I admit it. I’m a fan of Donnie Darko. When Donnie Darko was released in 2001, Richard Kelly had done some previous work, but as far as feature debuts go the film was an impressive first attempt. Yet despite the phenomenal attention paid to the film, I could only locate one academic study.
Is Donnie Darko really worth all this attention? Probably not. It has some interesting paradoxes and puzzles. Some good performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, and Patrick Swayze and a genuinely touching (if derivative) story to tell. Certainly, I’m objective enough to realize the howling, heroic assumptions a viewer has to make seeing the film.
Let’s begin with the name Donnie Darko. It serves a crucial function in telling us the duality that the film uses as a theme. Donnie Darko encompasses both the dawn (get it? Don/dawn?) and the darkness in every human being. Most of the fan attention has been paid to the seemingly bizarre narrative Kelly gives. But once some crucial cut scenes are seen much of the mystery of the film is cleared up.
I won’t bore the viewer with trivia especially since one crucial scene, literally, spells out the entire film. Donnie is saved by Frank, the rabbit, but this creates a potent paradox that if it isn’t cleared up will destroy everyone. The entire film is essentially about Donnie coming to realize that sacrificing himself to save others is both the right thing to do and one he should take pride in. The issue of physics and alternative universes merely serves as a set up to that crucial moral dilemma of trading in a false, suburban existence for the admittedly harsh but authentic reality of death if it means saving the community.
This is revealed when Donnie goes to the movies (a nice postmodern touch). He sees, incomprehensibly, Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ, at the local movie theater. It’s the latter film that Donnie Darko copies and updates. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus lives a normal life but we discover at the end it was a false reality the devil conjured up. Jesus chooses to sacrifice himself and rejects the devil’s offer. And that’s the crux of the film: can anyone be expected to sacrifice their life, especially in an act of heroism no one will recognize?
It’s probably here that Kelly is a bit out of his league and the film has been misunderstood. Most see it is a sci-fi yarn with some interesting twists. But really it’s meant to be a moral indictment of the 1980s. The small community that the film focuses on is a narcissistic pro-Reagan bunch not worth saving. The problem is that Kelly can’t be too obvious, otherwise it would spoil the effect. But a more sophisticated viewing offers unforeseen pleasures. One of the crucial scenes and sequences everyone knows is the camera tilted oddly as the school bus door opens and we are given a snapshot of Donnie’s school but the real payoff comes from seeing Sparkle Motion practice their routine.
It might seem odd that this matters so much, but Kelly’s entire point is that the entire notion of Sparkle Motion (having little girls dance to a frivolous song as the world is about to end) is ridiculous and grotesque. Instead of smiling at this seemingly innocent dance routine, we should be disgusted and afraid.
Unfortunately, having properly decoded the film, the symbols strike one as more silly and ridiculous than I first thought. Why doesn’t the film work as well as it should? It is likely that Kelly has made the common mistake of thinking ambiguity makes a story better. But as his later films have shown, he simply doesn’t seem to be a very good writer and is too in love with his own messages.
A simple story can be as profound as a complex one. The film should be given high marks for trying to avoid the cliches films like this fall into with an obvious monster in the closet. It deserves its cult status. But I do agree with those who consider the film overrated. Much better science fiction and better political stories have been done. But as a snapshot of certain style of filmmaking Donnie Darko is worth seeing and defending. Donnie Darko 2 (and yes I had to see it) is an entirely different story meant for another time. Not a waste of time, but too much a parody of the original.