It might have given us two Gyllenhaals and a squillion theories, but has Richard Kelly’s debut stood the test of time?
Rated or dated: I remember I liked Donnie Darko when I saw it and that it had a massive, terrifying rabbit in it, but other than that my memory of the plot itself was, like my legs, a little fuzzy, so I jumped at the chance to rewatch it for Rated or Dated.
Having watched it again, I can sort of see why the plot didn’t stick with me. In some ways it is incidental to the film, which is much more about atmosphere, performances and high-concept emo-fashion.
It’s not that the plot isn’t great, centring as it does on universal human experiences like teenage angst, time travel, doomsday prophesies, inspirational speakers and aviation disasters. But it’s the sort of plot that is designed to make you feel clever; it’s so open to interpretation that any three people would have at least seven perspectives on what it is all supposed to mean.
“I remember Frank, the rabbit, as being pretty frightening, but since my first viewing I’ve been backed into a corner of my living room by my own pet bunny who had flown into an aggressive sprout-envy-fuelled rage, so I’ve toughened up.”
Then you could all watch the Director’s Cut and read the internet and develop another squillion theories about time loops, aliens, Smurfs and mental illness. This is a film which defies explanation, which makes writing about it tricky, but needn’t affect your enjoyment of watching it.
Donnie Darko starts with the sound of the kind of weather that usually only marks an apocalypse or a bank holiday, and everything gets darker from there. It’s easy to see how this comparatively low-budget film has gone on to widely influence films and television, most notably The Bridge, because no one in this film puts enough lights on either.
The opening scenes where Donnie and his sister both say the word “fuck-ass” at the dining table made me feel a bit better about that time my three-year-old called my mother a poo-head over lunch.
The dialogue is what I loved most this time: witty, realistic and relatable, it’s enough to make the whole batshit plot feel rooted in relatable reality. It also provides some of the finest dramatic moments in the piece; Donnie’s take-down of Patrick Swayze’s minion-meme-spouting idiot-bot made me do an actual air punch.
I remember Frank, the rabbit, as being pretty frightening, but since my first viewing I’ve been backed into a corner of my living room by my own pet bunny who had flown into an aggressive sprout-envy-fuelled rage, so I’ve toughened up. Frank is still an eerie presence in the film, but familiarity with the image has lessened the impact a smidge.
The cast of this film is incredible. I’d honestly forgotten how many brilliant people were in it: Drew Barrymore (who is also co-executive producer), Patrick Swayze in a bitchin’ cardigan, Sharpay from High School Musical, that handsome Dr Carter off ER and both Gyllenhaals (Jake and Maggie). I would add that, despite his impressive performance as a high-school bully, this is not like Seth Rogen’s other movies: there is a worrying lack of dick jokes for a start, and too many bunnies.
“Donnie Darko has the sort of plot that is designed to make you feel clever; it’s so open to interpretation that any three people would have at least seven perspectives on what it is all supposed to mean.”
There are a few elements of the film which have a slightly retro feel: the overbearing – though excellent – soundtrack, marginal overuse of denim and Drew Barrymore’s teaching style (it appears that instead of going to teaching college she stayed at home drinking gin, watching TED talks and memorising heckle put-downs).
Aside from these, this film has more than stood the test of time. If you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it recently, it’s on Netflix till the end of January, and presumably also available in all good Blockbuster outlets until 2004. Alternatively, just hook up multiple screens and watch Mean Girls, Memento, Back to the Future, The Adventures of Peter Rabbit and Alive simultaneously – it won’t be anywhere near as good, but the plot will be similar.4618 Views
Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.