Donnie Darko (see also the Donnie
Darko Q&A) is one of those movies which has elements from many genres
(fantasy, comedy, drama, mystery, science fiction, supernatural thriller, teen
movie, art-house flick) without really falling easily into one of those categories.
It opened Halloween weekend, and the story takes place all in the month of October,
but it's not really a "Let's go see a scary movie 'cause it's Halloween"
type of film.
Donnie Darko was generated not to appeal to a pre-existing target market,
but to fulfill the creative vision of the writer/director, Richard Kelly. Such
a movie usually gets described by one of two polar opposite sets of adjectives.
It's either "genius" and "visionary" or "pretentious"
and "self important". Richard Kelly isn't a genius, but he is a filmmaker
with an interesting story to tell.
It's the 80s. The nation is trying to decide between Michael Dukakis and George
Bush, but highschooler Donnie Darko has more pressing things on his mind. He's
had a history of mental illness. He's going to therapy, and taking the pills.
And he's made a new friend. His new friend's name is Frank. Frank is a large
grotesque rabbit. On top of that, he's got to deal with the usual teenage stuff:
girls, bullies, and self-righteous adults.
Near the beginning of the movie, Donnie's mom is shown reading Stephen King's
It, and I think that gives us a little clue into Kelly's approach to
storytelling. While Donnie Darko does not feel like a King story, it
does use some of the same techniques and tread in some of the same areas. Like
many of King's stories, Donnie Darko is a coming-of-age story, and a
nostalgia piece. Also, like many King stories, the everyday trials of the characters,
the mundane details, are just as important to the story as the horror elements.
It's the synthesis of the mundane and the extraordinary that ultimately gives
the story more impact, both on the emotional level and the visceral one.
At least as far back as Beowulf, storytellers have used the supernatural
as a metaphor for very natural fears and anxieties. From fairy tales to Anne
Rice books to TV shows like Buffy and Roswell. People (particularly
- but not exclusively - adolescents) may feel like their world is coming to
an end, or that everyone is out to get them, or that they're living every day
on the edge of destruction. In these fictions, though, it's quite possible that
the world really is coming to an end.
Donnie Darko (played deftly by Jake Gyllenhaal) looks out at the world through
half-lidded eyes, with a smirk on his face that could be a sign of detached
amusement, or sadness, or a simmering malevolence. Lately, he's having visions,
or hallucinations, or both. Donnie seems to be headed toward something, but
what? Depression? Possession? Madness? Enlightenment? Evil? Epiphany? Or is
he just a normal kid grappling with a case of clinical schizophrenia?
The film is about Donnie's crisis of personality, and the strange phantasms
he begins to see. But it's just as much about the awkward, fumbling steps he
takes towards romance, and about how he relates to his family, friends, and
teachers. Darko's discussion with his friends about the sexual habits of Smurfs
is pretty similar to the childhood banter in Stand by Me. The film name-checks
Hungry Hungry Hippos, and the main conflict in the Darko household comes from
the teenage daughter's belief that Michael Dukakis should get elected. It's
these details that give the story life.
Most of the characters that Donnie interacts with are not fully drawn (this
is particularly true of the characters played by the most recognizable names:
Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, and Noah Wyle). But they aren't stock characters
either. What we do see is mostly authentic, and it's enough of a glimpse to
give the audience a sense of the depth beneath each character's surface. There
is one straw-man character: the stereotypical pious and priggish reactionary
pro-censorship PTA lady. But Kelly makes up for that with Donnie's parents.
It would be easy to make the parents in a story like this the usual clueless,
shrill, hypocritical types. Instead, they are both imperfect and sympathetic.
The fact that Richard Kelly is a first-time director pretty much just out of
film school, and the fact that he fought hard to make sure that the film adhered
to his uniquely skewed vision, makes him an easy target for those who don't
much care for the story he's telling, or the way he tells it. But, me, I've
gotta admire the guy for making his movie his way. So, if you're tired of going
to see movies where you can pretty much guess the entire tone, character arc,
plotline and outcome from watching the trailer, skip the latest star-driven
formula flick, and go see Donnie Darko.