Donnie Darko

dir: Richard Kelly
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Hmm. An interesting film. I was simultaneously surprised and non-plussed by this crazy film, having had an inordinately high level of expectation due to a bunch of positive reviews and some decent word of mouth. Despite going in knowing plenty about the film, it was still a mystery from beginning to end, and still remains something of a mystery for me right now. Right now, writing this, there are still many elements that I can't work out, and will be pondering for some time to come.

Which is definitely a good thing. It is a film that despite its somewhat modest scale (which people who've seen it would dispute, I'm guessing), defies any real category and comparison, though by its end it achieves a conventionality which I never predicted. See, whilst watching it I initially couldn't foresee that there was an overarching logic, a method to the madness that was eventually going to make sense. I stupidly believed that it was going to be disconnected, schizophrenic vignettes connected by quirky bridging scenes with no sensible conclusion. I was profoundly wrong.

Most surprising for me was the quality of the performances in the film. For a film that you might assume is going to be supported by the weirdness of the goings on or some other conceit, the performances are careful and considered, and the dialogue given to each and every character is well written. There's excellent writing throughout the film, but writing alone doesn't sell a film. The conviction of the people contributing is what keeps it together and makes it shine. In this instance I'd be very surprised if most of the people in the film had any idea as to how fucking wired and weird the end product would be. I can't for a second believe that Patrick Swayze genuinely signed on to this film understanding what it was all about. You'd expect he was just grateful for the work.

Ultimately the conviction that carries the film is both that of Jake Gyllenhaal playing the titular character, and possibly even more so the direction and writing of Richard Kelly. At 26, he pulled this glorious monstrosity together. That's the kind of shit that makes you resentful in your old age. It's an achievement and a half, to be sure. He is being unfairly compared to David Lynch. It is unfair in that this film is far superior to many of Lynch's movies whilst superficially appearing to mine the same rich vein of weirdness for weirdness’ sake that it his bread and butter.

But let's not get too carried away. The film is still flawed, I suspect through the editing process, which drops in some scenes and truncates others which unnecessarily complicates an already complicated process. And whilst I can still wax lyrical about the film, at times I felt profoundly distanced from it and was viewing it as an exercise or an experiment as opposed to a movie.

In its initial stages the film itself appears to have a split personality, in that there appears to be on the one hand a 'real' setting which works according to expected dynamics, ie. middle class family in a town importantly called Middlesex, the vagaries and complications of teenage life, but then you're forced to question that reality with the introduction of increasingly bizarre occurrences. Again, initially, it causes you (or at least it caused me) to reach a fundamentally incorrect conclusion as to what is really going on, until you see where things are actually going. That's when you think "Uh, now I know that the film is supposed to make sense. But I still don't know what the fuck it means" :)

In a refreshing twist the setting is not used exclusively for a source of satire in and of itself. Gee, do we really need any more films which are supposed to tell us how mundane and meaningless existence is in the suburbs? Because there aren't enough films and pretentious fucking writers and directors that keep trying to tell us how soulless life is in the suburbs, are there.

Donnie Darko has a family. Amazingly enough, they're ordinary decent people. The mother and father are actually written and portrayed as decent people concerned about their son without either being overbearing fuckwads or control freaks. They know their son (apparently) has psychiatric problems, but instead of the film using that as an excuse to launch into stereotypical behaviour regarding the enforcement of conformity upon 'rebel' teens, they are depicted as being concerned but hopeful in terms of wanting to help their son. They're actually cool parents. I found it so surprising. Holmes Osbourne and Mary McDonnell do a good job, especially the mother. I can't remember seeing Mary McDonnell in anything since Dances With Wolves, and it's a shame, because she is ideal in this role.

Jake Gyllenhaal obviously bears the brunt of the responsibilities here, and he does a superlative job. He is the Anti-Tobey MacGuire, that's for sure. In particular special moments of the film he adopts this quite frightening facial expression, with this insane smile beneath a hunched back and clouded brow that works perfectly in reinforcing an already viciously complicated character. I don't know how exactly he got into the frame of mind necessary to physically portray the character necessary, or the note and tone - perfect delivery of the dialogue, but I suspect the producers of the film got him wicked drunk and stoned on skunkweed the night before every performance, because he moves through the film looking and acting as if he has the mother of all perpetual hangovers. And it works perfectly. I've yet to see Jake Gyllenhaal give a weak performance yet in his short career, and I hope it stays that way.

Don't for a moment believe that I'm saying he's entirely sympathetic. He's not. He is a freak of the highest order, and whilst I dug him perpetually, I rarely 'liked' him. Nor did I feel that I had to, which was good.

See, Richard Kelly, the writer/director, didn't fool me for a second :) When I watch a film about a tortured, brilliant, misunderstood young man battling with copious amounts of existential problems and a desire for groin - groin crazed weasel sex, I know what's really going on. It's called a re-contextualisation of one's own life experience, re-defining your own past in a way that gives you the closure with your teenage years that you desperately wish you had. Look, I'm not criticising it, because when it works audiences respond to it as well, and get what you're doing without necessarily knowing what you're doing. It's just that I know when it's going on :) And I certainly saw it here as well. But I don't begrudge Kelly doing so, because the guy is sharper and a better director than 50 other guys of a similar age and disposition.

Nothing succeeds or exceeds like success, and he does succeed, because whatever labels you may want to apply to the film, this is not the work of a fuckwit, that's for certain. Though I guess the few people that I saw walking out of the theatre may dispute that fact.

The film has something of a complicated plot, but I am unsure as to whether there is any point in trying to relate it here. It's tempting but it would be fruitless. I had previously read synopses of the plot prior to seeing the film, and they meant jack shit when I was watching it.

I want to talk about the almost banal world that Donnie Darko seems to inhabit. The teenage smoking of cigarettes at a bus stop with simple teenage friends that you are amazed would want to associate themselves with a loon like Donnie. The lonely overweight Chinese girl who wants to be Giselle from Swan Lake, but no-one can see it or appreciate it apart from Donnie. The tentative and confused attempts to get a girlfriend by Donnie that work because she's just as fucked up in her own way by life experience as he is (Jena Malone, who puts in a great performance as a reasonably straight-forward girl with burdens of her own).

The jet engine which plays as much of an important role in the film as any other character, with even greater overall significance. Patrick Swayze as an unctuous self-help guru who is so embarrassing that you just have to laugh. Drew Barrymore playing the only 'adult' role in her career that I can remember, and doing it perfectly, which shouldn't be a surprise since she also serves as the executive producer for the film. In case there are some of you out there that don't know what an executive producer credit means, it means something fairly simple: money. And I thank her for it, though I think she ultimately gets short shrift through the editing.

Then of course there is Frank, Donnie's apparent imaginary 'friend' who wears a demon mask over a bunny suit. Frank, who instructs Donnie to perform increasingly destructive acts of arson and violence as the film progresses. Frank, who ultimately proves to be more and less than he appears to be, simultaneously unimportant and central to the story. Then there's the use of Graham Greene's writing, which was wonderful to see/hear, considering that he was both one of the best writers of the last century, is underappreciated, and is confused at one glorious point with one of the main actors in 'Bonanza' :)

The irony of the film that I've worked out subsequently is that the most important conversation that gives away what the film is actually about is one which much of the audience (okay, at least me) would not see the significance of, being a conversationbetween Donnie and his therapist, Dr Thurman (Lillian Ross), regarding death and being alone. And then of course there is the end of days and the Apocalypse of course, but that doesn't really matter right now. Suffice to say that there are enough ideas in this film for twenty others, and whilst most of them are thrown away, you've got to appreciate that level of creativity.

I watched this with my partner, and as we were walking out of the cinema she gave me her interpretation of the film, which was completely at odds with my interpretation. I was, to coin a phrase, "fuckstruck". She is a brilliant woman, but I did wonder if we'd seen the same film. Truth be told, I think her interpretation is just as possibly right as any other, including mine. I have come to the considered conclusion that there are multiple explanations for this film, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. And just to add an aspect of non-clarity, though my girlfriend hasn't as yet watched Mulholland Drive, her explanation was similar to that film, being the 'death dream' idea. Which I don't agree with :)

I just want to reiterate the fact that there are a passel of excellent quotes in this film, most excellent writing, such as:

"Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!"


"He told me to forcibly insert the Fear-Love lifeline into my anus!"

I could go on. For ages.

This film was criminally ignored by potential audiences. It was lauded by critics. And we all know how little that means. I get the feeling that despite my misgivings regarding the film, they haven't come across in this review. It's an okay film, it's definitely not as brilliant as the makers hope, but it's interesting enough.

No cliches. I can appreciate that. I like that in fact. But I can't in all conscience recommend it. It is still cold in some aspects and a clinical exercise. But please, I implore you, make your own judgments. As if any of you would take my word for it :)

My girl gave it 9.5 out of 10, I give it 9 out of 10.

"So, how exactly did you feel when you didn't get these "Hungry Hungry Hippoes?" - Donnie Darko