DONNIE DARKO (2001)

  • Director: Richard Kelly
  • Writer: Richard Kelly
  • Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Duval, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Katherine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, and Beth Grant
  • Accolades: Shown at 2001 Sundance Film Festival, 3 Independent Spirit Award nominations (Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, Best Male Lead – Jake Gyllenhaal)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), free streaming (with ads) on Pluto TV or Tubi app, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

As a movie Donnie Darko has ended up sort of outside of time, which given the subject matter of the movie is sort of ironic. Basically no one saw it when it came out in 2001, given that, for some reason, much of the marketing for the movie centered around the fact that a plane engine mysteriously falls on the title character’s house, and then 9/11 happened. More generally, this is a movie consisting almost entirely of what my mother would call “depressive ideation,” something that a lot of people were apparently not up for in late 2001. I mean, I would have been, but I’m always up for some depression. Within a few years, however, it would find its audience on video and DVD, but I couldn’t have told you, when discovering this movie in college, whether it was ten years or six months old. On top of that, the movie itself is set in the 1980s, not the 2000s, yet, if anything, it feels ahead of its time in its puzzlebox narrative. It is likely that this is also the only movie from its writer/director, Richard Kelly, that even fans of the movie will have seen, which sort of causes the movie to exist outside of the usual timelines. In its own pocket universe, if you will.

A young Jake Gyllenhaal stars as teenager Donnie, who both has severe mental health problems and may be somehow involved in a time loop or something, or maybe just thinks he is because of the mental health problems. That mysterious plane engine lands on Donnie’s bedroom during the night, but he isn’t there because he is sleepwalking. Then he starts seeing this guy in a super-creepy version of a bunny suit who starts telling him to commit crimes, which is always a super great sign. He is given a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel by a sympathetic science teacher (Noah Wyle), which says that people move along pre-set paths, and then Donnie starts seeing these weird CGI bubbly things extending out in front of people, showing where they are going. Most people have no option but to move along their set paths, but is Donnie an exception? This vaguely portentous strangeness is set alongside Donnie tentatively dating a new girl in town (Jena Malone), while controversy swirls around the one cool English teacher (Drew Barrymore) and the cult-like following of a slick self-help guru played by Patrick Swayze, who insists that all human actions fall around at some point on a “continuum between love and fear.”

Prior to making any attempt to unparse the plot or underlying themes of Donnie Darko, I do appreciate that Donnie is having his problems in spite of a relatively normal family who all love him. If he has schizophrenia (as his psychiatrist, played by Katherine Ross, diagnoses at one point), he doesn’t have it because of a broken home or something his parents did wrong, but because mental illness can strike anyone. His mother (the great Mary McDonnell) loves him but doesn’t always know what to do with him or how to reach him, and openly mocks the conservative teacher (Beth Grant) who leads the parent rebellion against Barrymore’s English teacher. We first meet Donnie and his sister, played by Jake Gyllenhaal’s real-life sister Maggie, having a famously vulgar shouting match at the dinner table (“Oh please, tell me, Elizabeth, exactly how does one suck a fuck?”), but they weirdly seem to have a mostly healthy and supportive relationship with each other, especially as the movie goes on. Though set in an earlier decade, Donnie Darko very much pre-figures the conflict between generations that has since come back into prominence. At one point an embittered Barrymore laments, “The children these days are going to have to save themselves, the parents have no clue.” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character 100% would say “OK boomer” to her parents when they react badly to her insistence on voting for Michael Dukakis.

This is a great movie if you like sort of the general feeling that something unknowable is happening just out of your reach. It is likely a very exasperating movie if you are actually hoping to look at the pieces of a puzzle and put them together, or if you need to actually feel like you understand what just happened in a movie. Director Richard Kelly did fully work out what is actually happening in the movie (it’s something about a “pocket universe,” hence my quip earlier), and apparently even wrote the full book The Philosophy of Time Travel, which you can seek out and review if you feel the need. But what he did not do is actually put enough of that stuff in the movie that anyone could explain what happens in the movie just from watching it. Fortunately for me, I fall into the former group (i.e., people who like the feeling that there’s an explanation rather than the feeling of actually having one), and Donnie Darko’s value, for me, doesn’t reside in its plot machinations.

Though almost no one saw the movie in a theater when it first came out, Donnie Darko has since become one of those movies that people of my precise age can quote from at length. I used to have a friend who would often exasperatedly shout, as Beth Grant does at Mary McDonnell in this movie, “I am beginning to doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!” at me or another friend if we, say, weren’t quite up to going for drinks just now. Others likely have memorized Donnie’s surprisingly lengthy monologue about Smurf reproduction, which ends with the question, “What’s the point of living, if you don’t have a dick?” Others may, with similar reverence to all those bits in The Matrix about multi-colored pills, reference the scene where the guy in the bunny suit (his name is Frank) first appears, and Donnie asks him, “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?” “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” Frank replies.

So if you are somebody who, say, got called into the principal’s office a few times in high school circa the early-2000s, because, in your own view as a teenager, you were just done putting up with nonsense from adults who did not deserve your respect, you can see how you might be on Donnie Darko’s seemingly bizarre wavelength. Though the movie is very up front about Donnie’s mental illness (which might also mean he’s an unreliable narrator, so to speak), it is also very much on his side. Donnie, his girlfriend, and the people who are against banning books are the good guys who deserve happiness, and the people like Beth Grant and Patrick Swayze are the forces of darkness who must be destroyed. Combine that with a certain quotable sensibility, and the appeal of Donnie Darko to a very specific slice of the population, which I was part of at one time at least, is obvious.

Richard Kelly was considered something of a wunderkind at the release of Donnie Darko. He was only 25, a couple years out of USC Film School, when the script for this movie ignited enough interest that Kelly managed to get funding despite insisting that he direct the movie himself (some of it came from Barrymore’s own newly-formed production company, Flower Films). Though he wrote several screenplays, he wouldn’t direct another film until 2007’s Southland Tales, a truly bizarre mess that Wikipedia describes as a “dystopian comedy thriller.” Despite numerous stopped and started projects since, he has only directed one additional movie, The Box, which makes slightly more sense as it is based on a Richard Matheson short story. In the meantime Kelly has spent the past few decades flirting publicly with the idea of a sequel to his one beloved movie, but this may all be moot anyway, as Kelly had to sign away his rights in order to get the movie made in the first place. In 2009 the movie S. Darko was released directly to DVD, theoretically a sequel but with no involvement of anyone from the original movie except for Daveigh Chase, who reprised her role as Donnie’s younger sister. It received a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

2001 was not a time of deep introspection in America, but the dark undercurrents were there, and a significant number of people would tell you they sensed something deeply wrong. That something fundamental underneath that American patina has gone haywire is the subject, in their own ways, of both Mulholland Drive and Donnie Darko, and it is probably not a coincidence that these two movies have stood the test of time when many of their contemporaries that made way more money at the box office have not.

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