Donnie Darko

So I’ve 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.

There’s certainly nothing easy or mainstream about this film,

which centres on an eponymous high-school kid with psychological problems:

his psychotherapist says that he’s showing advance symptoms of

paranoid schizophrenia. He hears voices – we hear them too, and

they’re 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 memory’s 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: there’s 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 we’re being led into a metaphysical conundrum which eventually

takes over the whole picture.

The key to the film is not Donnie’s 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

Donnie’s 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. (It’s 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 rabbit’s

name) not only gives Donnie’s 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 he’s just fallen for.

What that says about schizophrenia, or 1988, or suburbia, or love,

I’m not entirely sure. A lot of the film I’m perfectly happy

to say I don’t 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, Donnie’s 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 you’re

not afraid of being puzzled and disturbed – if you enjoyed Memento,

say – I can recommend you go see this.

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