Friday, May 25, 2012

Donnie Darko (Kelly. 2001)

"28 days... 6 hours... 42 minutes... 12 seconds. That... is when the world... will end."

Richard Kelly is a jag. If this statement upsets you I would recommend just skipping over my review of his “best” movie, the inescapable Donnie Darko. I first saw this movie when I was at the impressionable age of 15 and, I have to admit, I thought it was the deepest, coolest movie that I had ever seen. I immediately went out to the Mattoon mall and bought a copy on DVD. In what would turn out to be one of the better things that has ever happened to me, I allowed one of my female friends to borrow the movie in an attempt to trick her into thinking I was a super deep Freshman. Not only did she hate the movie, but she also lost my DVD copy. #thingsthataregood. 

Fast-forward almost 8 years and I have only watched Donnie Darko one other time since my initial viewing.  Let me tell you – I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger. Long story short, this movie sucks. It is an awful, self-involved excuse for non-secular storytelling that only leaves unanswered questions behind because Kelly had no idea how to actually answer any of them. The action plays out in a dark universe in which the teenage title character is visited by visions of a demonic sounding man in a horrifying rabbit suit who relays a timeline to the end of the world. Seems legit, doesn’t it? Kelly succeeds at building up the audience’s interest in his captivating characters and minimalist take on the obligatory love story, but he is a writer/director who lacks the ability to take advantage of the good things around him. 

The best of those good things is the man playing Donnie Darko, Jake Gyllenhaal . In this role he is able to avoid the usual teen-angst clichés that ultimately ruin “darker” teenage dramas. He is curious, obviously disturbed and emotionally unstable – but he is not an unhappy child. He manages to gain the attention of Gretchen, played by the strikingly irresistible Jena Malone, and even begins a rewarding romantic relationship. Of course, nothing can be that easy when a filmmaker is trying as hard as Kelly to be smart and cool. There are times in the film that would lead the audience to believe that Donnie is a genius. Or is he a troublemaker? Maybe he is a troubled genius. Or something like that. You never really find out. 

You are shown that Donnie is prescribed medications that he usually ignores, sees a therapist regularly and has a chronic issue with sleepwalking. A jet engine falls through the ceiling into his bedroom, but he is not hurt because, for no apparent reason, Donnie wakes up safely on a golf course after a spell of the walkies.

Donnie begins an infatuation with time travel and worm holes as per a suggestion from Frank the demon rabbit-man that leads him to realize that an important scientific work on the genre was written by the neighboring, and now senile, “Grandma Death”. This little twist in the plot is accompanied by an ever-growing mountain of questions that should be answered by the end. Instead, it just…happens. Nothing is accomplished. Nothing is answered. I’m not even sure if anything is ever ASKED! 

Aside from the truly awful plot, Donnie Darko does have some working aspects. Patrick Swayze, Mary McDonnell and Maggie Gyllenhaal are all great in their respective roles as child molester, mother and sister. Maggie and Jake are real-life siblings, and their chemistry in the dinner table scene brings a much needed comedic break to the tedious action. 

Aesthetics are undoubtedly Kelly’s strongest skill as a director. His use of darkness, settings and color are all on par with some of the greatest filmmakers in history. There is a genuinely eerie look and feel to Donnie Darko that is left unfulfilled by the nonsensical screenplay. Sometimes it is okay to emphasis style over substance, but a director has to be willing to admit that that is what he is doing. Directors from Terrence Malick to Ingmar Bergman have made movies with a “find your own meaning” mentality attached, but their movies at least provide some kind of psychological closure for the audience. They may not answer their own questions, but they give a base for the viewer to stand on. Kelly’s screenplay has no bearings. It is out on a limb from the start and remains there after the tree has been chopped down by its own devises.

Donnie Darko is a movie that blatantly refuses to answer any of its own questions. But please do not get this confused with surrealism. Surrealists will admit that they are asking silly questions. Richard Kelly thinks that his movie is important. In reality, it is nothing. I will admit that the Director’s Cut does explain a few more things, but it also adds a plethora of its own nonsense. I am hoping for a day when Kelly will just come out and admit that he has no idea how to write an ending. 

Even after all of this negativity I have not yet gotten to the part of Donnie Darko that I hate the most. I am aware of the significance she had on production and distribution, but Drew Barrymore is unrelentingly awful as an overly-concerned martyr of an English teacher. I challenge anyone to watch the scene in which her character is fired by the principal and tell me that they believe a word of it. She almost singlehandedly ruins the miniscule shred of believability that the rest of the cast is so brilliantly fighting to keep secure. 

I fully understand how unhip I seem in writing anything negative about a movie with such loyal fanboys. Honestly, I have a strong admiration for any living person who can sit through a movie that lacks even the most forgivable traits of re-watch-ability. “You’re just not smart enough to get it” says the large man in the Babylon 5 t-shirt. I assure you that there is nothing difficult about Donnie Darko. And if you actually watch the film from a critical standpoint you will realize that you have, in fact, been dooped. 

I first saw Donnie Darko when I was 15 years old. I loved it. I have a feeling that the 15-20 age range is where the lore of this lives. I thought liking it made me look smart. As it turns out, it is not a very smart movie. Rather, it is a movie that is severely damaged by a maker who refuses to admit his own shortcomings. I have no theory as to why it has become such a “cult classic” – maybe it was just the right movie at the right time. Does that make it good? No. It makes it Human Centipede

Donnie Darko: D 

*NOTE* Though it will annoy Shelby Larrick - I feel the need to point out that I have met Jake Gyllenhaal. And his teeth are very yellow. 

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