Out of Time:
Donnie Darko, Ten Years On
By Hugh Lilly
At its most basic, Richard Kelly’s masterwork Donnie Darko is a love story. On another level, it’s a comic-book superhero story set inside the world of a coming-of-age teen movie. On yet another level, it’s a late-’80s period piece and an opaque homage to the scarier side of ’80s dark comedies like Heathers. The hive mind at Wikipedia labels the film a “psychological thriller-fantasy.” The official synopsis conveys almost nothing of these sentiments and makes the film sound like a Bergmanesque attempt at sci-fi:
A troubled teenager is plagued by visions of a large bunny rabbit that manipulates him to commit a series of crimes after narrowly escaping a bizarre accident.
The film’s strength—and the biggest reason for its cult status—lies in its deft blend of all of the above. It manages to be funny, scary, moving and engaging—sometimes in the same breath. In case you haven’t ‘discovered’ this wonderful cinematic cult object in the ten or so years since its release, a summary: it’s 1988, almost Halloween. In the opening shot, the camera descends upon our protagonist asleep in the middle of the road at the top of a ridge high above the sleepy fictional town of Middlesex, Virginia. He rides his bike home down the hill to the strains of “The Killing Moon” by Echo & the Bunnymen.
Donnie, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the role that made him a star, is an awkward, continually somnambulant, overly-medicated teenager who begins experiencing increasingly strange visions of a 7-ft. tall bunny rabbit named Frank with a contorted, deformed face who tells him that the world’s coming to an end in 28 days. Further, Frank informs Donnie that he’s the only one with the power to stop the universe from being destroyed by a mysterious chain of events, the catalyst for which is a jet engine that falls from a plane onto Donnie’s house and into his bedroom. He doesn’t die, though, because he wasn’t there—he was asleep in the middle of the road—but the chain of events is cyclical: the engine will fall out of the sky in less than a month; will Donnie be home next time?
To try and free himself from his existential funk, he hooks up with the new girl in his class (Jena Malone [Saved!] in a break-out role) and, at Frank’s urging, bursts a water main in his school’s basement, and burns down the house of a man who’s trying to hawk his ridiculous self-help book, Attitudinal Beliefs, anywhere he can, which includes lecturing apathetic high-schoolers on the perils of “giving in to fear.” Donnie tells his therapist—who’s prescribing him placebos because she doesn’t think he’s actually experiencing daylight hallucinations—about his problems, not because his parents don’t care but because they simply don’t know what else to do. (In a stroke of genius, Kelly cast Katharine “Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson?” Ross as the therapist.)
Donnie’s English teacher (Drew Barrymore) gets fired for trying to teach her class Graham Greene’s The Destructors, and his physics teacher tells him all about time-travel, but abruptly ends the conversation because he “might get fired.” As a parting gift, he gives Donnie a copy of The Philosophy of Time Travel, a book written by a one-time nun and former teacher at Middlesex High, Roberta Sparrow. She’s now a dottery old woman with a shock of wild, white hair who lives alone; kids at school have given her the disparaging nickname “Grandma Death.”
To try and explain more about the film would probably ruin it; suffice it to say that if you haven’t already seen Donnie Darko, you need to—the new Blu-Ray is as good a way as any to be inducted into the Darkoverse. If you have seen it, there are very few films that are not only this re-watchable, but actually reward repeated viewings; trade in your old DVD(s) at Real Groovy and go buy the new high-definition set.
Released mere weeks after 9/11, the film initially suffered from terrible timing: no one wanted to market, let alone go along to the multiplex to see, a film where a jet engine is a major plot device. But before the film even reached the distribution stumbling block, it had to contend with production troubles: it wasn’t until director Richard Kelly found Drew Barrymore and asked if she’d like to executive-produce (i.e. give some money to) the project that it really got some steam behind it. Unfortunately this concession meant that Kelly gave Barrymore a role in the film, and this is the one huge blight on it as a work of art: her turn as Donnie’s English teacher is hilariously bad. (I thought the opposite when I first watched it, but I was 15, and Charlie’s Angels had just come out, so gimme a break!)
After presenting his director’s cut at Sundance, Kelly was told he’d have to significantly redact material and that he needed to make a few song changes due to licensing arrangements. He did, and the film came out later that year in what is now known (and loved) as the theatrical cut. Happily, the director’s cut, issued theatrically and on DVD at various points in the years after 2001, restores more than twenty minutes of footage to the film, but with it Kelly also (ill-advisedly) added a lot of audio and visual elements, including interstitial titles and expository tracts (chunks of text) from The Philosophy of Time Travel which he had actually written out for real as a way of running through the intricacies of the story to himself.
He also added a lot of gratuitous computer graphics, especially at the end when the film ‘rewinds,’ which puts the director’s cut squarely in 2001, rather than in some nether-region outside time. All of the stuff Kelly packed into the director’s cut serves to over-explain the world he created, and his insistence on giving the audience no wiggle room whatsoever for their own imagination portends the relative failure of Southland Tales and The Box, his other two features to date. Like Donnie Darko, though, those were two films that distributors simply didn’t know how to market—yet despite all the negativity it unfairly copped upon release, Southland Tales is actually pretty brilliant.
Infused with pop culture artefacts, Donnie Darko is more than just a period piece: it actually feels like it was made in 1988 and locked away in vaults until 2001. Unlike, say, a comedy like The Wedding Singer, which unashamedly wears its references on the outside, Donnie Darko hides its references up its sleeve, pulling them out only at opportune moments, like Donnie ranting about how the Smurfs don’t have reproductive organs, which is the film’s funniest scene: “That’s what’s so illogical about the Smurfs… what’s the point of living, if you don’t even have a dick?”
The song choices Kelly made are, in the original theatrical cut, perfect. They convey just as much of the time and place as they need to and never seem like they were chosen haphazardly, or because they were deliberately bright and ostentatious. The political quips—Donnie’s sister (Jake’s real-life sibling Maggie Gyllenhaal in one of her best early performances) saying, with a hint of superiority in her voice, that she’s voting for Michael Dukakis; Donnie’s dad muttering “You tell ’im, George” at Bush Sr. during a political debate with his opponent on TV—are pitch-perfect too. Other little nods, like Donnie’s mum reading Stephen King’s IT, while barely noticeable on first watch, subtly—and unconsciously—add to the film’s environment.
Donnie Darko is a lot of things. It’s a horror movie about a malevolent bunny with a bleeding eyeball. It’s a superhero story set in a comic-book world. (“We were trying to do a Salvador Dalí comic book,” says Kelly in an interview at the front of The Donnie Darko Book.) It’s a completely believable coming-of-age small-town period comedy, a subversive nod to the Sherman, Illinois of John Hughes’ landmark teen films of the mid-’80s. It’s that rare synergy of a multitude of genres within a science-fiction framework. But, really, it’s just the story of a boy who becomes a man by giving up his life to save the girl he loves. Isn’t that enough?
Donnie Darko has recently been reissued on Blu-Ray in a two-disc set featuring both the original theatrical cut and the director’s cut on individual discs with every feature from the first DVD pressings carried across intact, including hours of supplementary material and all three original audio commentaries plus the Director’s Cut commentary with Richard Kelly and Kevin “noish-noish-noish” Smith. The picture quality is so-so, but the audio has been remastered into 5.1 DTS-HD.