For the Love of... Donnie Darko
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Originally posted in September 2017.
As I continue to watch more and more films, the question “What is your favourite movie?” becomes more difficult for me to answer. However, for a few years, the answer to that question was always easy for me: Donnie Darko. To this day, it is unlike anything I have ever seen and will probably ever see. It is strange, thought-provoking and not always the easiest story to follow. But I adore every single minute of it.
Directed by Richard Kelly, the film focusses on the eponymous character (Jake Gyllenhaal), a mentally ill teenager who starts seeing visions of a giant, creepy bunny rabbit named Frank (James Duval) after a jet engine crashes into Donnie’s bedroom. This creates an unstable tangent universe, which will cause the world to end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Since the jet engine fell into Donnie’s room, he has been chosen to be the Living Receiver, the person who must play with time travel in order to save the world from collapsing.
Meanwhile, all of the other characters are the Manipulated Dead, characters who influence Donnie to follow his set path, although Donnie himself does not realise this. They include Frank the Bunny, but also Donnie’s new girlfriend named Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), his physics teacher (Noah Wyle), an old lady cruelly referred to as Grandma Death (Patience Cleveland) and a peculiar motivational speaker, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). In this sense, Donnie Darko is very much a science fiction film, as it involves manipulation of time and a teenage boy who possesses Fourth Dimensional Powers, including telekinesis and mind control.
What makes Donnie Darko so brilliant and fascinating, however, is that it is also a black comedy, a romance and a psychological thriller that touches on themes such as mental illness and religion, blending all of these elements together beautifully. But above all, the film is about adolescence and how confusing and awkward it is to be a teenager. Like Donnie, you are unsure of who you are and what you want to be. Nevertheless, you eventually find your purpose in this seemingly pointless universe and become a more mature, grounded person in the end. This is Donnie’s character arc and, although the narrative is completely unconventional, you notice subtle changes in the main character throughout. He grows to appreciate the people who care about him the most and, as a result of this, he becomes determined to save the world so that they can continue living.
There are numerous sequences within the film that leave me in complete awe, and that is largely due to the use of music that always perfectly matches the visuals. The film contains a combination of popular 80s songs (the film is set in 1988) and eerie, otherworldly instrumentals to match the idiosyncratic nature of this story. The songs are utilised so well that I cannot listen to The Killing Moon by Echo & the Bunny Men or Notorious by Duran Duran without instantly thinking of Donnie Darko. Richard Kelly is a genius at making uninteresting scenes into memorable works of art. It also helps that the performances are wonderful; Jake Gyllenhaal is amazingly unhinged yet sympathetic in one of his earliest roles, and none of the other actors feel out of place as the supporting characters. The film needed subdued yet poignant performances, and that’s what the actors brought to the table. You end up really caring for Donnie and his family; I challenge you to not get emotional during the scene where Donnie asks his mother what it feels like to have “a wacko for a son”.
It is a real shame that Donnie Darko performed poorly at the box office, but it has gained an immense cult following since then and has even increased significantly in popularity amongst film critics. It may be too absurd and unorthodox for some, but whether you love it or hate it, I struggle to believe that no one will appreciate how original and creative it is. This was the film that changed the way I look at cinema, as it made me realise that films can not only entertain, they can also challenge you and be left open to interpretation.
It has now been over 15 years since Donnie Darko was released and people are still writing essays on what they think the film is about. Surely, that has to count for something.