Late to the Party: Donnie Darko (2001)

How did I never find the time to sit down and watch this film? In his book, The Universe in a Nutshell, Stephen Hawking quotes Charles Lamb, who wrote: “Nothing puzzles me like time and space. And yet nothing troubles me less than time and space, because I never think of them.” The writer and director of Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly, obviously was thinking quite a lot about time, at the very least, when he wrote this screenplay. It was critically praised by most accounts and gained “cult movie” status after it was released on DVD and the public finally caught on to it. I feel a connection to it because like Kelly I grew up in suburban Virginia, and I graduated high school in 1987. So again, I wonder how I overlooked this film? There is still time to wonder, but let’s dive into the film itself.

Donnie Darko opens on the main character, a teenage boy, as he is lying in the middle of the road late at night, his bicycle lying in the grass behind him. The boy is unharmed, but there is an ominous feeling right away, punctuated by one of Donnie’s many oddly-timed smiles throughout this film. Echo and the Bunnymen (really?) pretty much set the tone right away with “The Killing Moon,” which, along with a reference to erstwhile-Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, establishes that we are firmly in the year 1988. Dukakis’ chances of winning were eventually sunk by the notoriously racist Willie Horton ad engineered by Lee Atwater, the campaign manager for Republican candidate George H.W. Bush, who won the presidential election later that year. Bush would later get his comeuppance at the hands of Homer Simpson.

The first indication that this is not going to be your typical teen-angst film is the family dinner. We learn quickly that Donnie is in therapy, that Dad can’t really hide his glee at Donnie and Elizabeth’s choice of F-bomb insults (“You’re such a fuck-ass!”), and that Mom is having none of it. She later asks Donnie, “Where do you go at night?,” a loaded question for sure. Shortly thereafter we dissolve from Donnie’s face to the first image of the horrific-looking rabbit we’ll later learn is named Frank, who orders Donnie to “wake up,” and then tells him: “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. This is when the world will end.” Suddenly the house is shaking, and we learn the next morning that a commercial jet engine has fallen on the Darkos’ house. Everyone in the house seems to be fine but understandably disoriented (a few years later we would see similar disorientation around a crashed jet engine on the premiere episode of Lost).

The film proceeds into a second act involving the private school attended by the Darko children, a mysterious benefactor/guru played by Patrick Swayze(!), and two teachers repping the humanities (an English teacher and Graham Greene aficionado played by Drew Barrymore, who also executive-produced the film) and sciences (our conduit to the philosophy of time travel and Stephen Hawking, played by Noah Wyle, who was at the apex of his E.R.-earned fame). This portion of the film is less ethereal than the opening act, with the possible exception of newly-arrived Gretchen, who becomes Donnie’s girlfriend shortly after Barrymore’s character instructs her to “sit next to the cutest boy.” The relationship is sealed on this exchange:
               “You’re weird.”
               “No, that’s a compliment.”

Black screens with the date indicating “X days left” propel us to the final part of the film and October 30 (All Hallow’s Eve Eve). The Halloween party at the Darko household is the typical movie high-school party, except for the kid wearing a Reagan mask. It is where Donnie and Gretchen consummate their relationship, which of course is the kiss of death for one or both parties in any teen movie, if we’re following horror-movie rules (a la Scream). We see the intertwining of Donnie’s and Frank’s fates, with Michael Andrews’ haunting “Mad World” in the background (the dreams in which I’m dying / are the best I’ve ever had) as we hurtle through the wormhole back to October 2nd.

I really enjoyed this film, and fully understand its cult status. With the possible exceptions of references to Doug Williams and Christina Applegate, I think it holds up very well at this time. And oh yeah, it’s dark and brooding, but I look forward to a rewatch in the near future. On that note, and with apologies to Bill Simmons’ Rewatchables podcast, permit me to end with some of that podcast’s categories as they apply to Donnie Darko:

  • The Joey Pants “That Guy” Award – There are so many “that guys” in this indie film, but I have to go with Holmes Osborne, who plays the Darko dad. He also played the dad in That Thing You Do.
  • The “Ruffalo/Hanna/Rubinek/Partridge” Overacting Award – This has to be Beth Grant, who plays Kitty Farmer. She has some hilarious scenes and lines in the film, but none tops “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!!!”
  • The Teddy KGB Award for the Actor in a Completely Different Movie – I’m not sure that Patrick Swayze knew a) what kind of film this was or b) that his character would end up going to prison for running a “kiddie porn dungeon.”
  • Casting What Ifs –Jason Schwartzman was originally supposed to play Darko, which is funny because halfway through the film I was thinking this was a darker version of Rushmore. He had to withdraw due to scheduling conflict. I don’t think Schwartzman would have been right for the part, but another possibility was Lucas Black, who I think could have been a more menacing “loser” than Gyllenhaal. It would have also been interesting to see how Seth Rogen, who has a very minor part, would have played Donnie.
  • Half-Assed Internet Research (via IMDB) – Richard Kelly apparently came up with the chest blobs idea after watching John Madden’s use of the telestrator on NFL game broadcasts on CBS. Also, Sam Raimi allowed Kelly to freely use footage from Evil Dead for the scenes in the Aero Theater (did anyone catch the other horror film being shown at The Aero? That’s right, it was The Last Temptation of Christ).
  • Just One Oscar, Who Gets It? – Richard Kelly
  • Best Double Feature – I couldn’t shake the Coen Brothers feel while watching this film, so I’ll go with Blood Simple.
  • Who Won the Movie? – Jake Gyllenhaal was pretty much propelled into the Hollywood spotlight after Donnie Darko.

No time to watch the film?  No problem, Tim Minchin has you covered:

I didn’t touch on many aspects of Donnie Darko, such as Roberta Sparrow (“Grandma Death”) – there is so much here. There is a documentary on the film, Deus Ex Machina, that I intend to watch, and also a sequel that appears to be terrible. Also, if I should watch other Richard Kelly films please let me know.