A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Donnie Darko

August 31, 2011

Donnie Darko

I bought this movie because I was reassured by a wide range of people how unbelievably messed up it was. And, yes, it is a strange, what with its dreamlike daze state, time travel and visions of the future. It’s more than just random weirdness though. It’s probably the quintessential movie about teen angst – and I have to admit that I absolutely love it even though I was in my thirties when I first saw it.

Donnie is a troubled teen. There’s nothing in particular wrong with his life – his family is a typical eighties yuppie clan. He goes to a clean looking school with your typical mix of wasters, pretty people and rejects. He’s prone to sleepwalking. He’s in therapy and medicated because of a senseless act of arson he committed a couple years ago. For some reason he finds himself compelled to do things and he doesn’t know why.

Then things start to get weird.

An extremely creepy rabbit named Frank appears to Donnie and tells him that the end of the world is just 28 days away. The detached engine from a jet airliner crashes through the roof of his house and into his bedroom while he is out sleepwalking. Donnie proceeds to drift farther and farther out of touch with the world, while at the same time he finds himself caught up in some kind of time-travel paradox. There’s a sense that some of his actions are predestined – he can almost see what people are going to do before they do it, and his own actions feel like something he has no control over.

On the one hand he’s being forced by the voice of Frank to do some things that are dangerous and destructive. Such as flooding the school by smashing a water pipe with an axe or burning down the palatial estate of a loathsome self-help guru. He finds himself getting his father’s gun from his closet. He takes a knife to the bathroom to try to break through an invisible wall to reach Fred.

At school Donnie becomes prone to outbursts. He talks back to his gym teacher during an insipid ethics class based on the work of a self made guru named Jim Cunningham who offers thin platitudes and sells advice about the eternal battle between love and fear. Strangely only Donnie seems to realize that Jim is a scam artist who is lining his pockets by selling his courses and lectures to the school.

Everything builds to the climactic moment where it is revealed why Frank has been haunting Donnie and why he has the bunny suit. There’s time-travel involved and a convergence of multiple plot lines in an instant that has been pre-destined since the beginning of the movie. Which is cool and all, but it’s not really the point of the movie for me.

Okay – some spoilers now. Donnie dies at the end of the film, which wraps back around to the beginning so that all the events of the movie are shown to be an alternative universe. My interpretation of the movie is that what we get to see of Donnie’s life is a sort of idealised wish fulfilment. Before he dies he gets to see what life would be like if he came out of his shell and did the sorts of things that teenaged boys wish they could get away with doing. he floods the school. He talks back to teachers. He gets the girl. he knows the answers. It’s sort of one last hurrah for him because everything comes crashing down and he has to accept his fate.

This movie is so layered and complex that it necessitates multiple viewings. It could be read as Donnie coming to grips with his fear of death and accepting that death is not such a dreadful fate. Or you could view it as wish fulfilment as I do. Of you could see it as an exploration of multiple parallel universes. I enjoy the fact that it’s ambiguous enough to be open for interpretation.

No matter how you chose to understand the film it cannot be denied that it’s wonderfully made. Richard Kelly, who went on to direct that utterly impossible to describe Southland Tales, directs here with flare and panache. This movie combines a fever-dream feel accomplished with muted sounds, cool digital effects, and lots of manipulation of the film speed with a more normal feel at times. There are lots of scenes that are very slickly edited together with intercut views of different unrelated events which heighten the tension. There are parts of the movie that feel almost like a horror film (one of my favorite moments is when Donnie is hypnotised by his therapist and is describing his terror at the impending end of the world and he looks up and sees Frank right there in the room with them. “I see him right now!” he exclaims and chills run down my spine.)

There’s a great cast of talented actors from Drew Barrymore to Mary McDonnell to Patrick Swayze. Jake Gyllenhaal really steals the show though as Donnie himself. he’s so sinister and sullen, so dangerously hard to read. You get a sense that his family and therapist don’t just not understand him – they fear him a little. It’s a fantastic performance full of desperation and pain.

Add to all that an absolutely astonishing soundtrack. Every song here is so perfectly suited for the tone and feel of the movie – even more impressive given that some of the music is apparently last minute replacements for temp tracks that the producers couldn’t secure the rights to. It makes me want to download the soundtrack right now (although in truth I don’t tend to buy compilation albums – I’m more likely to buy all the original albums the songs came from. I need more Tears for Fears and Duran Duran on my iPhone.)

The world needs more slick, inscrutable, inspired movies like this. Any movie that forces you to think about it as much as this one does for me it a big plus in my book. And of course the creepy bunny mask that Frank wears will be forever burnt into your mind once you have seen this. “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

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August 31, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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