Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s cult debut feature, famously came very close to being a straight-to-DVD release. And who knows? In a parallel universe maybe that actually happened, and Donnie Darko became loved by just a handful of people who all caught its one-and-only cable showing at three in the morning. Perhaps in that alternate reality Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal never became the most successful siblings since Bobby and Jack Charlton (or Phil and Gary Neville if you’re that way inclined) and it’s even possible that Kelly’s second feature – Southland Tales – was a triumph rather than an unfathomable mess. In such an alternate reality it’s also plausible that the director’s cut of Donnie Darko doesn’t exist … which would be fine by me as it’s one of the most disappointing that I’ve had the misfortune to sit through.
Thankfully the original version of Donnie Darko is good enough to withstand Kelly’s subsequent re-tooling and tinkering (of which more later). This preternatural, genre-bending tale of teen angst, time travel and scary rabbits sees Jake Gyllenhaal take on the role of the title character, a teenage boy living in Virginia in the late 1980s who cheats death when an engine that has seemingly fallen off a passing aeroplane crashes through his bedroom while he is out of the house at night. Oddly there’s no record of a crash or even of a plane losing an engine in the skies above the Darko residence, and weirder still is the fact that Donnie was advised to get out of the house by a strange figure in a rabbit suit called Frank (James Duval), who also tells him the end of the world is nigh. Donnie, who may or may not be suffering from schizophrenia, continues to experience similar visions and is subsequently coerced by Frank into flooding his local high school and burning down the house of a self-help guru named Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). As time passes Donnie gradually begins to believe that he must make a huge sacrifice if he is to save the world, but is Frank’s prophecy true or is it all in the teenager’s head?
Donnie Darko intrigues from the very first scenes, during which we are introduced to the rest of the Darko family and Donnie’s classmates and teachers at the local high school. Middle-class parents Rose (Mary McDonnell, terrific) and Eddie (Holmes Osborne) are smart, decent types who understandably have concerns about their son’s attitude and mental health, and as a result they have enlisted the help of psychiatrist Dr Thurman (Katherine Ross), whose sessions with Donnie often end uncomfortably. Meanwhile Donnie bickers at home and in the family’s temporary hotel residence with both his older sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and younger sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase), who is part of a precociously suggestive dance troupe called Sparkle Motion.
Donnie’s school life is established via a remarkable slow-mo music video-style scene in which the camera follows various pupils and members of staff as they mill about their classrooms, halls and outdoor areas. Here we meet teachers Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) and the brilliantly uptight and fussy Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant, who gets most of the film’s best lines), as well as school bullies Seth (Alex Greenwald) and Ricky (Seth Rogen, making his film debut). In his English class Donnie meets Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), a new student who has moved to the area with her mother to escape a violent stepfather. When Gretchen asks teacher Karen where she should sit, the answer ‘sit next to the boy you think is the cutest’ leads her to Donnie, and shortly thereafter the two begin dating in a warmly innocent fashion.
Though at times it feels similar in design to a soap opera, the various links that exist between the characters are outlined swiftly and create a pleasing sense of a normal, functioning community (on the surface, at least). Kitty Farmer, for example, is the driving force behind Sparkle Motion, and therefore has links to Rose Darko as well as to Donnie in school. It is Kitty that foists the questionable philosophies of Jim Cunningham onto her pupils, too, and who engineers the firing of Karen Pomeroy; a character that would be included merely for comic relief in most films actually has an important role to play in the events depicted here.
Kelly’s film straddles several genres successfully. Is it sci-fi? Comedy? Horror? Indie teen romance? A warped superhero movie? Some kind of disguised political commentary? All of these things? Donnie’s visions of Frank recall certain horror films of yore, particularly when the rabbit figure appears in a bathroom mirror and in an otherwise-empty cinema (which is wittily showing a double bill of The Last Temptation Of Christ and The Evil Dead). Then there’s the elderly lady living on the edge of town named Roberta Sparrow – nicknamed Grandma Death by cruel kids on account of her age and appearance – whose book on time travel written many years before appears to detail every strange thing that Donnie is seeing. But if you’re spooked one minute you’re just as likely to find yourself laughing at Donnie Darko’s sharply-scripted lines the next, and the movie is snort-out-loud funny at times. Such different styles have been married together before, of course, but Kelly’s achievement in stitching so many together successfully is worthy of mention.
The strange ending certainly leaves the movie open for interpretation, although the director’s cut unfortunately explains the theory that the entire story is taking place in an alternate reality and that Donnie must travel back in time to avert the end of the world a little too clearly for my liking. While this could also be interpreted in the original film, when it first appeared in cinemas part of the appeal of Donnie Darko was its ambiguity, and anyone who saw it will have been inspired to try and work out just what it was all about. In the original cut Donnie’s possible mental illness seems just as likely an explanation for the events of the film as anything else, aided by the revelation that the pills he has stopped taking are placebos anyway; there is greater emphasis on the idea that Donnie’s version of events is completely unreliable, although that fails to explain the re-appearance of Gretchen at the end, or the fact we seem to go back in time to the point where the jet engine hits the house, or the fact that Donnie apparently has been given special powers such as foresight and greater physical strength. However, when Donnie floods the school and attacks its bulldog mascot after reading of a similar incident in Graham Greene’s The Destructors as part of his English class, the clear implication is that Donnie got the idea from Greene’s story rather than his own assertion that Frank ‘told him to do it’.
Kelly’s director’s cut places less emphasis on Donnie’s mental state as a direct result of its greater emphasis on Roberta Sparrow’s book about time travel, which explains the theory of a tangent universe clearly and also reveals why the various characters appear to be touched or moved by a thought or feeling at the very end. However it’s the way in which this explanation is presented that bugs me: whole passages of the book appear onscreen, each new chapter giving the film a more episodic structure that I’m not a fan of at all. I prefer the version of Donnie Darko that leaves the events at the end unexplained and asks the viewer to make up their own mind. The director’s cut does make things clearer, but only by over-explaining, and this ponderous time travel / tangent universe business begins to overshadow the movie’s sense of fun.
If that stylistic choice didn’t affect the flow of the film enough, the director has also taken the opportunity to insert several graphic images of an eye (presumably Donnie’s), which appear regularly throughout the film covered with the kind of information overlay that is usually seen by the cyborgs in Robocop and The Terminator. For me this is an addition that simply doesn’t make sense, as it doesn’t fit in with the look and tone of the rest of the film. Donnie’s not a robot … he doesn’t use a computer in the movie … it just seems like a pointless intrusion. The other most noticeable decision by Kelly is to re-jig the already well-respected soundtrack. As such the film opens with Never Tear Us Apart by INXS, which replaces Echo And The Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon (the original choice was a far better one in my opinion; I remember the hairs on my arms standing up when I saw it in the cinema, usually a sure sign I’m either freezing cold or about to enjoy a splendid motion picture). The Killing Moon now appears later on at the party scene, replacing Under The Milky Way by The Church, which has been unfortunately relegated to background music during an innocuous scene in Eddie’s car. Thankfully Gary Jules’ haunting version of Tears For Fears’ Mad World has been left alone.
In Kelly’s defence, these were his original choices for the soundtrack, but budget constraints meant that he couldn’t include the INXS song; my own personal taste in music means that I prefer the original use of the songs by The Church and Echo And The Bunnymen, though. I’m even less keen on the new special effects, which are more in keeping with the look of Kelly’s second film Southland Tales (and its protracted online and graphic novel teaser campaign), which presumably he was working on alongside the Donnie Darko director’s cut. They just don’t sit well here at all.
Donnie Darko is an unusual movie, as daring as it is memorable, and Kelly’s original material is strong enough to shine despite all the tinkering and the added bells and whistles. Given its ambition it is no surprise that it has flaws: while Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance launched his career, the doe-eyed stares and the ‘possessed and troubled’ look is plastered across his character’s face so often it becomes somewhat absurd after a while, even though he does a good job overall. He has matured into a better actor in the years since this was made, yet there’s something iconic about his work here that means he may always be associated primarily with Donnie. Additionally, at times the comedy detracts from the importance of what is at stake: it’s easy to forget that the end of the world is looming over these characters, for example, despite several reminders. The nods to films like Halloween, Carrie and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial are a little obvious, too, although Kelly does manage to capture the essence of the small towns of those films. Some of the characters – Seth, Ricky and Donnie’s friends, for example – are one-dimensional high school stereotypes, though others such as Jolene Purdy’s nervous abuse-sufferer Cherita Chen really capture the imagination and add to Kelly’s exploration of teenage alienation and unhappiness. Finally there are some extremely clunky scenes dotted around here and there; when Donnie and his friends discuss The Smurfs, for example, I always find myself cringing. I may of course be wrong, and frequently I am, but to me it smacks of something written years before that the director always wanted to include no matter what film he made. These are boys of 15 or 16 or so in 1988. Would they really be discussing The Smurfs?
There is far, far more to praise than to pick out for criticism, though. The decision to set the story against the backdrop of the tail end of the Reagan era, for instance, is an inspired one. ‘I’m voting for Dukakis’ is the first line of the film, uttered by Elizabeth, and the looming presidential election helps to create a generational divide as well as a state of flux and a feeling of instability, especially each time George Bush’s face is on the family’s TV set; his static-laden nocturnal appearances are as creepy as Frank’s, in a way.
And that brings us nicely to the rabbit. Part of Donnie Darko’s success must surely be attributed to Frank, a memorably-weird and slightly scary figure who looks like an absurdist’s interpretation of Ghostface from Wes Craven’s Scream crossed with Herny Koster’s Harvey, and who sounds like Freddy Krueger played backwards. From the first time we see him Frank is an intriguing presence who leaves us with all sorts of questions that need to be answered, and Kelly manages to satisfy the viewer’s curiosities very well indeed as he gradually teases out the rabbit’s links to the real world.
As mentioned earlier Mary McDonnell and Beth Grant are both excellent in their polar-opposite roles as Rose and Kitty. Despite Donnie being the centre of attention there are more well-written, memorable female parts in the film than there are male parts: as well as McDonnell and Grant, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore and Jolene Purdy all have intriguing roles; Barrymore in particular adds a certain steadiness as one of the two teachers Donnie looks to for answers. Also enjoyable is Patrick Swayze’s slimy guru, who trots out a load of old tosh about ‘fear’ and ‘love’ and has made stacks of cash from motivational books and videos, a front for his own dark and disturbing secret.
Thanks to Drew Barrymore’s production company Flower Films Donnie Darko had a limited release in the US in September 2001, despite it featuring a plane engine dropping out of the sky; as a result of the 9/11 attacks the international release was delayed by a year. On paper it looks like the kind of film that would bomb, but the protracted release schedule enabled positive word-of-mouth recommendations to spread and the film made a healthy profit of $3 million before gaining a wider audience – and even more money – when it came out on DVD. Equally funny and disturbing, and somehow idiosyncratic despite the fact it follows the conventions of all the genres it splices together, Donnie Darko is a real one off. There are flaws with the original, and sadly even more with Kelly’s director’s cut, but it’s no surprise that it has become a cult classic or that it has established such a huge legion of fans. A weird mix of gothic horror, teen angst, comedy, mystery, soap opera and science fiction, it’s as brave a debut as you’re likely to see, and good enough to make you believe that in many other tangential universes the still-young Kelly has managed to build on its success.
Directed by: Richard Kelly
Written by: Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Patrick Swayze, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Beth Grant, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, Daveigh Chase, Katherine Ross
Running Time: 113 minutes (original); 133 minutes (director’s cut)