Donnie Darko

Director: Richard Kelly. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Patrick Swayze, Katharine Ross, Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daveigh Chase, James Duval, Patience Cleveland, Beth Grant, Jolene Purdy. Screenplay: Richard Kelly.

Donnie Darko has had another go at me, or I have had another go at it. The Director's Cut of the film played theatrically at Cornell tonight, and I am so glad that my friend Anna convinced me to shelve my grading for a couple hours and go. Donnie Darko looks more and more like one of the essential American movies of this decade. Any movie that keeps its secrets this beautifully—even after two viewings, even with 20 semi-"explanatory" minutes added, even with a plot that seems so overdetermined from the outset—any movie like this will be reckoned with for years to come.

Part of the ingenuity lies in Jake Gyllenhaal's performance, which pours itself so effortlessly into that eerie, impossible gap between Donnie's two selves: the charismatic inquirer who might just save his glazed-over suburb, and the seriously troubled soul whose anguish is cheated, reduced, if we only laugh with it, laugh at it, or lionize it. Gyllenhaal himself is both arresting-looking and utterly average; his acting is neither invisible nor strenuous. It is exactly, uncannily the performance the film needs.

Part of the ingenuity lies with Richard Kelly, the writer-director who was only 26 years old when this film opened—which means he can't have been more than 24 or 25 when he filmed it, and that he must have been younger than that when he wrote it. Somehow Kelly knew to stuff cotton in his ears whenever anyone near him said that you can't juxtapose a camp exchange between two Sparkle Motion mothers and a fearsome surrealist vision. That you can't recruit a cast this heterogeneous and ask them all to mesh together, and to take this teen-targeted hybrid curio so seriously. That you can't crash a jet engine into a family house, twice, in a movie that has almost no budget. That you can't use the synthiest of 80s pop bands as the discomfiting wormholes into the dark suburban hollow, with its sense of something going wrong, something complicated being canned for easier consumption. That you can't use music this way and yet also make it deliciously, nostalgically seductive. That you can't cast Drew Barrymore as a high-school English teacher, and a good one. That you can't cast an imaginary rabbit as the anti-Harvey, or cast an imaginary rabbit as anything, and still have your movie hold together. Forget "hold together": emerge out of nowhere as the deserving and concurrent sibling of Mulholland Drive, or as the movie American Beauty or The Ice Storm might wish they had been.

Donnie Darko scuttles all brands of fundamentalism without once seeming didactic, puffed-up, or politically motivated. It somehow mocks and embraces religiosity at the same time, and braids that rich agnostic thread with an equally judicious, equally questioning approach to psychiatry and secular "therapy." The movie treats the whole idea of genre like an antique, a distant memory, while assiduously flirting with nearly all available genres: science fiction, teen comedy, family drama, mystery, horror. It is the first movie in eons to offer a pristine, unimprovable character performance where you least expect one, in the form of Mary McDonnell's priceless Rose Darko. And just when you think your amazement at McDonnell outstrips the film's interest in Rose, Kelly gobsmacks you by handing her the entire end of the film on a tiny, indescribably fragile platter. McDonnell works the same quiet, subtle sorcery here that Toni Collette did in The Sixth Sense, but she's even quieter, and even greater.

Donnie Darko knows its period, well beyond its shimmering tunes or even April Ferry's spot-on costumes. The 1988 context isn't for nothing. The squelching of conscience, the national covenant not to know things is what Kelly conjures, unobtrusively but ungratuitously, in those Bush-Dukakis debates, in the cresting wave of "self-help" as something you pay other people to model for you, even do for you.

Donnie Darko, then, is a kind of minor miracle. I wonder what it's all about. Here was my best guess, crystallized in the movie's quick cut to a paperback of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Hawking's book was as much a paradox as Donnie Darko is, a profoundly subversive artifact that wormed its way into clubhouse argot and soccer-mom consciousness. Hawking suggested entirely new dimensions and relations in our universe, and still, for 99% of us, all the book amounted up to was the production of a new public eccentric, a minor celebrity who wrote a book that now naps on the shelf of Barnes & Noble. The book, finally, was made safe. The film, tilled in the soil of suburbia rather than science, asks the question: what if the universe as we live it, not just as we theorize it, really isn't as we imagine it? In making the mundane as bottomless as the cosmic, Donnie Darko has the guts to remain a riddle itself. The looping, immensely idiosyncratic, uncertain narrative (still an enigma, don't you worry, despite the added footage) is a rebuke to the know-nothing era it spoofs, but a rebuke, too, to the cynical, post-Y2K belief that somehow we know better now. The movie doesn't sell a theory, it implies one. It doesn't resemble Hawking's book, with its sellable lingo of the unknown; it resembles Roberta Sparrow's, which is frightened, fragmented, out of time. The movie forces you to wonder, maybe again or maybe for the first time, about immense questions which Kelly nonetheless refuses to put into words.

Anna, who had not seen the movie before, felt something else, and I found her thought brilliant, so I hope she'll allow my embellishments of it. She felt that the movie makes both palpable and terrible that very sensation which Donnie most fears: what would it feel like, the moment of dying alone? Donnie Darko circles and spins, it reveals and re-veils, it's funny and scary and sad and sharp, and in the middle of all that is this lonely soul who remains lonely, and who all but wills for himself the kind of final, essential instance of solitude he's been wondering about forever. The movie, stranding us among genres and implications, forcing us into our own private relationship with its uncanny spectacles, makes us, as we watch, even with friends or in a crowded theater, alone.

I like Anna's idea more than mine. (That is usually my experience of Anna's ideas.) Where I think our ideas intersect is how they embrace the notion that a movie can distill something intimate, in a unique and specific way that a book or a word might not have achieved. I am reminded of another of my favorite images from this movie, when Donnie and his girlfriend Gretchen sit in an otherwise-empty moviehouse and Donnie, at least, beholds some kind of portal to infinity as it emerges on the movie screen. Richard Kelly is clearly in love with the inventive, descriptive, and emotive power of movies. What if the wormhole, the "liquid spear," isn't something that only Donnie can see? What if we can all see it? What if it's that silver screen we're looking at as we watch Donnie Darko? Richard Kelly has made one of those terrific movies about what movies are, and what they do: they transport us, into other worlds, but also into our own mystifying insides. Grade: A–

This review originally appeared, with only minor textual differences, as an entry in my blog, from May 10, 2005.
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