Tuesday, August 04, 2009
ABC: DONNIE DARKO
Written and Directed by Richard Kelly
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze and Noah Wyle
Donnie Darko: Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?
Frank: Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?
DONNIE DARKO is one of those movies that lots of people love while lots of other people just don’t get why anyone at all would love it. This is not to suggest that those who don’t understand its appeal just aren’t smart enough to do so, just that DONNIE DARKO speaks to certain types of people and has no interest in speaking to the rest. Richard Kelly’s first feature film almost never found a home in North American cinemas. If it weren’t for Newmarket Films, it may never have reached the audience that has propelled it to such cult heights. It was never meant to star Jake Gyllenhaal, who at the time, (2001 to be specific) had made a few films but was hardly a recognized name. Kelly had wanted Vince Vaughan for the character but Vaughan passed because he felt he was too old; Mark Wahlberg passed because Kelly wouldn’t allow him to do it with a lisp; and Jason Schwartzman had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Though it may not have been made the way it was originally conceived, if there is anything DONNIE DARKO has taught me after seeing it so many times, it is that DONNIE DARKO was made exactly how it was meant to be and that its audience was there and waiting all along.
Aside from being one of cinema’s most highly regarded cult classics, Donnie Darko is also one of cinema’s most iconic characters. It is no secret that I am completely in love with Jake Gyllenhaal but you may not know that I also fall very easily for the well-intentioned that just haven’t figured it out yet. Combine the two and I’ve got nothing but trouble. This may at least explain my initial attraction to the film, one that is solidified in the very first moments. It opens on a mountain road that leads to a young man lying down in the middle of it, that man being Gyllenhaal, in his pajamas in the middle of nowhere with no idea how he got there, his hair a complete mess. He looks out at the beautiful scenery and the new day dawning and smiles that goofy grin that makes me melt. Outside of the attraction though, the intrigue is also established. Who is this kid and what is he doing in the middle of this road? The brilliance of it all is that the film proceeds to answer this very question in great depth and if your mind is open, you will learn a thing or two about yourself while you get to the crux of this boy. There is a little Darko in all of us.
DONNIE DARKO launches directly into a music video style montage to “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS (at least it does in the director’s cut anyway) that allows the introduction of Donnie’s family (including Maggie Gyllenhaal as Donnie’s sister, which makes for some great sibling rivalry and an extra level of tongue and cheek) and establishes a motif that will return a number of times throughout. The visual style speaks directly to the adolescent audience that the film inherently attracts due to the age of the protagonist, while the choice of music (chosen to fit the period, in this case, 1988) speaks directly to the generations just above the aforementioned. This widespread net cast upon different audiences may seem like an intentional manipulation but it is merely Kelly connecting his different audiences with a subject they can all relate to – that being the resolution of our minds with the world around us, our place in it and the potential need to self-medicate in order to achieve this symbiosis we all seem desperate to obtain. DONNIE DARKO was made on a very slight budget ($5 million is certainly slight when you consider the production value and the talent involved) but Kelly’s command of his own screenplay and how the particularly trippy elements of it needed to be presented in order to make his point is impressively tight considering this was his first time out.
DONNIE DARKO, both the film and the character, are fascinated with time travel, destiny and the underlying fear that all human beings share – that our time here is limited and that we have absolutely no control over that. Kelly’s script goes one step further to suggest every movement we make, every day, whether we are going to the kitchen for a drink or going for a casual stroll around the block, there is energy that draws us to and from these places because they are just stops on our journey towards our inevitable end. Upon first screening, that can seem quite bleak, especially when Donnie’s particular guiding force/angel is a man in a frightening bunny suit named Frank, but if everything in time has already been decided, than we needn’t worry so intensely about the decisions we make and what the consequences may be. It will all work out as it should have to begin with, just like DONNIE DARKO.
I have grown to love DONNIE DARKO more and more over the years. New thoughts and ideas make themselves known to me with each new viewing. It is not meant for those who prefer their bliss with ignorance but rather for those who are willing to risk their bliss for a chance at being present. If you have seen it already, and it spoke to you, you should know what I mean. If you haven’t seen it already, it will find its way into your life if it is meant to. For your sake, I hope it is.