Thursday 14 January 2010

Donnie Darko (2001)

Director: Richard Kelly
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Donnie Darko was the fifth film I watched during my IMDb Top 250 project and it was the first that I personally felt shouldn't be in that list. I added a caveat to my review in 2004 that it was only my view at the time, leaving open the possibility after two viewings that I may change my mind in the future. It wasn't that I didn't like the film, it was that I didn't like it to the degree I felt I was supposed to and I couldn't work out why. Richard Kelly's intelligent and intriguing directorial debut was without doubt a very good film but was it good enough to warrant inclusion in such hallowed company? Something about it felt like genius but it was an elusive thing. Now watching it six years later for the third time, I'm stuck in the same rut.

Where I'm stuck is that the film is an involving creature that sucked me in and kept me involved and fascinated throughout, but nonetheless somehow left me dry because the explanations don't quite ring true. Richard Kelly, who wrote and directed, has also described the internal logic that he built the framework of the story around, all about a unstable and doomed tangent universe splitting off from our own and the destiny of a chosen living receiver to save both the tangent and primary universes from destruction, but it still doesn't ring true and the answer only leaves me with more questions. What feels worst is that the better I understand the logic Kelly built his film around the less I appreciate his film, and given that I really enjoyed it that plays like a betrayal.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie Darko, a strangely troubled young man on drugs and in frequent $200 an hour therapy sessions, who narrowly escapes death when a mysterious jet engine lands in his bedroom one night, one that no airline will claim ownership of. He isn't in his bedroom when it's destroyed because he's been sleepwalking every night, or even sleepriding, given that as if to underline the contrasting beautiful and sinister natures of the film he begins it in a daze in the middle of a winding mountain road with his bike off on the verge. In fact he spends much of the film in some sort of walking trance state similar to that of Jeff Goldblum in Into the Night, sparking into life when he feels a purpose or turning sinister when things get surreal.

The night the jet engine hits his house he's curled up on the golf course, after talking with Frank, a bizarre six foot rabbit that only he can see who asks him to follow him into the future. To be fair this isn't intended to be a real six foot rabbit, it's a man in a suit he's designed for Hallowe'en. So no friendly Harvey this, Frank is a nightmare version complete with obligatory scary mask who is counting down the days until the end of the world. Never mind 2012, this is 1988 and apparently there are 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds left. I must have blinked back then or something because I made it through 22nd October, 1988 without trouble, but then that's the point of the film: Donnie saved me.

Frank is an inviting soul. He wakes Donnie up and persuades him to do things that he wouldn't normally do. Flood the school, Frank says, so Donnie takes an axe and takes out the water pipes, leaving the place flooded and closed and the axe stuck into the head of the statue of the school mascot in front of the place. The words on the ground around it read, 'They Made Me Do It'. Quite why Frank is making him do anything, I really don't know, unless it's just to point him in the right directions but given that he actually talks to him then it all seems a really obtuse and roundabout way to go about something as important as saving the universe.

We continually wonder where the film is going, not just because of the confusing framework but because we're gifted with many well told little stories, often recognising in them cleverly written details that remind us of real life. In fact we relish it, so that every time Donnie Darko is put into a position to do something active, we know there's going to be something interesting to see. Maybe it'll be a teacher asking him a question in class, maybe it'll be an opportunity for him to ask a question himself of Jim Cunningham, a local self help guru played with suitable annoyance factor by Patrick Swayze. It's always worth watching, whatever it is, but we wonder where it's taking us and what all these little stories mean. We even get to sit in on a number of therapy sessions with Donnie and Dr Thurman, which are presumably meant to help us focus on what this is really all about, but we leave each just as confused as we arrived.
Whatever it's really about I should point out that the film is impeccably played and the chemistry between the actors is palpable, all sorts of chemistry too given how many and varied these characters are. Most obviously Jake Gyllenhaal's performance is versatile and superb. He was a relatively unknown actor starring in a new director's first film, that because of its very nature was always going to be either elevated or doomed to cult status, depending on your point of view. It certainly wasn't likely to be a mainstream hit and sure enough it wasn't, making a loss on its theatrical run but building a slow but solid profit through the DVD release. Nonetheless Gyllenhaal turns in a career-making performance, subtle yet powerful and engaging, even more important given that it followed another one two years earlier in October Sky.

It isn't just young newcomers like Gyllenhaal and his real life sister Maggie, as there are also far more experienced names on tap, such as Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze and Katharine Ross, to back them up. Both Barrymore and Swayze play refreshingly unstereotypical parts: it's easy to see Barrymore as a ditz or a slut or both and Swayze as a brainless chick flick hero, but these roles show their true versatility as actors. Barrymore, as co-producer, was apparently a key reason for the film getting made in the first place, and for her trouble she took a small but key role as a liberal teacher at odds with her fundamentalist surroundings. Swayze, amazingly, plays a sleazy motivational speaker, outwardly a stalwart example to the community but inwardly a pervert with a major skeleton in his closet.

I particularly liked the character of Grandma Death, a former nun turned science teacher at Donnie's school who left to write a book on time travel that ties in scarily with his own experiences, The Philosophy of Time Travel. Now she spends her time walking down to her mailbox for something that is never there. She's played by Patience Cleveland, now deceased, who seems to have worked mostly in television. I wonder what she thought of her role here. In fact I wonder what most of the cast thought of their roles here, especially Patrick Swayze! This is a far cry from Dirty Dancing or Road House.

Writer and director Richard Kelly certainly found his own unique style with Donnie Darko. It plays around with a whole host of genres, making its usual pigeonhole description of 'supernatural thriller' far too restrictive. This breakneck diversity takes us on a rollercoaster ride of emotions that brings us up sharply at the finale, making it even more of a shock. The movie flopped on general release and I can understand why. Outside of the core fans who see it as one of the greatest films ever made, I can't see the vast majority of the audience recommending it to their friends. I picture them instead still in their seats as the credits roll with blank faces, wondering just what the hell they actually saw.

I think also that Donnie Darko was more successful outside the United States, possibly because it pokes clever satirical fingers at the entirety of suburban American life, from high school to therapy sessions to the whole self-help industry, not to mention the way kids are treated. I'm not just talking about whatever drugs the Darkos have Donnie on but about people like Mrs Farmer, one of Donnie's teachers. She's the stereotypical 'won't someone think of the children' bleeding heart but she's behind the Sparkle Motion dance troupe, which appears to all about sexualising eleven year old girls, and she instantly defends her idol, Jim Cunningham, when his 'kiddie porn dungeon' is discovered, because naturally it's all a conspiracy.

The film certainly made an impact in England, if mostly through Gary Jules's startling minimalist version of the originally bland Tears for Fears song Mad World, which plays over the finale and later became a surprise Christmas number one hit. That's a big deal in England. The whole soundtrack works very well indeed, but especially Mad World with its line about 'the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had'. Even after three viewings and research into just what Richard Kelly was trying to do here, I still can't help but wonder whether he started with that lyric and worked backwards from there.

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