Z To A: Donnie Darko (2001)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Donnie Darko is an edgy, psychological thriller about a suburban teen coming face-to-face with his dark destiny. Jake Gyllenhaal leads a star-filled cast as a delusional high school student visited by a demonic rabbit with eerie visions of the past and deadly predictions for the future.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

I don’t mean to sound like a complete hipster, but the following statement is true: I saw and liked Donnie Darko before it became… you know, Donnie Darko.

Within a few years of its release it was deemed a cult film, but from my point of view it was swallowed hook, line and sinker by emo culture (for example, Hot Topic began licensing merchandise). After a while it wasn’t only championed by moody teenagers but the kind of worrisome film snob who equated seeing it to being really, really deep. It wasn’t long before mentioning Darko would simply get an eye roll and people seemed embarrassed to say they liked the movie at all.

Fourteen years have passed since then. Director Richard Kelly’s career seems to have stalled, especially after his disastrous sophomore effort, Southland Tales (2006) and the lackluster reception of The Box (2009). In the meantime, Darko has become shorthand for something else- something too earnest, too convoluted, too… I don’t know, sad. Recently I brought the film to a friend’s house to see what her reaction would be. She said flatly, “I don’t want to watch this” and tossed it aside. Her attitude was in line with the last piece of press I’ve read about it, Mara Wilson discussing how she hates Gary Jules’ “Mad World” and how Donnie Darko is the worst.

Why? It makes her depressed and reminds her of posers.

To say the least I knew that watching this film was going to be interesting. What I expected was associating it with the time, particularly being a teenager, and probably wouldn’t feel the same about it. I was only half right. Upon re-watching Donnie Darko I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a film that should have been left alone. It was wrecked by recognition.

My intention here on out is to look at this film with a clean slate, going back to square one and examining it without the cultural bias it has earned over the past decade or so. Basically: letting the film speak for itself. Because it’s actually good. Very good. And not only that, it holds up after all of this time.

To begin, one of the biggest components of Darko is trying to understand what all of it means, especially since it’s a countdown to something catastrophic and unfathomable.

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So what does it all mean for real? Does the world really end? Was it really in that much danger? I suppose I lucked out in that department. The truth is I never really engaged that question. I’ve always thought of Darko in the same terms as Mulholland Dr. (2001)- you can understand the structure but never fully unravel its machinations. It’s a fever dream of a film and trying to work out its logic is exhausting. No matter what you do, all you have is your own interpretation, never a solid truth. That’s part of its staying power.

In spite of this, there are some facets of the film that are easier for me to interpret (that’s key here- interpret– because no one has the same point of view). For example, is Donnie mentally ill? I’d argue yes, but mental illness and emotional problems are often tangled with brilliance and foresight. It’s harder for me to grasp other theories- that Donnie is a savior, seer, superhero or just plain nuts- because his intuition rests solely on a skewed but truthful perception. He is someone who simply realizes he has to die in an inexplicable accident (and succeeds at it in every way The Butterfly Effect fails).

In a nutshell: Donnie’s vulnerability is a gateway as well as a tool. It’s the only way he’s able to perceive what is meant to happen, and although it’s painful and inhibiting I love the way the film treats it. There is a sensitivity, rawness and eventual acceptance surrounding Donnie’s mental state that you rarely see in films at all, particularly concerning the scenes with his parents.

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After this question, Donnie’s mother replies, “It feels wonderful.”

It’s often that subtleties like this fall through the cracks when analyzing Darko. The human part of the film is often overshadowed by its theories, visuals and the way it’s cruelly funny when you least expect it. A lot of this stems from moments where Donnie questions and rages at the ideologies offered to him. I figure, “You might as well.” After all, he has nothing to lose since he is supposed to be dead. Watching him mouth off is liberating.

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But aside from dealing with Donnie’s imminent death and his increasingly bizarre behavior, the film also confronts the world he will be leaving behind. He never fully fits into it (perhaps he never has), and yet keeps continually shaping it for the better/worse. He’s like a puzzle piece that has no place, so conspicuous that people can’t help but be effected.

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The reactions he gets from his community are all over the place, culminating with so many ludicrous actions that his reality begins to cave in on itself. Others who don’t completely fit in seem to suffer the most, from the hapless Cherita Chen (Jolene Purdy) to Donnie’s English teacher, Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), who is fired for her teaching strategies.

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All of these developments are “corrected,” of course, and it seems these characters remember yet don’t remember what has happened, waking up in the middle of the night as if from a unsettling dream. By then Donnie has died. It will be a few hours before they hear about it and get the feeling that they know more than they should, but will most likely keep it to themselves.

To say Donnie Darko is perfect would be a long shot. The more you question it the less things fit together or justify themselves. What was the point of preserving a world Donnie was becoming more disillusioned with? Will the community be positively effected or change due to his self-sacrifice? Why is all of this important in the first place? These are things you can only conjecture about or guess.

In the end, I simply enjoy it because the story is the story. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be completely understood. All I know for sure is how Donnie’s death reminds me of losses I’ve experienced myself. In the 10th grade a classmate of mine died in a car accident on the way to his brother’s graduation, which was devastating. Years later I heard that his mother still struggled with the loss to the point of self-destruction, and whenever I see Rose Darko (Mary McDonnell) at the end of this film, I think about her. You know she will never be the same, especially considering the last exchange she had with her son. He wanted to be left alone, and died alone, and only the audience and Donnie really know the truth.

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Like many deaths, you can only hope for the best- that the loneliness of death will bring the living together. It’s only through this that the dead are never truly forgotten. When it comes this film we’ll never really know what happened to the living, and perhaps that’s its biggest mystery.

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