“Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?” “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”
Donnie Darko is the type of film that reminds me of school. Not simply due to the setting, or because of the man in the giant bunny suit (long story), but because of one simple adage that hearkens back to school days: ‘There is no such thing as a stupid question.’ Now that of course may just be something that teachers use to relax their incoming students and nothing more. However, in the case of Richard Kelly’s directorial debut, Donnie Darko, there is some semblance of truth to the matter. There really is no such thing as a stupid observation.
The film centres on twenty-eight days in the life of Donnie Darko, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Donnie is a high-schooler living in suburban California in 1988. He is the middle child of a white, middle-upper class family and he just doesn’t feel alright in the world. The film opens on Donnie waking up in the middle of a quiet road. Instead of wondering how he got here, he just laughs and gets on his bike with Echo & the Bunnymen’s ‘The Killing Moon’ providing the soundtrack to his journey home. He arrives back home without a fuss.
Later, he sits down to dinner and argues with his big sister. He questions why his sister doesn’t go to therapy in his place and swears in front of his little sister. He fights with his mother and then goes to bed. So far, so good? Nothing out of the ordinary here. That is until he sleepwalks to a golf course and encounters a man in a rabbit suit who tells him that the world will end in “twenty-eight days, six hours, forty-two minutes, and twelve seconds.” All the while, a jet engine falls through his house and crushes his room. With me so far? Well that’s just the first ten minutes. The rest of the film is a seemingly complex tale of what the next twenty-eight days has in store for Donnie.
The term “cult classic” is attributed to more films that don’t deserve the distinction than those who do. Donnie Darko was released to poor box-office earnings but when one examines the marketing for the film, it’s easy to see why people were just not in the mood for a gloomy affair. The depiction of a jet engine falling through a house was not appealing to an America that was still recovering from the events of 9/11 only six weeks earlier. The poor returns meant that it was seemingly doomed to be just another forgotten film. However, strong showings abroad meant that the film met a different fate. Home-video sales and word-of-mouth marketing gave it a new life. One that demanded it to be taken seriously.
One of the most surprising things about the film is how well its depiction of teenage woes holds up. More often than not a film’s depiction of teenagers has a pretty short shelf life. Yet here we have a film that not only presents the issues that every person faces in growing up, but also how it communicates them to an audience of any age. At its heart, the film is a coming-of-age-story… of sorts. It is the story of a man who doesn’t want to live a pre-determined life. Someone who is in the process of figuring out his place in the world. A world supposedly filled with the illusion of choice. He fights with adults who claim to be all-knowing figures when most of them are simply just trying to communicate to him that not everything is perfect. It is the conflict between the kids approaching adulthood and the adults who are already living in it that the film centres on. It doesn’t present itself as preachy or condescending, it simply establishes that the stubbornness of a person, and their inability to “fake it ’til you make it” can truly impact the rest of their lives.
Donnie himself stands the test of time as a truly extraordinary character. His mannerisms and peculiarities aren’t explained to the point of hammering home a point. He is allowed to reveal himself without the need for exposition overload. He is a flawed character who acts the way he acts because he believes he must. He reads a book on a topic and suddenly believes that the book holds the answers to what is happening in his own life. He experiences what the book lays out and takes this as a form of higher meaning. He claims to be a person of innate understanding. (Just listen to what he has to say about The Smurfs!) Someone who sees other people live their lives by following their own pre-determined path and not change direction.
What is intriguing about Donnie is that he wholeheartedly believes that he can be the one to change direction, as if he was the first person in history to do so. In order to change direction however, one must know the initial direction in the first place. His refusal to handle the fact that this path could be the one he was destined to follow in the first place is where his inner conflict arises. He wants to wander from his destiny. However, if he cannot see his own destiny, then how can he wander? If this isn’t the ultimate message of teenage years, then I truly don’t know my own name.
The use of mental health in the film allows the themes concealed beneath to thrive. Donnie visits his psychiatrist regularly and is prescribed medication that he doesn’t always take. He sees his inability to keep his own mental health in check as a personal failure. At one point he asks his mother: “how does it feel to have a wacko for a son?” Donnie’s parents are stand-ins for the parents of the eighties. The separation generation were flying the coop and putting as much distance as possible between themselves and their hodgepodge parents. Donnie’s sister causes a stir at the dinner table by claiming that she will vote for a Democrat in the upcoming election. Her father stops eating just long enough to lecture her. She embodies a feminist edge in a suburban world where seemingly all of the women in the town fawn over Patrick Swayze who plays a motivational speaker. She herself wants to go to Harvard which is situated on the other side of the country. Their parent’s disconnect from their respective world is emblematic of the time where people just wanted to be understood in their own right. Donnie desperately seeks acceptance but cannot imagine a world where this could happen.
The film wears its late-eighties setting as more of a waistcoat than a blazer. The eighties are practically concealed when compared to the sheer infinite number of contemporary films and television shows that force so much of the decade into so little that one can practically smell the Berlin Wall. The use of music is the one indulgence that the film allows. As previously discussed, the opening sequence kicks off the film in iconic circumstances. There is an extended sequence synchronised to the Tears For Fears song ‘Head Over Heels’ that manages to soundtrack the full introduction to Donnie’s school life. Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is used as a direct indicator for a relationship destined for doom.
The best however, is saved for last. The film’s iconic ending sequence features characters who have interacted with Donnie wake up as if they had just experienced a nightmare. This is accompanied by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ rendition of the Tears For Fears song ‘Mad World’. This cover has a severely haunting tone which is paramount to the conclusion of an unforgettable story. If you are one of those poor unfortunates who watched Donnie Darko and didn’t dig the vibe (how dare you?) then you may find solace in its soundtrack. Its win/win!
So what makes Donnie Darko… Donnie Darko? What exactly is so special about a film that, on paper at least, shouldn’t have the legacy that it does? How can a film pre-occupied with the notion of someone being doomed from the moment that they were born be a beloved comfort film for people all over the world? The film started its life with a stroke of terrible timing. An abysmal (but understandable) box-office performance should have sealed its fate, but just like its titular character, it didn’t know what path lay ahead.
The true genius of Donnie Darko lies within its structure. What is, and remains, so astounding about the film is the sheer number of ways to interpret it. If you watch it for the first time (after about five hours of discussing it with the nearest person) you may try to dismantle the science-fiction elements. The second, you may want to explore its consideration of mental health and how that can be interpreted to be the central cause for the events of the film. Subsequent viewings will mean different things for different people and thus, you have what makes Donnie Darko such an engrossing watch. It truly is a film with no intention of defining itself.