Terry Gilliam Meets John Hughes

(For a discussion of the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, go here.)

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko has some mental problems. He once burned down a building, he’s in therapy and being medicated for an illness that might be schizophrenia, he sleepwalks, he speaks far too bluntly at school, and he begins to get nighttime visits from Frank, who tells him the world is going to end within the month and even gives him the exact time it’s going to happen. Eventually, Frank instructs Donnie to commit various property crimes, including flooding the school by breaking a water main with an ax.

As messengers from the future go, Frank must be the most absurd the movies have given us. He would appear to be a man in a bunny suit, with a metallic, leering bunny mask, and he speaks in an androgynous, computer-slowed voice. Yet Frank is creepy beyond words, and his every appearance gives me a chill. He’s not actively threatening, but he exudes menace and creates an atmosphere of dread.

On the night Frank lures Donnie from his bedroom to a golf course, an airplane engine falls through the Darko roof and into Donnie’s room. Had Donnie been asleep in his bed, he would be dead.

This is no ordinary airplane engine falling from the sky, though. You see, there were no planes flying over the Darko household that night, and the authorities can’t figure out from where it came.

So begins Donnie Darko, the debut film from writer/director Richard Kelly. Although my description of the setup might make it sound like an amalgam of motifs from the mind of Terry Gilliam, the film integrates its strangeness so well into a larger narrative that it feels more realistic than most movies. It’s funny, frightening, and ultimately devastating, a human story told very, very well. Donnie is obviously a troubled person, but the movie doesn’t pity him or try to make him noble or heroic. As written by Kelly and played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie is pretty much a typical teenager, visits from large bunnies aside.

Humor, horror, romance, time travel, family drama, mental illness, and high school all co-exist peacefully in Donnie Darko, and I can’t think of another movie that successfully synthesizes so many different elements. The high-concept pitch might go something like “the apocalyptic time-travel plot and end-of-days anxiety of 12 Monkeys crossed with the playfulness of Back to the Future, infused with Ordinary People and a John Hughes movie from the ’80s,” but even that comes up a few genres short. It’s also earnest and heartfelt without being cloying, and thrilling without sacrificing character.

The story of Donnie Darko is a circle, and attempts to understand the logistics of the time-travel plot (or explain it if you’re lucky enough to figure it out) should be discouraged. Kelly, in his commentary track on the DVD, tries, and I came away feeling that even he didn’t understand the movie.

But the great thing about Donnie Darko is that understanding the intricacies of the plot is unnecessary, because the movie is so full of other wonderful things. A basic comprehension of what’s going on is all that’s required.

It’s refreshing that so little of the movie is spent on resolving the plot. Donnie doesn’t actively seek a way to save the world, because he has no idea how to do it. He lives burdened by the knowledge that the world is going to end but otherwise spends his days with his friends and his new girlfriend, and whatever information he does get about averting disaster appears to seek him out. It almost seems that Donnie thinks he’s insane and isn’t very troubled by it.

Kelly has a great ear for the casual profanity, stupidity, and cruelty of teens, and the portrait he paints of the school and social lives of the kids feels authentic if not quite accurate, similar to the cutthroat high-school culture in the wonderful Election; both movies approach farce but get away with it because they’re grounded and observant.

At the heart of the movie, though, is Gyllenhaal, and he’s a marvel. He has a Tobey Maguire blankness — one can imagine him getting called for all the roles Maguire turns down — but he seems more plugged into his material. He’s versatile, funny, and heartbreaking as Donnie, and you can’t envision the film without him.

The supporting players are also excellent, particularly Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne as Donnie’s parents. (Neither says much, but both actors express plenty with simple gestures — McDonnell’s weary looks and Osborne’s stifled laughs.) Only Drew Barrymore, as an English teacher, falters, but because she was one of the movie’s executive producers — and therefore a major reason Donnie Darko exists at all — she is forgiven.

Through most of the movie, Kelly’s work seems to be the only thing lacking. The decision to set the movie in 1988 is largely arbitrary — an excuse for an ’80s soundtrack and a discussion about Smurf gang bangs — and his direction (particularly his fondness for the fast-motion shot) sometimes feels self-indulgent. As a writer, he takes easy shots at gym teachers, self-help gurus, and dance teams, and the movie has more than a few pointless digressions (e.g., the chat about Smurf sexuality).

But the directorial flourishes pay off in the movie’s climax, when they’re shown to illustrate the flexibility of time, and the closing song — a Michael Stipe-like reading of a Tears for Fears song — is so perfectly matched to the coda that the rest of the period music is forgotten. Kelly’s writing, while obvious at times, is deft with exposition and full of priceless lines.

I don’t remember why I sought out Donnie Darko when it was released on DVD, but it felt like a private joy. The movie, strangely, became something nobody wanted to touch following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Its airplane-disaster and apocalyptic motifs somehow made it dangerous, and it was barely released in movie theaters.

But, for me, that’s a blessing, because it allowed Donnie Darko to become something personal, the source of an immediate, meaningful bond among the initiated.

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