So Ive just got back from seeing Donnie
Darko at the cinema, and I feel as though I have to put my
thoughts down here, in some kind of attempt to get them into shape.
One thing is for sure: if it is possible to judge a film by the amount
of time you spend after exiting the cinema trying to understand it,
then Donnie Darko is a great film.
Theres certainly nothing easy or mainstream about this film,
which centres on an eponymous high-school kid with psychological problems:
his psychotherapist says that hes showing advance symptoms of
paranoid schizophrenia. He hears voices we hear them too, and
theyre very scary and disturbing which emanate from a
hallucinated and extremely frightening rabbit.
At the same time, the director, 25-year-old Richard Kelly, paints
a compelling portrait of suburban high-school life circa 1988. He
keeps the directorial pyrotechnics to a minimum, although they are
there; mostly, he confines himself to a simple skewering of an era
most of us are only too happy to consign to memorys wastebasket.
Those who preach fearlessness, we learn, are those with the most to
be afraid of; meanwhile, your worst fears really can come true.
The high-school scenes conform to type: theres the bright but
troubled kid, the shrill parent, the ostracised fat girl, the cool
teacher who battles the authorities, and so forth. But at the same
time were being led into a metaphysical conundrum which eventually
takes over the whole picture.
The key to the film is not Donnies madness, but rather the fact
that his rabbit saves his life at the beginning of the film. A jet
engine falls, inexplicably, from the sky, and plunges straight into
Donnies bedroom: were it not for the fact that he had heard
voices drawing him outside that night, he would have been killed immediately
by the impact. (Its astonishing how the jet engine appears at
almost exactly the same point in the film as the all-but-identical
falling boulder in Sexy Beast.)
From then on in for, essentially, the rest of the film
Donnie is beholden to the rather evil rabbit. Frank (the rabbits
name) not only gives Donnies life meaning, he gives Donnie life.
The effect on Donnie is to turn him into a person who is totally unafraid,
a person who stands up to bogus authority and suffers no qualms or
guilt after performing criminal acts of surprising severity. Living,
as he is, only by the grace of a hallucinated rabbit, Donnie eventually
finds it relatively easy to give up everything for the sake of saving
the girl hes just fallen for.
What that says about schizophrenia, or 1988, or suburbia, or love,
Im not entirely sure. A lot of the film Im perfectly happy
to say I dont understand at all. This is one of those films
where a first-time director bites off a bit more than he could chew,
but shows huge potential: you know that Kelly is going to make better
and more accessible films in the future. (I hope, too, to see a lot
more of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Donnies older sister both in the
movie and in real life.) In this it is much better than the equally
incomprehensible Planet of the Apes, which was made by someone
who really should have known better.
Donnie Darko is a very disturbing and confusing film, and most of
the credit for getting it made must surely lie with Drew Barrymore,
who co-produced it, stars in it, and almost certainly brought Patrick
Swayze and Noah Wyle on board. It falls quite happily under the general
heading of good films which did badly in 2001 (see below). If youre
not afraid of being puzzled and disturbed if you enjoyed Memento,
say I can recommend you go see this.