a classic time travel moment with a tangential universe, or they can see this as an opportunity granted Donnie by a benevolent God who recognizes his fear of dying, or one can simply conclude this is the final hallucinations of a kid with schizophrenia realizing he is going to die. Whatever the case, it’s hard to deny the profound emotions at the end of the film, of the way “Mad World” combines with the reaction shots of all those that have been touched by the events of the film.
While Kelly’s film isn’t perfect – for one, the focus on Drew Barrymore’s character Karen Pomeroy feels shoehorned in to give her a part in exchange for help producing the film – it effectively encapsulates the weirdness and hormonal fugue of teenage years. The film features a dreamy ethereal quality that’s aided by its brooding score and performances, from its lingering shots of the angelic Cherita Chen to the oddly detached presence of Rose Darko (Mary McDonnell). None of this is explained, and Kelly leaves it up to the audience to make of it what they will. While that could be frustrating to audiences, it mostly translates to the feeling of being trapped in a lucid dream, as though Kelly is holding back an explosive secret.
Donnie Darko, then, transcends time with its timeless story of a boy in love tasked with saving the word. Boiled down to its simplest, Kelly’s film is about time travel and a superhero, but its quirkiness and extremely moody tone offers a more complex experience than its generic synopsis suggests. In his search for cosmic answers, Kelly found his best work.
Click next for the Blu-Ray review.