One morning in early October, 1988, troubled teenager Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is coerced into sleepwalking by a mysterious figure in a creepy giant rabbit costume. He wakes up on the local golf course and heads home, only to find a jet engine has fallen into his bedroom, with the FAA claiming no such engine is missing. Had Donnie been home, he’d have been killed. In his dream, Donnie was also told that the world would end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 26 seconds, so he sets out attempting to unravel this mystery whilst also dealing with the regular trials and tribulations of a teenager in the 80s.
I’ve written a piece before on how I don’t like “weird” movies, by which I mean films whose narrative is, if present, an intentionally over-complicated giant knot that’s almost impossible to unravel on your first or even second viewing, but which with the help of numerous diagrams, relevant degrees in physics or psychology and rooms filled with notice boards covered in a network of notes, pins and connecting strings some sense can be made of it. You can read that piece here. Donnie Darko definitely fits into that category. It’s a story that, on face value (which is how I try to take every film), cannot make sense. A jet engine appearing from nowhere. A guiding character who existed only because he dies later on. Future time-worms emerging from peoples’ abdomens. And yet, I really don’t dislike this one. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say I enjoy it.
This is only my second viewing, with my first having been seven years ago, and there wasn’t a great deal I remembered, especially about the second half. I remembered liking it the first time around but not really getting what was going on, but not being interested enough to dig into it further or try a repeated watch (I also find that the sooner I watch a film for the second time after that initial viewing, the more likely it is that I’ll start to dislike it, as happened with Guardians of the Galaxy recently, and Pacific Rim before that), so I was looking forward to seeing what my thoughts were this time, especially now I’ve seen the follow-up misstep from director Richard Kelly, the atrocity that is Southland Tales. Here, I found myself almost ignoring the confusing, looping nature of the plot, and instead focussing on the characters and how well realised they are, as that is where I think the beauty of Donnie Darko lies.
Firstly there’s Donnie, who before last year’s Nightcrawler was the definitive iconic Jake Gyllenhaal role. He’s good in it, but it’s also clear it was still an early acting role and he’d yet to fully find his feet, which is fine. He relies a little too heavily on looking straight ahead with his face angled a little downward to emphasise his creepiness, but he is genuinely disconcerting and more than a little off, so it all comes together to form this character you can never quite get a handle on, which is just how he should come across. His family are all terrific too. Obviously his sister Elizabeth is played by Jake’s real life sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and this is probably one of the few films I don’t find her annoying in. Their chemistry and bickering relationship is perfect, but then they are siblings in real life, so it’s exactly what you’d expect. Their parents (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osbourne) are great too, forming an entirely believable family unit along with the younger sister. It’s the little moments, like their father playfully spraying Elizabeth with the garden hose, or the minor arguments over who they’re each going to vote for in the upcoming election, that ground an otherwise confounding, science-fiction plot into our own reality.
The same can be said of Donnie’s school life. His friends are assholes, picking on a shy foreign student for no reason other than she’s different, but they have typical teenage conversations regarding such dilemmas as the sexual logistics of the Smurf village. Some of his teachers are approachable and helpful, others are close-minded and belligerent. There are the stereotypical cliché bullies (including Seth Rogen), but they’re more anti-authoritarian psychopaths than spitefully singling out Donnie on some personal vendetta. It all just feels real, which makes the more fantastical elements seem all the more mind bending.
I also really approve of how Kelly introduces most of the characters, particularly in the school environment. There’s a couple of tracking shots around the school that set up people like the English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), her science teacher boyfriend (Noah Wyle), the main bully Seth (Alex Greenwald), and the ultra Conservative sports teacher Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), which play with the speed and soundtrack to create an ethereal experience that’s also all the introduction you need to a lot of these people. The way Greenwald demonically scowls at Grant, the looks of disdain between Grant and Barrymore, it’s all there, and it’s efficiently executed.
So what about the bizarre stuff? Well, SPOILER WARNING, just like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, this is a film at the end of which I didn’t have a theory, but after a little light research I found this explanation, and it sounds like it makes sense, as much as any theory behind Donnie Darko can. I like the idea that all the characters are behaving in a way to ensure that the climax happens, but retaining their own motivations and characterisations along the way. I feel more of this would be explained in the Director’s Cut which I’ve been warned away from because of how much more it reveals, but if anything I think that version might appeal to me more. Too many unanswered questions tend to shy me away from stories, but here there’s enough great direction, acting and world-building for me to appreciate the finished result regardless. Plus all the smaller side details, like the performances of Sparkle Motion and how dedicated Kitty Farmer is to them, or the self-help videos from motivational speaker Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze, in the first film I ever saw him in), or Donnie’s burgeoning romance with new student Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), or all the stuff with Roberta Sparrow, aka Grandma Death, the old lady spending her entire life compulsively checking an empty mailbox. There’s so much to unpack from this film that I can definitely now see myself watching it again.
Choose Film 8/10