A troubled teenager is plagued by visions of a man in a large rabbit suit who manipulates him to commit a series of crimes after he narrowly escapes a bizarre accident.
“Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”
We’ve all been there.
At one point in our lives, be it at the dawn of adolescence or in the dank pit of a midlife crisis, the shattering “Truth” breaks through the mold and overwhelms us, floors us. There may be many moments when we ask ourselves, “What’s the point of it all?” – but we tend to do it fleetingly, our hearts accelerating a bit as we touch upon that void and swiftly withdraw as if it were a hot coal. But there is that ONE instant, when our skin, our brains and organs, our very essence and its relation to our surroundings comes into question. Concepts of “time,” “relativity,” “success,” “happiness,” along with the plethora of human emotions, all become meaningless, due to the inevitability of it all. Some cannot help but dwell in that state, which society defines as “depression” or “severe alienation,” others snap out of it and decide to make the best of it, capitalize on each minute, live each day as if it were their last.
“Some people are just born with tragedy in their blood.”
Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), the titular character of Richard Kelly’s 2001 metaphysical masterpiece, perpetually lives in that moment. He sees through the thick bubble that society has created, his young mind struggling to understand and cope with the grim reality, and where it’s all headed. Set in the paradigm-shifting 1980s, juxtaposed brilliantly against Donnie’s own pubescent changes, where you feel like you are about to burst through your own skin, the film’s aura is wondrous, alien, apocalyptic and harrowing, reflecting Donnie’s continuous state of being. “Every living creature on Earth dies alone,” Donnie says, so simply and accurately reflecting our collective greatest fear as humanity: “I don’t want to be alone.”
“What if you could go back in time and take all those hours of pain and darkness and replace them with something better?”
And so Donnie is given an opportunity, by a celestial force in form of an anthropomorphic bunny, to break through that societal membrane, led by one of the film’s unforgettable creations, the Liquid Spears. Those “Abyss”-like gel formations, waltzing to Michael Andrews’ minimal, otherworldly score, show Donnie what “redemption” may seem like, were he able to foresee the future: get together with the girl of his dreams (Jenna Malone, in what is still arguably her best role), corrupt a local charlatan (a fully committed Patrick Swayze), morally demolish his teacher (a formidably uptight Beth Grant)… And yet, being in “God’s corridor” just makes Donnie realize how futile it all is, and how his happiness comes at the expense of other people’s misery – and so he makes the ultimate sacrifice.
“They just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart. They just want to change things.”
“Donnie Darko” flopped at the box-office. Its commercial failure may be attributed to a variety of factors: being released right after the tragedy of 9/11, a lack of a real marketing push, the film’s off-kilter amalgamation of styles and vague plot, blockbusters overshadowing the underdog… It did, however, find a massive audience on DVD. Richard Kelly’s dark, uncompromising vision spoke to a generation of film lovers like myself, who emphasized with Donnie, trying to radically alter a crumbling world that resembled Kelly’s so much. We all felt the need to connect with the cosmos, with eternity, come face-to-face with existential questions, break through the mold – or, we knew deep in our bones, it would all end in a catastrophe. Donnie’s “teen existential angst” transcended those of your average high-schooler – it resonated with all ages and races, piercing through time and space, taking shape of a microscopic bubble, in which we all fester, akin to ants. Kelly’s film was a call to action, to “think outside the box.” By casting a retrospective look at our volatile past, “Donnie Darko” urged us to change the future, see the Liquid Spears in front of us.
“I want you to watch the movie screen. There is something I want to show you.”
Richard Kelly’s film is one of those miracles, like Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” where it’s as if the director’s flow of consciousness were directly translated – unfiltered – onto celluloid, touching upon a number of nerves ever-so-gently but powerfully. It’s a thing of wonder to behold, a dream-like, seamless blend of directing, writing, acting, cinematography, and score. On a measly budget, Kelly managed to put together one of those seminal, generation-defining films, like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” or Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” If you think it’s an overstatement, watch “Donnie Darko” again and see for yourself how it holds up even better 15 years after its initial release, a true sign of a lasting masterpiece.
I can’t think of a single scene that doesn’t work, or that doesn’t serve a purpose in driving the narrative in “Donnie Darko.” Who could forget Frank the Bunny Rabbit and the knife sequence, or Darko’s sleepwalking, or the tracking/upside-down shot, or the Tears for Fears tunes… The list goes on and on. Donnie’s family (played perfectly by real-life sister Maggie, the wise mother Mary McDonnell and sarcastic dad Holmes Osborne) may be one of the most realistically depicted American families in film. The entire Grandma Death sub-plot, which would be normally delegated as redundant in a similar feature, plays a crucial role and gains power upon multiple viewings. Even off-kilter dialogues, such as Donnie’s unforgettable Smurfette “thesis,” serve to delve deeper into Donnie’s penetrating, sardonic mind.
As for Donnie himself, I admire Gyllenhaal’s impressive body of work, but I don’t think he has yet topped the gentle, angry, implosive/explosive performance he gives here, carrying the film on his fragile shoulders, each glance burning its way through the screen right into your heart. You ARE Donnie while watching this film, no matter your age, gender or race, because he is all of us – and that’s quite the feat to pull off for a young actor. “I’m painting and stuff,” he stammers. “Writing. I want to be a writer, or maybe a painter, I don’t know, or maybe both. I’ll write a book and draw pictures. Then maybe people will understand me. I don’t know, change things.”
Alas, Richard Kelly has not been able to top this effort either. Far from it in fact, with the lackluster (but ambitious) follow-ups “Southland Tales” and “The Box,” the former of which featured Justin freakin’ Timberlake and the latter of which even went so far as to replicate Donnie’s Liquid Spears, making me wince. But I met the director recently; he is an intelligent, passionate man, and I believe he just needs to reign in the ambition, and let his creativity speak for himself, get back in touch with that dreamlike “Donnie Darko” state, where consciousness and cinema are in perfect harmony.
Available on a Special 4-Disc Limited Edition Blu-ray April 18th