November 29, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: Donnie Darko

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Donnie Darko (2001)
Written and directed by Richard Kelly

Donnie Darko

So once again it's time for me to do something I don't do that often here, which is to review a film I've already seen multiple times in the past; and in this case it's Richard Kelly's head-scratching 2001 instant cult classic Donnie Darko, which yes, is being reviewed at this particular moment in history because of his new film, Southland Tales, which is just about to be released to the public itself for the first time. And see, early reviews of Southland Tales that are coming out right now are basically saying the same things that early reviews of Donnie Darko did too -- basically, that the film is too long, too incomprehensible, that it will surely mark the end of Kelly's career in Hollywood -- which is why I thought that now would be as good a time as any to go back and re-examine the first movie of his to have such scorn heaped on it, and to look at the reasons why that film went on to be a cult hit anyway. Although I was too old by 2001 for Donnie Darko to have been my "OMG This Movie Is So Freaking Weird And I Love It So Freaking Much" late-youth film (mine is instead Blue Velvet), I know a lot of people younger than me for whom this film is their "OMG" film from their late youth, and I thought it'd be interesting today to examine exactly why that is, and in what ways the film overcomes its well-known limitations in order to have become so well-loved.

Donnie Darko

Because let's make that clear right away to anyone who hasn't yet seen it, that Donnie Darko is an infinitely confusing film, one that deserves all the criticism it's received when it comes to this subject; this most recent screening of mine, for example, was my own fifth viewing of the movie, the first one where I even came close to understanding what was happening, and in this case only by first going online and reading through a treasure-trove of background information and fan theories. And indeed, I guess this is where we can start as well when it comes to explaining its deeply intense cult following, is that there are simply a surprising amount of people who enjoy a dense cinematic mystery; how else to explain, for example, the surprise popularity these days of such television shows as Lost and Heroes? In fact, Donnie Darko starts right off the bat with one of the more bizarre and unexplained mysteries of modern Hollywood; a beginning that sees our title hero (being played by Jake Gyllenhaal) receive a prophetic warning one morning from a demented man-sized bunny, regarding how the world is going to end in exactly 28 days, followed by an errant jet engine falling from the sky and mysteriously crashing through Darko's suburban Connecticut home, landing smack-dab on top of Donnie's currently unused bed.

Donnie Darko

It's a jarring way to start a movie to be sure, especially when the movie itself then doesn't explain the significance of either scene in the least, but rather plows forward to establish an environment straight out of a John Hughes film -- a 1988 setting, among high-school teens at an anonymous suburban prep school, with all of the cliques and ennui and empty cul-de-sacs that one would expect from such a project. It's at this point that we start learning a little more about Donnie himself, and of why he makes for such a profoundly unreliable narrator; turns out that the young man has deep behavioral and emotional problems already, has been seeing a therapist for an unspecified amount of time, and has recently begun exhibiting signs of homicidal schizophrenia. And this, in my opinion anyway, is maybe the second thing about Donnie Darko that you can point to, as far as reasons why it's become such a big cult hit, because Kelly is the master of the unreliable narrator; in fact, I can remember this very specifically from my very first screening, of how such a big pleasure of this movie is in not knowing whether Donnie is slowing going crazy in front of your eyes, or if he really is being visited on a regular basis by a time-traveling evil man-sized rabbit, and that he really does need to do things like flood his school and burn people's houses down as part of an infinitely complicated chain of events that lead to him saving the world.

Donnie Darko

But alas, this is also where Kelly's biggest weaknesses as both a filmmaker and storyteller come into play as well; that unlike the aforementioned Lost and Heroes, Kelly still has not yet mastered the relationship between an untold complex backstory and a satisfying amount of revealed frontstory. This after all is why a special extended "Director's Cut" of Donnie Darko came out a mere three years after its original theatrical run, something still nearly unheard-of in that industry; because it turns out that, no matter how much people were loving the visuals and complexity of the movie itself, almost no one could figure out exactly what the story was trying to say. And thus was more footage added, as well as stills from the supposed nonfiction book on time travel featured in the movie, as well as an extended commentary by Kelly himself that went a long way towards explaining just what the hell it was that we had all been twisting our brains around for the previous three years.

And what exactly is that storyline, when all is said and done? Well, that involves revealing major spoilers, of course, which is why I'm limiting my opinions on the subject to just one paragraph only, the one below; like I said, I came to these opinions based on extensive reading online, as well as watching the movie now five times myself:

As far as I can tell, in the universe that Kelly created for Donnie Darko, it seems that certain weather conditions and manmade objects can come together in a certain random way at certain times throughout history, to form what's known as a loop in time; basically it involves a rain-heavy storm happening in close proximity to a large metal object, with that object then becoming the focus of that time loop, and with there usually being one person in particular whose job it is to close that time loop up, or else risk a rip in the space/time fabric, and an end to all existence as we know it. (In fact, Kelly hints in the movie's supporting materials that the old King Arthur/Excalibur/Lady in the Lake legend is basically another example of the same time-loop creation seen in Donnie Darko.) Donnie is stuck in a strange position as the focus of this particular time loop, because he must through conscious choices arrange a series of causal events that must lead to a plane just happening to lose an engine exactly 28 days later while directly over the Darko house; he must burn down the new-age guru's house, for example, no matter how illogical or crazy it seems at the time, because the guru's kiddie-porn dungeon has to be exposed, in order for the usual girls' dance leader to need to stay in town to help the new-age guru, thus forcing Donnie's mom to go instead, thus ensuring that they're on the plane that flies directly over the Darko house. You see, right? Well, no, it's confusing, that's the point; and that's why this person being the loop's focus is given special help, like sometimes a person who dies within the time loop and who can stick around and give the focal person hints (in this case, the teen dressed as the evil rabbit, who dies at the Halloween party before the time loop ends), or sometimes by being given special "powers" that usually are withheld from mere mortals (like the freaky scene in the middle of the film, where Donnie can see water-based "trailers" in the air that show him where the people around him will eventually walk in the future). With the help of all these things, Donnie figures out his destiny as the time loop's focal point; and in fact realizes that the way to finally close the loop is to actually be in bed when the jet engine falls, as he was supposed to be the first time, thus dying and completing the cycle that was originally supposed to happen. The end!

(End of spoilers!)

Donnie Darko

Whew! A great story to be sure; but is it worth it when you need such an insane amount of supporting material to understand the point? That's the question being asked so much of Kelly's latest right now as well, the apparently even more confusing Southland Tales, which is so complicated that there's even been an entire series of official backstory comic books released as supplementary material. There is artistic vision, after all, and then there's insanity, and there's a lot of people now with both of Kelly's latest films who have wanted to accuse him of not understanding anymore where the line lays. For now, I think, the jury is still on the side of Kelly when it comes to Donnie Darko; there are enough people who obsessively love that movie for it to legitimately not be a disaster in any general way at all. It'll be interesting to see how history judges Southland Tales, I think; I'm writing this review, for example, before the general public's even been allowed to see it and form a cult audience in the first place, at a time when the only people we've heard from are all the critics who found it overlong and overly pretentious. It'll be interesting, I think, to see whether the general public ends up agreeing with these critics or not, and how this view might either change or stay the same over time as well.

Donnie Darko

For what it's worth, on my own fifth screening I still found Donnie Darko to be quite entertaining and worth watching; although I admit as well that even six years later, the film is already starting to look dated in pointed ways. For example, am I the only one rapidly getting tired of the "Wes Anderson Patented I'm Shooting Everything In Super Slow Motion Coupled With A Wistful Indie Rock Song In Order To Be All Pensive And Sh-t" technique? I'm not the only one, right? Kelly proved in his mid-twenties that he could still capture the realistic feel of teenage issues and emotions; it'll be interesting to see with his newest work whether he can transition into stories about the grown-up world as decisively. Donnie Darko is a film I still find fascinating and worth watching, although I think maybe five viewings is my official limit; that like such earlier films as A Clockwork Orange and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I have now seen the movie so many times that I simply cannot watch it even once more, or at least not for decades to come (when undoubtedly by then I will be able to pump a 3D five-sense version directly into my brain -- yet another excuse for the entertainment industry to keep charging us for the same ol' crap). It's a film I highly recommend to those who haven't seen it before, although I also recommend doing some online homework both before and after the screening as well.

Out of 10:
Writing: 9.2
Acting: 9.0
Directing: 9.4
Cinematography: 9.6
Overall: 9.4

Random notes:
--Donnie Darko was filmed in exactly 28 days, the same amount of time that elapses during the movie itself. Coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally), Kelly's birthday is on March 28th.

--Speaking of Wes Anderson connections, the title role of this film was originally supposed to be played by Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman, who ended up having to back out because of scheduling conflicts. It was only after Jake Gyllenhaal had been cast that his real-life sister, actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, came to Kelly's attention; she ended up playing Darko's sister in the film.

--Director Sam Raimi actually donated the rights to use his low-budget horror film The Evil Dead to Kelly, free of charge. (It's the film the characters watch in the movie theatre during the Halloween marathon.)

--And for those who didn't know, both rabbits and the number 8 occur repeatedly throughout Donnie Darko, in dozens of examples both obvious and obscure. See the Donnie Darko trivia page at the Internet Movie Database for a lot more.

Best viewed: With your laptop open next to you, dialed up in advance to both IMDb and Wikipedia. You nerd.

Next on my queue list: Hard Eight, the 1996 low-budget debut of indie-film darling Paul Thomas Anderson, a supposedly sharp film noir about two generations of card sharks, and the woman who eventually tears them apart. I'm going into this one with no expectations; should be interesting.

Read even more about Donnie Darko: Official site | Nice fansite | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:42 PM, November 29, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |