crapped my pants before watching Donnie Darko. And I mean that in a literal way. I’ve been going through some “emotional problems” of my own lately (“Oh, I have those too—what kind of problems does he have?” Jake Gyllenhaal asks Jena Malone excitedly when she tells him her stepfather has emotional problems) and my diet hasn’t been so good, so when I popped in the DVD at about five in the morning on the day it was due back, I let out some gas and it turned out to be a solid. That, I thought, is a good way to start a movie about teen angst.
By the end of it, of course, I wanted to kill myself. Then I did some push-ups and felt better.
Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko—we should always preface titles that way when we’re dealing with something written and directed by somebody—has all the hallmarks of a cult film. It’s difficult to understand, especially at first, and it’s full of small clues that enable you to recognize someone who’s seen it. I somehow missed the cult on the first round and am only getting around to it now. This review is primarily for the rest of you who haven’t seen it: I know you’re out there. Those who have, well, I guess you can feel superior to me, if you don’t already with the crapped-my-pants thing.
Jake Gyllenhaal is the keynote here, and he’s got two expressions: utterly despondent and chuckling/smiling to himself. He’s good at both. A lot of people smacked him around for his performance in The Day After Tomorrow, but I thought that was fine—if the world were freezing over, I’d be just as shell-shocked and blank-faced. Similarly, as high-schooler Donnie Darko, he watches his world end—first through the loss of his own mind, then of those closest to him, and then through the loss of himself. A hopeless stare and some knowing laughter are just about the only way to react.
Donnie’s problems are typical of a lot of American teenagers—he’s depressed and on pills. Only, just as studies have shown that Prozac can lead some teenagers to suicide (ha ha—that is really too much; I thought it was a joke when it came out), Donnie’s pills are making him particularly nuts. Every time he takes one, dry, in front of his bathroom mirror, he starts to hear the deadpan urgings of “Frank,” who sounds like a kid talking through a fan and appears as a man in a dark grey, toothy bunny suit, the film’s most enduring image.
(What is it about bunnies, anyway? Since 1997, we’ve had Gummo, Donnie Darko, and now Brown Bunny. Bunnies are stupid, that’s the number one thing. They’re very, very dumb. My friend who had one left it in the house and it got so agitated it jumped up and down until it cracked its head open on the top bars of its cage.)
(The bunny died.)
Donnie Darko’s relationship with Frank, who orders him (without moving his bunny-mask mouth, à la the Green Goblin—makes the whole thing look cheap) to flood his school and burn down Patrick Swayze’s house, forms the crux of the film. But Richard Kelly manages to squeeze in about as many interesting side characters as you can into a 113-minute movie. Donnie’s parents—a detached, status-conscious mother and a sly Republican father—are sketched perfectly by Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne. When Mr. Darko chuckles at a report that his son has told a teacher to “forcibly insert [an instructional laminated card] into [her] anus,” we like him in a way we never could have expected during his anti-Dukakis remarks at the start of the film (Donnie Darko is set in the fall of 1988).
Noah Wylie and Drew Barrymore play that really cute teacher couple from high school. Wylie’s character introduces Donnie to an obscure time-travel book written by a local spinster nicknamed “Grandma Death” and does Dr. Carter just fine when he tells Donnie he could lose his job if he talked anymore. Barrymore, meanwhile, does lose her job and nearly steals the movie by walking into a playground and yelling “Fuuuuck!”—which made me do the same thing in my bed.
Patrick Swayze is a heralded self-help author with a secret; he too is broken by the film’s close. Only when Gyllenhaal confronts him during a motivational speaking presentation is he up against an actor with as much presence.
Finally, Jolene Purdy, who since Donnie Darko hasn’t been in anything else, gets a lot of screen time and some serious emotional resonance as a fat Chinese girl who plays by the rules. Here’s someone with as many problems as Donnie, but instead of taking pills she sticks her nose in study books and finds beauty through a dance recital at school, with Donnie dropping leaves in front of a fan to blow by her. She’s not pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but you want to kiss her while she’s dancing. She did it. And when she runs away towards the end of the movie, you know she’s off to a law career that will dust the boys who tell her to go back to China. She is the film’s hope.
This is a movie for people who were born around when it was set. Kelly, himself born in 1975, skips from scene to scene in a way that respects the attention spans of those brought up on 15-second spots. Maggie Gyllenhaal has about twenty lines and may be the only wasted character; the contrast between her acceptance to Harvard and her diegetic and non-diegetic brother’s screw-ups seems to be her only purpose. Everybody else who shows up does their thing with remarkable economy, including Frank, who ends up being neither spirit nor vision but a Keanu Reeves look-alike.
Jena Malone, as Donnie’s sex interest, does a good job of being a real teenage girl—not so hot that you don’t believe her, but hot enough that you’d like to be with her. Her grief/depression-fueled make-out/sex session with Donnie is a little unbelievable, though; even teenagers can’t get horny when their heads are as screwed up as these folks’.
Donnie Darko has a twisted, circular presentation that ends where it begins and leaves many more questions than it answers. Who is Frank? Why does he do what he does? Is it an accident? Is Donnie alive or dead at the end of the film? Oops, I guess you’ll have to watch it again. The new director’s cut answers some of the questions, but the original penciled-in, convoluted version leaves you with that puzzled feeling that gets you to act a little bit smarter for the rest of the day.
Make no mistake—this is a tragedy. There’s comedy in it (a drunk Donnie admonishes his friends for sexualizing the Smurfs), but when it ends you aren’t sure whether life is worth living or if you can ever get better from what ails you. Maybe that leap, that complete inversion of the Hollywood ending where even the tragic deaths are noble (Donnie isn’t noble), is what has turned the movie into a cultural touchstone since its release.
Do you have to watch Donnie Darko? Yeah. You should watch it. The way we’re going with medication in this country, self-prescribed and other, we might all end up like Donnie or his tormentors. And we’ll all have to pick a side. Choose life.