Dark, Darkest, Darko.
Donnie Darko has already garnered a cult following. For over two years it has enjoyed an uninterrupted run in New York City, every Friday and Saturday at midnight at the Pioneer Theater. Even if the film fades from popular consciousness, it still may serve the purposes of illustrating some of the elements of cult cinema and how self-awareness affects whether an audience embraces a film.
If pressed to give rules regarding cult films, I have imagined there would be only one rule; that one may not set out to purposely make a cult film. It’s like giving yourself a nickname – there is simply no way to do it. However, Donnie Darko seems to be a film constructed from a recipe of cult cinema elements. It self-consciously endeavours to be a cult film, and in so doing makes no small effort in informing viewers that they should agree. If the aforementioned rule were true, this would disqualify Donnie Darko. Yet it has had a resonant effect on a devoted audience in a very brief time. And so I have learned that the only rule to cult films is that there truly are no fixed rules.
It is a very earnest first effort from director Richard Kelly. It does well with visual effects on a small budget and has an interesting twist on the trend of non-linear storytelling. But like many debut features, it is ambitious in its scope, yet leaves very little ambiguity in how it hopes we interpret the elements presented. The film seems to italicise every point it makes. Whether due to its fondness for its own cleverness, a lack of trust by the filmmakers for their audience or a mixture of both, the film is unbelievably self-referential. It’s almost algebraic in its effort to concisely tie together every bit of foreshadowing.
Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a middle class, smart but depressed and slightly sullen American teen who takes medication for schizophrenia. Donnie frequently wanders off in the middle of the night in a hallucinatory daze. A recurring symptom of his delusion involves a demonic rabbit who challenges Donnie with existential questions, leads him to and occasionally persuades the boy to commit acts of vandalism.
During one such night, Donnie is lured from his bed by these night terrors. After awakening on a golf course, Donnie comes home to find an engine has mysteriously fallen off a jet liner and crashed into his family’s home. The rest of the family is unharmed and the home is spared except for Donnie’s room which has been all but crushed. The delusions have saved Donnie’s life, and the rest of the film weaves connections between fate, sanity and the time–space continuum.
Jake is very believable as Donnie. Considering this is a sci-fi film, it succeeds remarkably well as a character study, a rumination on mental illness and how family relationships are affected. I was impressed with how sympathetically Donnie’s parents (Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell) are portrayed. They are concerned about Donnie’s condition, but reluctant to fixate on it lest they make it worse. They seem to cope with it,attempting not to deny Donnie’s condition so much as sustaining normalcy while waiting for medication to do what it can. Likewise, Donnie’s sister Elizabeth (played by Jake’s real-life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal) affects a wise and patient affection for her brother.
There are a lot of concepts vying for attention here: time travel, death, life, religion, teen angst, parents living vicariously through their children, parents misunderstanding their children and first love.
It’s 1988. Lest we forget its 1988, there are frequent references to the US presidential election and extended sequences set to 1988 appropriate alterna-rock (Echo and the Bunnymen, The Church, Tears for Fears, etc). Plus the always precious pop culture references, including smurf sex theory and Hungry Hungry Hippos inspired existential disappointment.
If the pacing and plotline have failed to establish a sense of foreboding, not to worry; story cards appear frequently to describe the amount of days left to a mysterious occurrence. Just in case the trans-dimensional science is not clear enough for us, the film invokes a science teacher played by Noah Wyle to postulate on every metaphysical principle.
Producer Drew Barrymore miscasts herself as a darkly earnest and intellectually sympathetic English teacher who becomes a victim of her own combination of enlightened tolerance and strong convictions. A lively debate over a Graham Greene short story is introduced, both to emphasise concurrent themes at work in Donnie Darko and to confirm the rather tired cliché that all conservatives have southern accents, are dimwitted and operate out of repressed desire for the very things they condemn. The embodiment of which is a slightly out-of-place subplot involving a Dianetics-meets-pentacostal motivational speaker portrayed by Patrick Swayze.
Limitations aside, the film has generated great affection among those who have seen it, perhaps because it was a labour of love for those involved. It is undeniably an ambitious film, its quality far beyond the limitations of its shoe-string budget. Perhaps because the film was initially mis-marketed as a horror film (which it is not), it may have gained momentum as a kind of ‘sleeper’, gaining positive word-of-mouth buzz. It definitely rises above and defies the expectations created by the trailer.
Director: Richard Kelly
Writer(s): Richard Kelly
Runtime(s): 113 minutes
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.