The surface of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001) is so peculiar, clever, and entertaining (creepy giant bunnies, falling airplane engines, time travel, Patrick Swayze) that it’s almost possible to overlook what truly sets it apart, especially from its many fellow teen films – that all these trappings are in the service of a serious, uncompromising portrait of its deeply disturbed, mentally ill title character. This is a film glutted with pop-cultural references (it’s set in ’80s suburban America) and flashy cinematic touches, but Donnie’s crippling pain and confusion cut through it all, giving weight to Kelly’s good ideas and rendering the bad ones insignificant.
The engine driving the plot is, in this case, literally just that: the story’s set in motion by a detached airplane engine that plunges into Donnie’s bedroom in the middle of the night. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), the middle child in a conservative middle class family, survives this freak event only because he happens, on this particular night, to be sleeping not in his bedroom but on the local golf-course, a decision suggested to him by the man-sized, nightmarish bunny who comes to him in visions. For an encore, this nefarious rabbit, having thus established his prophetic powers, informs Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. Donnie Darko is a busy film, full of supporting characters, suburban comedy, and ’80s music (there are even a couple quasi-dance numbers thrown in), but its basic shape is very simple: a countdown to this end-date, a march towards what is either a time-bending, sci-fi conclusion or the disintegration of Donnie’s mind, or both. As a result, the film, even at its most whimsical, has a creepy, almost unbearably intensity, a sense of impending doom.
Donnie Darko falls squarely into the teen-angst genre but it’s never derivative or inconsequential, thanks first and foremost to the extremity of Donnie’s emotional state. Donnie is severely disturbed – ill-at-ease, angry, and unhappy, to the point not just of rebellion but of schizophrenia. His parents (Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell) are at a loss as to how to help him, most of his teachers don’t give a damn about his well-being and have no patience for his behavior, while his psychiatrist, Dr. Thurman (Katharine Ross), begins to realize that he’s approaching a mental danger-state. His only solid human connection is to the new girl in school, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone).
Parts of Donnie Darko, entertaining as they may be, are familiar from many other films [Rock & Roll High School (1979), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Pump Up the Volume (1990), Dazed and Confused (1993), and many others] – the broad caricatures of several of the adults, including the grotesquely insensitive, new-age teacher, Ms. Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), and the sleazy self-help guru she adores, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze); the slow-motion, pop-song scored steady-cam sequences introducing us to Donnie’s home and high-school (the latter a real tour-de-force); the reveling in ’80s culture, pop and otherwise (E.T., Faith No More, Dukakis). There’s even a plot development that involves the defacing of the statue of the school mascot. But unlike the protagonists of these earlier films, Donnie is grappling with despair and madness, not simply hormones.
Gyllenhaal embodies the role beautifully, making Donnie believably awkward and confused though compelling, while lucid (especially in his first scene alone with Gretchen) and both terrified and terrifying during his visions. Aside from this central character, what sets Donnie Darko above many ostensibly similar movies are the generous portrayals of Donnie’s family. Kelly gently skewers their conservatism and their bewilderment towards their son, but in the end he makes them highly sympathetic, resisting the urge to take the easy way out by making Donnie the only fully drawn character in a hostile world of buffoonish adults. This choice transforms Donnie Darko from a self-justifying adolescent fantasy to a much wiser, more heartbreaking portrait. That first option is present within the film, in the scenes in which Donnie lashes out at Ms. Farmer and Jim Cunningham, both of whom are caricatured to the point of monstrosity. These are funny and satisfying moments – we all fantasize about having the opportunity, and the presence of mind, to reveal hypocrisy, to find ourselves in such a simplistically self-righteous situation. But this is easy, transparently therapeutic comedy, a matter of creating a monster and then accusing it of monstrosity. Kelly can get away with it only because, even in these scenes, Donnie’s pain, his anger not only at these fools but at himself, is plainly visible. You could go so far as not to take these scenes literally. When the average teen film portrays the adult world as ignorant and ridiculous, it’s a matter of embodying, unselfconsciously (or at least with intent to pander), an adolescent’s point of view. Kelly transcends this approach in the film as a whole, but rather than indulging himself in these more comedic moments, he may be more self-consciously shuttling between Donnie’s point of view and a more objective, broad perspective.
In any case, when it comes to Donnie’s family and psychiatrist (and to two sympathetic teachers played by Noah Wyle and the film’s co-producer, Drew Barrymore), Kelly resists simplification. His parents may be puzzled by his emotional turmoil and clueless as to how to help him, but their love is never in question and they have an integrity and a sense of humor that puts them much closer to Donnie than to Ms. Farmer and Jim Cunningham. They are a troubled family, but a tight one. The other major adult character is Donnie’s psychiatrist, Dr. Thurman, who better recognizes Donnie’s emotional and psychological state, but is equally powerless to reverse his fate. Donnie Darko is all the more wrenching for showing that Donnie’s pain consumes him despite his parents’ love and his psychiatrist’s efforts. Kelly understands that the sort of psychological problems Donnie has aren’t as easily traceable as we’d like to think.
Kelly doesn’t have to sacrifice the complexity of these characters in order to reflect Donnie’s state of mind – he makes it abundantly clear by letting us share his visions, which gradually become more and more disturbing as the bunny commands him to perform increasingly destructive acts. Eventually his visions begin to encompass what he believes to be a kind of time travel – an ability to see, in a physical form, the near future. Everything in the film reaches a fever pitch of dread and foreboding as it hurtles towards the climax, a puzzler of an ending in which everything falls into place but nothing is really explained. There may be an overly clever quality to the way in which every element of Donnie Darko interweaves in these final minutes, but it’s balanced by the film’s beautifully maintained ambiguity, a sense of mystery and inexplicability that few filmmakers would have the nerve to carry through on. Donnie Darko would be impoverished if it tipped its hand in either direction – irrelevant and bloodless if it were to become pure science fiction; prosaic and pointless if the whole movie were explained away psychologically. Kelly manages to produce a hugely entertaining ending (a tear-jerker, but so successfully so that it’s hard to complain) without undercutting the substance of the film. The excitement of a movie like Donnie Darko is that it can be interpreted in so many ways – where many filmmakers would be anxious to provide a key in the end, Kelly knows that by withholding a clear-cut final solution, he creates an infinitely richer film, one that equals the sum total of all these possible interpretations.
Donnie Darko has a cumulative power because it doesn’t soft-pedal its subject, or neuter it by trying too hard to please the audience – it acknowledges that the confusion and unhappiness we all feel in adolescence don’t always get worked through, that they are something very real and potentially very damaging. It translates its hero’s pain into vivid, exhilarating genre material, but without robbing it of its dark gravity.