Fifteen Years Later, 'Donnie Darko' Is Still Worth Enduring the Impenetrability
Richard Kelly's debut is as good as it permits itself to be, which is just short of masterful.
Donnie DarkoDirector: Richard Kelly
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell
In Donnie Darko, there’s a scene in which the titular protagonist attempts to break through an invisible barrier -- a byproduct of this universe’s ill-explained fracture in time-space that created a tangential, time-looped reality in which our hero finds himself indefinitely trapped. This barrier separates Donnie from Frank, a demonic, six-plus foot tall, imaginary bunny rabbit. Donnie pushes against the barrier, hits it, punches it, and at one point even stabs it with a sizable kitchen knife, but all to no avail: the barrier holds steady. Ultimately, this scene (and specifically this scene’s barrier) represents DonnieDarko as a cumulative experience: mesmerizingly captivating but, in the long run, frustratingly impenetrable.
Originally hitting theaters in 2001, Donnie Darko is now receiving a limited re-release thanks to a crisp 4K restoration. The film follows its high-school aged hero (Jake Gyllenhaal) who, as he puts it, has “emotional problems”. Donnie spends much of the film navigating the morass of his own mind, in which an unorthodox neurochemistry manifests the aforementioned Frank, who introduces himself by lulling Donnie into a trance-like state and luring the protagonist out of his house just before a jet engine crashes into his bedroom. Frank then informs Donnie that the end of the world is nigh (specifically: 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds away), and commences to guide the suggestible teen through a tirade of vandalism. Donnie goes so far as to flood his school, and leave his calling card in the form of an ax protruding from the head of a bronzed statue of the institution’s mascot.
This vigilantism serves as a major ingredient in the dish of rebellion that Donnie serves to the milquetoast, white-collar community that's aggravating him. He expresses his distaste for such in several forms, whether that be by barking at his friends for pointlessly debating juvenile hypotheticals (such as Smurfette’s sexual orientation), or mocking the authority figures dictated by, as Donnie might call it, fake and overly-simplistic principles. These include Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), a straight-to-VHS-self-help guru who preaches love over fear, and one of his devoted admirers, Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), the neurotic coach of his younger sister’s dance troupe, Sparkle Motion. Both oppose Donnie’s actions of insurgency but are unaware he is the perpetrator of the more serious crimes happening.
But the real problem with which Donnie reckons is loneliness. “I don’t want to die alone,” he tearfully confesses to his therapist (Katharine Ross). It's here where the heart, and inevitably the emotional gravitas, of Donnie Darko resides– -- not in the darkly alluring Frank, or the comically appealing Jim and Kitty, or even the heady hypothesis Donnie posits on the irony of Graham Greene’s characters in the short story, “The Destructors”, for his English teacher (Drew Barrymore, who also executive produced, which is bar none her best producer credit to date). The relationships that shape Donnie Darko’s sentimental core are those Donnie has with his family members– -- particularly his mother (Mary McDonnell) and his sister, Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) -- as well as his newfound girlfriend, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone).
Unfortunately, not enough time is devoted to substantially exploring these bonds to justify the paralyzing gut punch which the film attempts to deliver with its final frame. Of these three, the relationship most in need of further development is that between Donnie and his mother. Although the tension between them is evident from the film’s onset (they bicker about where Donnie goes at night) and the necessary scene is offered to give this storyline the ending of an arc (Mrs. Darko reassures her son that she loves him no matter what his mental state), there isn’t enough meat on this bone to make it a satisfactory emotional meal. Even less work is done in exploring Donnie’s relationship with his sister, but this feels more like a missed opportunity, not a shortcoming of the story itself, because of the Gyllenhaal siblings’ evident performative rapport.
One might assume, then, that cutting a few of the bounty of supporting characters with whom Donnie interacts would free up more time to explore the necessary relationships; not only is there Frank, Jim Cunningham, Kitty Farmer, Donnie’s teachers, and his best friends, but also two unidimensional ruffians (played by Alex Greenwald and Seth Rogen) and an overweight, chronically bullied transfer student named Cherita Chen (Jolene Purdy). (Since we’re discussing the cast, for those who feel modestly confident in their “Disney/Nickelodeon 2000s” trivia, there are two hilarious cameos in Donnie Darko.)
Yet, the film’s structure renders the excision of any character an impossibility, as they all serve as cogs in a greater machine, playing the necessary role in guiding Donnie to a foregone conclusion. That’s not to say that the ending is predictable because it’s certainly anything but that. Still, this proves to be an inherent, yet unavoidable, flaw and turns Donnie into a passive protagonist. It's rather lamentable that more time, money and pages weren’t afforded to expand the length to accommodate the characters’ arcs, and in turn strengthen the project (for goodness sake, it’s under two hours long, they certainly could’ve spared a bit more expense).
Nonetheless, Donnie Darko concerns itself more with character and world-building than plot. The only tangible objective for our protagonist stems from Donnie’s interactions with Frank. Of the two, Frank is indisputably the alpha of the relationship, which, again, points to Donnie’s passivity. During one of their several mind-bending interactions, the pointy-eared cicerone for the apocalypse mentions time-travel, which leads Donnie to investigate Roberta Sparrow (a dementia-addled local whom the town’s teens refer to as Grandma Death) after discovering she wrote a book entitled The Philosophy of Time Travel. Donnie commits himself to learning as much as he can about the subject, as an attempt to better understand what’s going on inside his head.
But, like the rest of the plot, this storyline serves as just another means to an end, indicating that Donnie Darko is just like Donnie Darko: trapped in an unflinchingly rigid reality that will fall apart, or fail, if even one piece is out of place. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive exercise of puzzle-building, even if that puzzle-building is somewhat anti-climactic, and perhaps proves lacking a piece necessary for completion (though that piece is not necessary to understand this project’s holistic themes, and appreciate the film in general).
It’s worth mentioning that this rerelease, 4K or not, would never have been possible if not for the cultish following that developed in the years after the film's original debut. Donnie Darko opened less than two months after the September 11 attacks, which, suffice to say, caused the film’s studios (Pandora Cinemas and Newmarket films) to panic (see: the film’s aforementioned aeronautically catastrophic opening). They opted against heavy advertising and even debated pulling the plug on the release altogether. Consequently, Donnie Darko struggled in theaters, bringing in just over $1 million domestically against a production budget that exceeded $4 million. Thankfully, it grossed enough internationally (an additional $6 million) to be profitable.
It eventually found a bountiful home in the years to follow on DVD. Indeed, the cult of Donnie Darko has grown so widespread that it’s controversial to even bestow “cult” status upon the film anymore, much in the same way that it’s challenging to refer to The Big Lebowski or Fight Club as such.
A rudimentary Google search reveals that although there are dozens upon dozens of Darko diehard blogs attempting to explain the film’s baffling (but still engaging) third act, much remains unanswered, or perhaps even unanswerable. Many sites mention that it’s necessary to read the fictional The Philosophy of Time Travel (Roberta Sparrow’s book from the film, some of the pages of which are included in The Donnie Darko Book, published by writer-director Richard Kelly in 2003) to understand what exactly occurred. But even then, some elements remain cryptic to even the most devoted Darkonians. Furthermore, the release of Kelly’s book further justifies the film’s primary problem: it’s so cryptic that additional, and expository, information is needed from its creator to help filmgoers understand it. Doing so, however, may insult Richard Kelly: the artist should not need to explain his work at all. It should just exist, for better or worse.
Despite its shortcomings, Donnie Darko remains, even 15 years later, an intoxicating experience. It might not live up to the loftiest praise heaped upon it by its most devoted followers, but it remains an aesthetically filmed blend of off-beat comedy, mind-boggling sci-fi, and subjective storytelling that serves as a singular and timeless piece of cinema.
Read PopMatters interview with Richard Kelly here.