Millennial Malaise 40: Donnie Darko

In Which Sometimes I Doubt Your Commitment to Sparkle Motion

As the 90’s slunk into the 2000’s our titular angst changed. Instead of the nervous tittering about some grand event in the face of the oncoming clock turn, the woes of the world metastasized into a grayer more retracted sense of ennui. The clock had struck midnight and nothing had changed really, same as it ever was. The prophecies of Prince and a decade of tech thrillers were met with the dull thud of the new millennium, the future was here and it still felt like the present.

So how can escape the experience the tireless now, by zooming back to the recent pass and picking apart the pieces that helped inculcate the culture of the present. And that’s just what Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult sensation Donnie Darko did. A movie with both sharpened knives ready to nick at fraying American culture, and a beguiling elusiveness that invites the viewer to obsess over every frame to crack the tangled knot of a plot the movie serves up.  Kelly’s debut is perhaps the defining cult film of the 00’s a project wrapped in mystery, bungled on initial release, before thriving specifically on the DVD format. And even if Donnie Darko’s general reputation has tarnished with a bad director’s cut, a misguided sequel, and the incredibly divisive works of its creator, the film itself still stands resplendent as a turn of the century mood board. Both reflecting and projecting it’s anxieties into the past and future.

Which is appropriate for a film obsessed with cycles of time. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhal) is in a rut, we literally meet him on the side of the road, and things only get worse from there. His house is destroyed by a plane engine,  he is struck with some sort of mental illness that has caused much stress for his family, and he keeps getting apocalyptic warnings from a mysterious rabbit suited man named Frank. Not to mention the new girl in school, Gretchen (Jena Malone), he has a crush on, a slimy self-help guru named Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) insinuating himself into the school, and the intricacies quantum time travel. In fact it takes all of Donnie’s fortitude to keep everything straight before the end of the world date, scheduled for high noon on Halloween 1988.

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In this morass of teenage angst and mind bending trickery Kelly deftly weaves a tale of sadness and isolation pocked with jolts of startling humor and excitement. Donnie Darko is both a love letter to the past, and a merciless indictment on how America fails the people it should help. Awash in gauzy colors, speed ramping long takes, and resplendent post-punk anthems, it feels like the film is cocooning the audience in a blanket of proto-nostalgia, before kicking out the legs of the chair.

It’s structure and tone demonstrate that Kelly was a student of the 90’s indie boom. Cribbing elements from Tarantino and Kevin Smith. Donnie Darko is a feature of screwed up time lines, perfectly picked needle drops, and profanity filled diatribes about popular culture. You can’t help but see the fingerprints of the 90’s titans in sequences like the one where Donnie and his friends break down the sexual interactions of the Smurfs. But Kelly’s film feels completely different from the projects of the past. Instead of the “fuck it” nihilism of the 90’s auteurs, Donnie Darko edges into a sadder, more melancholic direction. One that ends with a blatant emotional display after shedding layers of cool kid affectation.

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The emotional arc of the movie feels reflective of the time it was made. Right in the thick of the 2000 presidential election. As such it’s a movie that resents conservative hypocrisy and the Bush family legacy. It’s a world where school gym teacher Kitty (Beth Grant) openly protests the “pornography” of Graham Greene while actively protecting a pedophile and grooming young girls to dance in a suggestive manner. It’s a movie where Donnie’s parents (here played Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell) actively support the current conservative governmental machine while also trying to find help for their mentally ill son.

These contradictions are able to spark bouts of proactive engagement in Donnie, because he knows the world is on a track. Frank tells him secrets and lets him act out against the system (allowing the opportunity to flood the school and burn down Jim’s house), but Donnie is still tied to the spectral forms that pull everyone along, leading to a certain end. It’s through this that Donnie realizes that this world is not for him, that his mere existence is tearing the fabric of reality apartment. That the death of Gretchen, and human Frank, will be met out because he was fated to die when an airplane crashed into his room. Thus he returns to the start to exit the world, and provide something for everyone he knows.

It’s this loop, being stuck in a world seemingly beyond control and awaiting catastrophe that defined the existence of the film itself. It debuted at Sundance before releasing in October of 2001. Perfectly dividing the line between pre and post 9/11 America. And even though it in no way predicted the real life tragedy that preempted its release, the movie itself feels like a perfect representation of that time, that inevitably the day will come when the world comes undone. Whether by mere chance or design. So Donnie Darko thoroughly becomes the movie of it’s time, even though its set in the past. Presaging both an oncoming cultural nostalgia and paranoia, while also reveling in the structure of seemingly endless present. It’s a film for the moment right before it all crashes down.

Odds and Ends

  • ” You can go suck a fuck”
  • ” First of all, Papa Smurf didn’t create Smurfette. Gargamel did. She was sent in as Gargamel’s evil spy with the intention of destroying the Smurf village. But the overwhelming goodness of the Smurf way of life transformed her. And as for the whole gang-bang scenario – It just couldn’t happen. Smurfs are asexual. They don’t even have reproductive organs under those little white pants. That’s what’s so illogical, you know, about being a Smurf. What’s the point of living… if you don’t have a dick?”
  • I have not seen the director’s cut of the movie, and I never will.
  • Despite it’s dreadful overuse and influence on the pop culture landscape, the cover of Mad World here is still effectively deployed.
  • On the other music front, the opening with Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon” and the introductory school montage set to Tears for Fear’s “Head Over Heels” are just transcendent pieces of pop movie making.
  • I know that Southland Tales is a notorious bomb, but it gets more interesting as the years go by.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

What movie should I cover next week? As we enter November with no theme I cast about to you for ideas.