Donnie Darko [retro review]

rdarko“Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

The Scoop: 2001 R, directed by Richard Kelly and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Patrick Swayze and Maggie Gyllenhaal

Tagline: Dark. Darker. Darko.

Summary Capsule: Troubled boy must unravel a mystery to save the universe.  Is he mentally unbalanced?  A superhero?  Time traveler?  Who knows!

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Justin’s Rating: Ah, the 80’s never die, as long as they live on through our movies

Justin’s Review: We get spoiled by movies far too often because we’re in the know. It’s a medium that’s designed to reach as many people as possible, which is why things on screen are spelled out for us. We know who these people are, what their backstories are, what their motivations are. We’re the people behind the stage, watching the story, knowing who is the hero and what happens for what purpose.

Therefore, it is more than disturbing to be confronted by a movie that says, “This is my side of the fence. You just stand over on that side and I’ll show you what I want to… for now.”  It’s frightening when we don’t understand the rules of a movie, and are unclear what’s happening and why. Yet, like many books that use this technique, it can be one of the most captivating experiences when done right.

Donnie Darko is a movie that will have you sitting on the other side of the fence, watching with wide child’s eyes, feeling your guts twist as your mind is frantically scrambling for sense, explanation, and connection. I had to actually stop watching this movie for a bit, because I was getting too emotionally high-strung. But, in the end, it was one of the most worthwhile movie experiences I’ve had.

Donnie Darko starts out slowly and proceeds slowly, as if you were leisurely turning the pages of a captivating novel. While the story unfolds in meager portions — and is often cryptic — the way it is told keeps impatience at bay. Some scenes are very normal, such as a family bickering (in a loving way) at the dinner table. Some are very abnormal, such as Donnie communicating with a giant bunny rabbit named Frank, who warns Donnie about the end of the world. Coming in just 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds, as a matter of fact. No one, including Donnie, is sure if he’s sane or a crazy lunatic bursting at the seams. And this doesn’t even start to cover the themes of divine intervention, time travel, dark secrets, censorship and murder. To elaborate on the specifics would be a horrible cruelness to those who haven’t seen it yet.

Aside from the main story, we’re treated to the incidentals that surround Donnie’s life. There’s a smug motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who, as Donnie puts it, tells lies even though he thinks he’s speaking the truth. There’s a beleaguered literature teacher (Drew Barrymore) and an insightful science teacher (Noah Wyle) who are the prerequisite “cool” teachers in a school administration filled with ninnies. Time is also spent between Donnie and his therapist, Dr. Thurman, who may be the only person in the film who has a chance of understanding him.

This film is big on foreshadowing, a fact you’ll pick up early on. Pay attention and notice everything, no matter how insignificant. But it’s hard not to lose yourself in the fantastic visuals and unique cinematography (such as the long tracking shot that introduces us to the school, momentarily speeding up before falling back into real time).

You’ll also want to admire some incredible acting, most notably by Donnie’s parents. Many times we like to trash on parental roles in films, because they’re almost always either (1) overbearing and mean, or (2) clueless and idiotic. Donnie’s parents, alternatively, are very much real and likable people. I love how Donnie’s dad laughed covertly at some of the naughty insults his kids were throwing around at the dinner table, or how his mother (Battlestar Galactica’s Mary McDonnell) stood up to the tightwad priss lady at the PTA meeting. There’s a great scene toward the end where Donnie asks his mom, “How’s it feel like having a wacko for a son?” She just strokes his cheek and says, “It feels wonderful.” Now that’s parenting.

Words really do fail me about this film, and I’m frustrated because I want to tell you how good it is, just in a very different way than you’ve ever seen before. Maybe I can make a tenuous connection between other recent visionary films, like Memento and Being John Malkovich, that are also at once fascinating and mind-boggling. All three of these films had me thinking long and hard after the credits rolled, which moves them safely out of the fire-and-forget film category.

Donnie Darko is also a movie that you’re going to have to watch twice, because you really won’t come to a solid conclusion (if that) until the end credits finally roll. When you don’t understand the rules of a film — that is, where the movie’s story and thought is coming from — you’re still on the other side of that fence. Yet with a second or third viewing, you can hop on over and join the crowd of all of us who have made it through this tale and are puzzling out the pieces. Come on. Join us. I dare you.

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Kyle’s Rating: In my life, I’ve loved them all

Kyle’s Review: And as all the answers elude him and remain tantalizingly just out of reach, Donnie has to decide if the giant techno rabbit is Satan or savior. Because everything happens for a reason, unless it doesn’t. But if the sky really does open up, and whatever will fall falls, does what we do matter? When darkness and oblivion are the ultimate destination, who really care if you take all the money out of the found wallet before you return it to its rightful owner?

Confused? Get used to it. Donnie Darko drops you into the middle of the action (and time warps you back into the late 80’s, for that matter!) so you aren’t ready to pay attention with all your philosophies close at hand, stick with ER reruns. Some movies require you to be “in it to win it,” and to “bring it on like it’s 1999.” Or something. Regardless, this is one of those movies and you had better be armed with full appreciation of David Lynch (especially Twin Peaks) and science (especially physics) before you press play.

Of the film Donnie Darko, I would prefer to say only this: it’s quite stylish and well made. I had heard about this film for a while and though it had annoyed me that despite reading in depth about the film I still had no idea what it was about or even what kind of film it was, I was happy to pick it off the shelf and rent it for the evening. So I finally watched it. Was it good? Sure. I guess. It bears further scrutiny that’s for sure!

Donnie is a troubled kid and as accidents and visions begin to plague him, he has to determine the purpose of It All before the end of the world. No, really, that’s the best I care to do describing things. That’s all you need. Justin is right, if you want to see it and truly enjoy it, you should go in with minimum prep and just marvel at the beauty of the film as I unfolds and envelops you. What, on more hint? Okay, here’s a warning: major space-time bending is in effect here, so pay attention for warped clues and tiny details reflecting the plot in its entirety. That’s all you get, sorry!

I was a little disappointed in Donnie Darko. For the seeming cosmic vastness of the story I felt the resolution and end results were surprisingly small, but then that says something profound about life and how everyone’s perceptions are different. I will say the story is deeply personal and intriguing, like bits of a diary we perhaps should not be privy to. I will say that the cast is excellent, especially the darkly (ha!) likeable Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie and Jena Malone as his complex romantic interest. I would have loved to see a lot more of their interactions in the movie.

One last thing: I really got the feel through Donnie Darko that the whole movie was like a collection of good music videos strung together. I’ve never seen a film where certain songs so comprised the heart of the drama. I almost wonder what came first, the script or the soundtrack listing. Regardless, the music is an important cog of the intricate plot. Listen closely and you might get inspired yourself. Have fun!

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Clare’s Rating: wow

Clare’s Review: I watched this movie by myself on a Thursday afternoon accompanied by a big pile of leftover nachos and a summer-sized gin and tonic. It took me all afternoon to get through it because I kept stopping to go back over scenes that completely blew my mind the first time. I don’t recommend this as a way to view a movie you’ve never seen before (nor are there many movies that warrant this level of attention). But, because the plot of Donnie Darko is so dependent on notions (or mis-notions) of linear time, this stopping and going back and starting again actually didn’t make much of a difference in how well I absorbed the material. It may have even helped.

A few days later I talked Hubbyman into watching Donnie Darko with me because I really wanted to watch it all in one piece. Before he agreed, we had a conversation that went something like this:

Hubbyman: What’s this movie about?

Me: Well, if I told you what it’s about I’d have to tell you the whole thing all at once and then you wouldn’t need to see it. It’s kind of a coming-of-age story but there’s a whole lot more to it than that. And it’s funny in a lot of ways, but also really beautifully sad in a lot of other ways. And it’s kind of science fiction in some very interesting ways, but also just a flat out great character drama in a bunch of other ways. It’s got this huge scary looking bunny named Frank and it’s got a great soundtrack.

Hubbyman: Scary bunny named Frank. Gotcha. Who directed it?

Me: Well, this guy Richard Somebody. It’s his first movie. He wrote it and directed it. I don’t think he’s done anything before this.

Hubbyman: Okay, so you don’t really know what it’s about except that it features a scary bunny and it’s written and directed by someone nobody’s ever heard of. Who’s in it?

Me: Well, Donnie Darko is played by this guy Jake Gyllenhall.

Hubbyman: Jake Whoenhall??

Me: Yeah, he hasn’t really been in a lot of stuff before but he’s REALLY amazing in this. Patrick Swayze’s in it too.

Hubbyman: Oh Clare, you’re selling me on this movie more and more each minute. A movie you can’t describe with director and a lead actor I’ve never heard of AND Patrick Swayze?!?! How can I say no?

Me: Well we just sat through From Hell which, as you may remember, lived up, quite effortlessly, to its name, so how much worse can it get? I watched Donnie Darko the other day. I can vouch for Donnie Darko. Donnie Darko is good people.

Hubbyman: Hey, great, whatever. As long as you don’t subject me to any more of Heather Graham’s “Irish” “accent”, I won’t complain.

That little conversation pretty much sums up why I’ve been neglecting to write this review for a while. I don’t know how to describe Donnie Darko other than to say “it’s really good and you should see it”. To say more than that would possibly give away valuable story information and may also steer you quite clear of this film altogether. On paper it seems like a shaky proposition, but once you’re actually watching it, it’s totally engrossing.

To be sure, Donnie Darko is weird. The story is weird, the characters are weird and the cinematography is weird. And I loved every blessed minute of it. As soon as it was over I wanted to watch it again. But its weirdness is not what makes it good. The weirdness certainly helps, but the movie stands on it’s own as a well-told, sad, funny, interesting look at one kid’s life and the lives of the people around him. Plus, any movie that opens with one of my favorite Psychedelic Furs songs, includes music by Joy Division and closes with the best cover of a Tears for Fears song ever produced (“Mad World”) is worth the price of admission anyway. As if all that weren’t enough however, Evil Dead plays a key role in the shuttling along of the plot. So it’s GOT to be good. This is one of those movies that is destined to be given a new life on video where people are more willing to take a chance on a movie they’ve never heard of. Take that chance. The reason I keep rooting around in my movie-geek way through piles of horrible movie-geek crap is the earnest hope of one day unearthing a movie-geek truffle like Donnie Darko.

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PoolMan’s Rating: It’s just a jump to the left, and then a step to the riiiiiight…

PoolMan’s Review: I have been looking forward to seeing Donnie Darko for months. I don’t mind admitting, either, that it was Clare’s review that really set me off about it. I’m getting to know this girl’s mojo pretty well, and I can tell which style of review she uses for movies she’s really hot on. So a buddy of mine calls me up and offers to see Donnie Darko for a movie night, and I naturally spring at the chance. It wasn’t till I got there that I noticed I’d spilled thai curry in an embarrassing place on my shorts, but I think I managed to hide it nicely.

Now. Here’s the thing. This movie is truly as Justin describes: you will discuss it afterwards. It will refuse to let you go after you’re done with it, because it’s not done with you. My friend, his father (who had watched with us), and I sat and yakked for a good hour after the movie ended about how this character did this, why this one did that, and what it all meant. We circled each other with our logic and our perceptions, and when we fought it all through, we found ourselves lacking. Perhaps we were expecting a nice easy goal to reach at the end of the movie, but there isn’t one. And maybe that’s the point. If you’re one for easily understood (or happy) endings, stay away.

What else can be said about this flick without giving a lot away? Jake Gyllenhaal is impressive, doubly so if you remember him from October Sky, and we suddenly get a true grasp of his range. The smiley, dopey kid who played Homer in that movie is gone, swept away by a grim faced specter who sees what others don’t. I was actually most affected by Donnie’s face through the movie, particularly in one scene where he switches, on camera, from the soulless, leering grin of madness to the alert, slightly embarassed face when his younger sister walks in on him. I don’t know why, but just that subtlety spoke volumes about what the movie’s about, and what Gyllenhaal is capable of. This movie could have been nothing without him (Jason Schwartzman was originally slated to play Darko, but he’s one of very few other young actors who might have pulled it off). It’ll be something to watch him grow into older roles as he progresses into adulthood.

It’s hard to go on here… I’ve rewritten this review a couple of times already, and each time I’m confronted with the urge to talk about the events of the movie, like I’m pretty prone to doing. Instead, all I can do is relate how I felt (and still feel) in the wake of watching this film. Numb, confused, and challenged. It plays like a good book reads, and that carries strengths and weaknesses as a film. Carefully woven story, with deliberately slow, methodical pacing make it almost a puzzle to work through, but one worth the effort.

This is an extremely high quality movie, but I can’t say I *like* Donnie Darko. That said, I’ve already made plans to see it again.

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Sue’s Rating: That wetched wascally wabbit!

Sue’s Review: This was the movie that almost wasn’t. It took me two days to watch it in its entirety because the phone rang every fifteen minutes or so, and the calls were always important and prolonged. One might think that there were greater forces than I in the universe who wanted to prevent me from watching Donnie Darko.

To those unknown entities, I say this: neener neener neener! Didn’t think I’d unplug the phone, did ya! Did ya! Ha!

But moving right along.

As a general rule of thumb, if I get to the end credits of a movie and find myself wondering what the heck just happened, I do not consider the experience an unqualified success. (Highlander: Endgame is an excellent example of that, at least before the director’s cut.) I mean, I know my intellect is pretty middle-ground, somewhere between American Beauty and American Pie, but confuse me at your peril. I have enough of an inferiority complex without some smug director burbling commentary about existential infarctions and hyper-kinetic quadraphonic emulsions within the creative envelope. All that tells me is that they don’t know what the heck it was about either. Don’t mess with my head. That’s my motto.

Donnie Darko neatly turned my motto on its cute little ear. Color me impressed. (What color is that anyway? Mauve? Turqoise? Vermillion?)

Like the others who’ve aired their wonderment about this film, I also have no desire to dish out spoilers or map out a synopsis. I’m not sure how I’d explain it even if I wanted to, but that in no way detracts from its worth. Suffice to say that Donnie Darko manages to embrace the shallow teenage groove of the eighties and imbue it with more thought provoking complexity than you can shake an M.C. Escher painting at. The setting is limited but the range is incalculable.

Then there’s the performance of Jake Gyllenhaal. Liked him as a kid in October Sky, loved him as an adult in Brokeback Mountain, but I’m absolutely in awe here. Not everyone can radiate virtually bi-polar extremes of intelligence (we’re talking leaps from Steven Hawking intellect to Nick Nolte mugshot) and the combination of wide eyed innocence and maniacal threat that Donnie exhibits… well, let me put it this way; if Gyllenhaal had played Anakin Skywalker, none of us would be able to sleep at night ever again. (Justin, even now, is probably twitching all over just because I wrote that.)

The only regret I harbor about Donnie Darko is that I watched it alone. It would have been fun and really interesting to be able to discuss it with someone and see what they thought. I feel sort of cheated and bereft having no one but myself to debate. Not that I can’t carry on a conversation with myself, but the kids think it’s a little creepy when I do. This is mutant summit/viewing material, without a doubt. Fellow mutants, take note.

So here’s your assignment. If you haven’t seen this movie, rent it. Watch it with friends. Discuss.

What makes this more surreal is knowing that they're watching Evil Dead.  Really.

What makes this more surreal is knowing that they're watching Evil Dead. Really.

Intermission!

  • Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who are brother and sister in real life, play brother and sister in this film
  • Rose is reading Stephen King’s IT (later in the film we see a clown)
  • Back to the Future reference
  • Themes of water and metal as parts of the puzzle
  • Patrick Swayze’s character pats a little kid on the butt after a hug in one of his videos – foreshadowing!
  • The Fat Guy in the red sweatsuit is one of the FAA guys, who keeps tabs on Donnie throughout the film. They never state this outright, but you can see him in one of the first scenes after the accident.
  • The Fat Mystery Lady in the crowd of the music recital is supposed to be a scout from Star Search – something that is implied, but never stated
  • Slight reference to E.T. with the kids (Donnie wearing a skeleton shirt and a sweatshirt hooded) biking through the night
  • In the opening section, you see Frank’s red corvette passing Donnie on the street, having just dropped Donnie’s sis home
  • Lots of characters say the name “Frank” throughout the film
  • Donnie’s older sis is pretty hot
  • Cool sped-up/normal-time tracking shots
  • Good to know that Patrick Swayze still earns his keep, somehow
  • The EXCELLENT Smurfs discussion
  • Evil Dead! Evil Dead! Evil Dead!
  • “The Last Temptation of Christ” on the marquee, referencing Donnie’s temptations
  • After the scene where we see Franks car in the beginning they have the sign for the halloween dance that is sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving… foreshadowing? [thanks Kurgan]
  • Mario writes in: [spoiler] “You might want to add something about Frank apologizing to Donnie in the theater about hitting Gretchen. This is something that no one I know picked up on the first time they saw the movie, and relatively few did even the second time. This was the most satisfyingly chilling and well put together scene of the movie, in my opinion, and is a shame to unintentionally disregard.”
  • Sam Raimi let the filmmakers use Evil Dead in the film practically free of charge.
  • The film was shot in 28 days – the same length of time as Frank’s doomsday countdown.
  • One deleted scene reveals that Donnie’s pills are in fact placebos.

Groovy Quotes

Gretchen: You’re weird.
Donnie: Sorry.
Gretchen: It was a compliment.

Teacher: A linguist once said that out of all the combinations of words in the English language, “Cellar Door” was the most beautiful.

Donnie: [smoking] What happens if you tell mom and dad about this?
Samantha: You’ll put Ariel in the garbage disposal.

Donnie: They just wanted to see what happens when they tore the world apart.

Girl: What are feces?
Samantha: Baby mice.
Girl: Awwww.

Gretchen: Donnie Darko? What the hell kind of name is that? It sounds like the name of a superhero.
Donnie: What makes you think I’m not?

“They made me do it”

Donnie: Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?
Frank: Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?

Donnie: I have to obey him, he saved my life.

Dr. Thurman: If the sky were to suddenly open up, there would be no law. There would be no rule. There would only be you and your memories, the choices you’ve made, the people you’ve touched. There would only be you, him and no one else.

Donnie: Dues ex machina.

Samantha: Mommy, when can I squeeze one out?
Donnie: Not until 8th grade.

Kitty: He told me to forcibly insert the fear-love lifeline into my anus!

Donnie: When is the world going to end?
Frank: You should already know that.
[Donnie smiles]

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Being John Malkovich
  • Frequency
  • S. Darko
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4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Eunice does Uncertainty « Mutant Reviewers From Hell

  2. An unnerving, electrifying debut film from 26-year-old writer/director Kelly, one that elucidates the universal traumas of growing up, but does so with a startling uncommonness. Near-perfect film for me. Good review, please check out mine when you can!

  3. Pingback: Shaolin Soccer [retro review] « Mutant Reviewers From Hell

  4. Pingback: Memento « Mutant Reviewers From Hell

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