“Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”
I was first made aware of Richard Kelly’s début when I happened upon a review in an Irish newspaper that described Donnie’s imaginary rabbit friend Frank as the “evil bastard brother of Harvey.” I wish I could attribute the quote to someone, but it’s been too many years. However, it was an evocative phrase that immediately captured my attention and curiosity; as someone who had adored Harvey from an early age, I simply had to see Donnie Darko, just to see precisely how similar, and how twisted, this new giant bunny really was.
While Kelly’s film is actually nothing like Harvey and, in truth, Frank shares little in common with Jimmy Stewart’s pooka friend (he’s not even an actual rabbit, but someone in a rabbit costume), I’ve never managed to get that comparison out of my head. Frank is a companion to troubled teen Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), but he’s hardly the amiable trickster that Harvey is; instead, he acts as Donnie’s guide, instructing the emotionally disturbed young man to destroy school property and commit arson. It’s all in preparation for the end of the world, set to occur on Halloween, 1988.
Donnie Darko is unapologetically pretentious, and reeks of film student; its fancy camera techniques set to a post-punk, new romantic soundtrack, its plot filled with complicated concepts concealing a surprisingly simple idea, and its dialogue featuring pseudo-intellectual philosophical debates that culminate with such profound statements as “what’s the point in living, if you don’t have a dick?” Yet it captured the imagination of a niche audience, an audience who embraced all its carefully constructed quirks. Much like Pulp Fiction provided college students with an arthouse film that they could relate to and claim as their own, Donnie Darko gave teenagers their own slice of weirdness. They could appreciate a character like Donnie, with his superhero name and his existential intelligence, his sense of desperate isolation and his fears for the future tapping into an entire generation’s similar angst. And, perhaps even more, Kelly’s film truly felt like it was made for this audience but, unlike the countless brainless blockbusters traditionally pitched at them, this was smart, and it wasn’t forced upon them. It didn’t provide all the answers, it encouraged personal analysis, it invited theories and discussions.
Kelly, however, has since destroyed at least part of his credibility by doing two things. His second film, Southland Tales, was riddled with problems from the very beginning and proved to be just too weird for most people (although, as I have said in a previous review, and no doubt will repeat again, I stand resolutely in the small camp of those who loved its sheer lunacy). While his reputation was redeemed slightly by The Box, based on a short story by Richard Matheson, even this did little to convince cynics that he was more than a one-hit wonder. These films may have damaged Kelly’s reputation somewhat, but it was his decision to release a director’s cut of Donnie Darko that did specific harm to his much loved début. Quite simply, the extra scenes provided too many answers, solved too many puzzles; suddenly, it was no longer clear whether Kelly’s creative vision was the result of deliberate decisions, or luck.
That said, Donnie Darko remains a triumph. It’s beautifully shot, with a haunting, dreamlike quality throughout. Although the relationship between the soundtrack and the film, in both this and Southland Tales, has been criticised for being too much like a series of music videos, here it works perfectly, while the delicate, simple original score captures the eerie sense of unease subtly and effectively. This haunted quality is personified in Donnie himself, played with wry humour and tightly-wound intensity by Gyllenhaal. His character is complex and damaged, but he is always sympathetic; he acts as the audience hopes he will, berating the adults who worship cheesy self-help gurus and pointing out the idiocy of their deluded importance. He is surrounded by a superb ensemble, including Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, the late Patrick Swayze, and Beth Grant, who chews the scenery with aplomb as the melodramatic, opinionated Kitty Farmer.
While my initial fascination with Kelly’s film was closely linked with my overall confusion and resulting need to understand what I had watched, repeat viewings continue to provide new areas of interest. The initial scene in the school, for example, a long, unbroken tracking shot flitting from one character to the next, set to Tears for Fears’ Head Over Heels, not only systematically introduces the individuals in the story, but explicitly reveals the interconnectivity of each one to the other. Although Donnie fears he is alone in the world, Kelly shows how everyone’s lives are irrevocably linked; one action leads to another, and the apocalypse (if that’s really what it is) cannot happen without everyone playing their role.
Now, I am no longer a teenager, but I still feel some kind of ownership of Donnie Darko. For this reason, I suppose, Kelly’s film is a true cult classic. Yet it is a modern classic too – a film that defies definition, that combines Lynchian suburbia with science fiction, melodrama with horror, psychology with theology and, most importantly, creates something new that begs for repeated viewings and remains as fascinating and involving on the tenth view as it was on the first.