Photo by Dale Robinette
In the unsettling new film Donnie Darko, a teenage boy can’t figure out whether the world’s gone mad or he has. Set in 1988 against a backdrop of middle-class abundance — the houses are all big, the women thin — it was written by its talented young director, Richard Kelly, a few months after he graduated from college, and plays out as an epic of unruly emotion about the horrors of growing up. Part fable, part elegy, the film is shockingly good, but also imperfect enough to remain more likable than intimidating — at times, it’s as swooningly out of control as Kelly’s troubled kid hero. Played with raw heartbreak by the 20-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal, the possibly paranoid-schizophrenic Donnie is haunted by a huge demon rabbit that talks to him in a low, insinuating purr that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. Donnie tends to sleepwalk through his night visions and sweats; while everyone else in his suburban family sleeps, he hops on his bicycle to cruise the roads that wreathe the surrounding mountains. At dawn, he wakes on deserted stretches of asphalt, curled up like someone’s lost ball. Donnie doesn’t seem much more awake during the day. He’s going to school and taking his medication, but the nightmares and the rabbit aren’t going anywhere.
Rigorously anti-nostalgic, the film is a queasy time capsule — Duran Duran rattles the soundtrack while George Bush and Michael Dukakis debate each other on the family television set — but it’s also a Pandora’s box of big ideas. When Donnie and his science teacher, Dr. Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), are discussing Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Monnitoff starts musing about wormholes, Donnie asks if you could get where you wanted to go “in a DeLorean.” As with Michael J. Fox’s character in Back to the Future, Donnie is a time traveler of sorts, though, at least initially, he seems to be looking for a way out of the present, rather than for a line into the past. He’s unhappy with life, his and everyone else’s. He burned down a house once. But what’s really eating Donnie Darko? His mom and dad are as generous as the actors playing them, Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne, who breathe warmth and shared history into parents whose love for each other, and their children, is at odds with high-culture clichés of Middle American life. When Donnie’s mother, Rose, squints at her son over dinner, swirling a big glass of red, it’s as if she were looking at the dark side of the moon. But if she doesn’t know where her son has gone, she’s not about to stop looking.
The thing is, Donnie doesn’t know where he’s gone either. He’s being treated by a sympathetic shrink (Katharine Ross) and has a new distraction — a wraith named Gretchen (Jena Malone) — but can’t shake the big bunny with the metallic face and dead eyes. (The creature’s ratty body looks like a toddler’s discarded jumper.) At school, Donnie reads Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors,” about a gang of kids who destroy an old man’s house for no obvious reason. “They want to tear the world apart,” he says of the kids. He does too, a little, though Kelly doesn’t give him enough reason why he should. His parents may be voting for Bush Sr., but nobody, including the writer-director, holds it against them. When Gyllenhaal lowers his chin and stares straight into the camera, a shiver goes up your spine, but you’re not exactly sure why, outside of the sheer force of the actor’s hypnotic presence. Is Donnie nuts? A psycho about to pop? Does it matter? Donnie may be sick, but he’s no sicker than the tough who flips open a switchblade in a school bathroom, or the gym teacher who believes the answers to life’s deeper questions are to be found in a self-help book. He’s sick, but he’s also a kid who’s just awakened to the specter of his impending adulthood.
A lot goes on in Donnie Darko — romance, adventure, murder, all soaked through with brooding darkness. A critic friend shrugged off the film as derivative of David Lynch, but while it is filled with dreams that bleed into daylight and visions of everyday surrealism — a sinister fat man in a running suit, a self-help guru with Vaselined teeth — Kelly is earnest about how terrible the world is, not ironic or unmoved or amused, as has sometimes been the case with Lynch. You get the feeling that Kelly can’t help but share the pain Donnie feels just by being alive. Indeed, it’s Kelly’s sincerity that marks the film as the work of a young man — he’s too young (23 when he wrote Donnie Darko) to be embarrassed about how deeply his characters feel. And while he isn’t above the occasional cheap shot (the most foolish character by far wears a “God Is Awesome!” T-shirt), most of his targets are fair game. He’s outraged by adults who sell out their kids: Donnie’s youngest sister is part of a dance team called Sparkle Motion, an astonishment of underage heat and shimmering limbs that, in one number (“No-no-notorious”), transforms into a kiddie-porn spectacular. (Donnie’s parents aren’t blameless, just less blameworthy than most.)
Donnie Darko straddles genres as fluidly as its writer-director samples his influences. The film is a blend of genres — a teen flick, a horror movie, a science-fiction fable reaching for near-mythic grandeur — but it’s seamless, not patchworked. You can easily tick off Kelly’s reading — and viewing — list. There’s Catcher in the Rye, which the film all but quotes (Donnie is heir to Holden Caulfield, only this time the rants are about the sex life of Smurfs rather than phonies and girls in tight sweaters), Blue Velvet and, of course, Harvey. This may sound like perilous viewing, but it’s not. We’ve grown accustomed to chastising young filmmakers whose impoverished view of culture seems to include nothing of life as it’s really lived, only pop culture — the movies they’ve seen, the songs they’ve absorbed. We’ve often overlooked that for many younger filmmakers pop culture isn’t a replacement for life, but its warp and woof. It isn’t simply that Kelly knows a lot about the movies, it’s that the movies — and books and music and comics — are his way of getting into life, his way of explaining it to himself so that he can share what he knows with the rest of us.
When Kelly points his camera, he isn’t just getting the shot. Like Donnie, he’s putting a frame around the world, trying to make some sort of crazy sense out of the mess all around him. The mysterious beauty of his film’s title extends through to Steven Poster’s cinematography, which envelops the day in velvety shadow and turns night into a phantasmal dreamscape. One of the film’s most poignant allusions is an eerie, nocturnal shot, echoing one of the defining images from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, in which Donnie and his friends jump on their bikes, as Elliot and his friends once did, and race toward the finish. This time, the kids are older, sadder, more scared, perhaps in part because the alien here isn’t from someplace far away, but somewhere too close. Melancholy hangs over the moment, but because Kelly takes adolescence seriously, and refuses to sentimentalize or heroize it, the Spielberg allusion doesn’t feel portentous. Kelly takes being a kid as seriously as a middle-aged man facing down his mortality, but he sees the rest of it, too — the tender absurdities and the cruelties of childhood. For Kelly, being a kid isn’t about outgrowing some phase, or any of the other bromides that adults employ in hindsight. It’s about being wrenched into a new state of consciousness and coming to terms — or not — with the rest of your life.
DONNIE DARKO | Written and directed by RICHARD KELLY | Produced by SEAN McKITTRICK and NANCY JUVONEN | Released by Newmarket Films | At selected theaters