In honor of its 15th anniversary, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko plays throughout the U.S. this year starting March 30 at select theaters in a 4K restoration – in some cases in the controversial, and some say inferior, director’s cut. We do our part in celebrating this seminal cultural contribution with the following analysis.
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If films use events to shape their characters, a character’s development, emotion, and action may all be more closely called “reaction,” in the broadest sense, bordering on puncturing the very identity with which a movie character thinks of itself, if it does, in the spaces of its celluloid. What I mean is that a character in a film can no more think for itself than a figure in a painting can. Their fate is tied to that of their universe; they are drawn to it and through it, led inexorably to doom or glory by the whims of their creators. Donnie Darko, if I can parse its cultish myth after 16 years in time for its re-release, is most essentially a film that asks this question: what if the reverse were true? What if characters used events to shape their film? At the very least, what if they were aware of that power over them? Donnie is many things: a film theory vandal, an expert on Smurfette, Elwood P. Dowd seen through post-pubescent dementia and testosterone rage. But if he is only one thing, he is the least reactionary protagonist of all time – when he refers to “god’s channel,” he may be speaking not only of the forces that act on him in his world, but of those that do so in his film. His rebellion is so much more complete for it, for being as real in his terms as in ours – that is what makes him and his film the religion of a generation.
The world of Donnie Darko, like that of American Beauty, is twisted in nicety, in 1950s Americana laced with barbed-wire compliments and razorblades in its apple pie. Mom is Mom, Dad is Dad, addict is addict, not because that’s who they are or what they want, but because they don’t know how else to be. Its poetry is bleak and chilly, but between its lines there are Tupperware parties, makeup samples, dance pageants. And things would stay that way if Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) could just accept that version of Paradise.
But they play a self-help VHS and he hears a death march. They say only nice things and he hears apathy. Who are “they,” even? In his home and his world, he is a stranger. He is an “I” among “them.”
The film, as though it can’t see him (or refuses to), doesn’t react to his perspective, but it depends on it. Without him, Donnie Darko would be only as deep as its teetotalers and paper separators allow it to be. The psych-lite help vids (that we all remember from school) feel like the anthem to Donnie’s world and an anthem against anthems. When he rebels – and he can do nothing else, by nature – he has the stance of a revolutionary (who are usually vandals and murderers by the norms of their time). Donnie’s role is not to destroy Paradise by giving it a flaw, but to prove that flaws built it first. He tests and exposes it, to ask if this ever really was Eden, if a snake could come here and ruin it. For the people who wonder without wondering if the world should be different, who curse knowledge by never knowing what it is they curse, he is a hero. When he tells the gym teacher to shove her greeting-card life philosophy up her anus, his dad laughs, not the laugh of someone who had never thought of that, but of someone who simply never had the will or the words to say it. Donnie isn’t simply a rebel – he is, in a person, the will and the words by which rebellion happens.
There’s a garden wall around the world of Donnie Darko. Donnie can act freely only because of this wall, this closed system. If politics, law, or morality entered the system, the variables would change and Donnie would be little more than the miscreant his world thinks him to be. Even when change is imminent, Donnie robs the judgments of the system of their power, as at the nuclear family dinner that Donnie ruins when after casual mentions of pageants, schizophrenia, and Dukakis, he calls his sister (his actual sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal) a “fuck-ass.” Without him, as in our own world, the issues would be swallowed up by conditions. Nicety would rule philosophy. We’d have real-life superheroes to arrest Donnie for his transgressions, to counsel him back to normalcy, to pacify all those he affected, to ban the book that made him do it. We’d give them uniforms and badges and christen them “officer,” “teacher,” “counselor,” “mom.”
But director Richard Kelly never opens the system. Donnie Darko is a micro-cosmos, his word is “manipulated universe,” set in motion by Donnie’s perspective – even complex topics of universal application are significant only in how he sees them. There is a whisper of time travel, alternate dimensions, manipulated universes, but they amount only to the possibility that life on a set path can be redirected around the bullshit. Kelly uses science fiction, not as a plot device or a far-flung paradise, but as a tool to dissect the one we’re living in right now. So Kelly films with an eye for how things look to people who don’t like what they see, but who can’t explain it yet. Conversations on values (the system’s values) turn to comedy not by what they say, as in a film with a point to prove, but in how it appears to those people. Its most significant clues go unheard on the borders of our ears and eyes.
An old woman (Patience Cleveland), called “Grandma Death” without affection, wanders from her porch to her mailbox, waiting for something. A hundred years ago, or what seems it, she wrote a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel. Its hidden wisdom is the conduit of the mystery in Donnie Darko (and why, in a literalized portrayal in text, Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut spoils that mystery). Donnie stares blankly at Grandma Death’s advances, waiting for any sign of intelligence or wisdom, but fearful that it might be in there. She approaches and whispers something to him, something Macbeth must have heard from his own Grandma Deaths on the long march home to his fate, and which the depressive millennial must hear, staring blankly at a self-help video.
“Every living creature on earth dies alone.”
That penetration, quiet enough to be an in-joke among mates, makes Donnie Darko the millennial anthem, the cry of a lonely rebellion. Gyllenhaal easily becomes its icon, not by acting so much as acting out, secretly aware of the forces that draw him to action. From a view that seems handheld even when it isn’t, oppressively close but never inclusive, Kelly doesn’t torture his hero, but gives him a happy home with supportive parents (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne), a gorgeous girlfriend (Jena Malone) who likes how weird he is, an English teacher (Drew Barrymore) who gets him, and tests him with an adventure whose quirky moralizing would rival Don Quixote’s, if only we were ever sure that what Donnie sees is not real.
Donnie’s view is not of someone crazy, but of someone aloft in a careless world, an omniscience not seen in film characters unless they, as in a Mel Brooks lark, have access to the literal script. Donnie connects himself to everyone, and everyone to everyone, yet he is alone. In 2001, he reeks of the coming age: a time of infinite technology reducing relationships to unknowable formalities, of omniscient yet lonely sight, the bone-chilling solidarity of being alone in a room with the whole, unreachable world at your keyboard. His journey to perception is a flight into and above the Earth, an extravagantly lonely perspective that connects the elements of his universe, and transcends them. He is the millennial Icarus, and there’s more to that than dying alone.
The story of Icarus, as we know, is a tale of overzealousness, arrogance, hubris. A young man, endowed with flight, foolishly approaches the sun, and falls to his doom when his wings melt. But we tend to obsess over the flight; let me draw your gaze to the view of the flight. Who watched Icarus as he fell? Who knew that somewhere a man had dared approach the sun? And who dares to think that Icarus was not arrogant – that perhaps he knew he would fall, but that the very attempt was worth it? Surely the artist of the 1560s-era painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus must have dared. The artist paints a village going about its plowing and sowing. Ships, slightly out of perspective, sail nonchalantly in the bay. Icarus can be seen only as a minute detail in the lower right corner, thrashing, trailed by waxy feathers, a single angler drawing him up with the day’s catch. Icarus must have seen the busy people from a height like that of our view of the landscape, still willing to fall even into their background for a chance at the sun. Arrogance is always a focal point – for him to fall and so fade, that chance must have been more to him than it was to us.
Perhaps not even a chance, not even arrogance: just the attempt, with no hope of success, might have been the imprimatur of his spirit, worth even death. The artist, appropriately unknown, seems to read in the story of Icarus not the arrogance of his attempt, but the apathy we show toward that spirit. It’s not about Icarus daring to fall, but about us daring not to know that he did.
Donnie’s view of his world moves through this painting and this myth as easily as an apocrypha. He sees the end of the world that is the result of the swirling apathy of those around him. As he becomes aware of his path through it, becoming increasingly unknown to those going about their lives, he grasps the power of his spirit. Notice his consecration of that spirit: an ascent to the highest point he knows, from which he can see the whole manipulated universe, at which he laughs tears as though staring into the sun and seeing it for the first time. Notice too the role of his village in the end: to draw him out of the sea and wonder whatever could have happened to Donnie Darko to bring him to such an end. For reasons they can’t explain, they each wake up during the night, thinking about his fall, about something that must have happened, but which they dared not see.
Without doing a single good deed in the terms of his universe, Donnie manages to seem every bit like the film’s hero. A six-foot-tall bunny rabbit named Frank – never realistic, but like a theme park mascot as we used to see them three feet from the ground, with matted fur, eyes burnished with pedophilia – tells him the world is about to end. As in Harvey we come to ask, not why Donnie sees Frank, but why no one else does; as in the fall of Icarus, we wonder with what power he is able to turn his sight into the site of a rebellion. Should we be like him, claw, strain, secede from the system, see the rabbit? Or should we just fish him from the bay, and consider some lonely night that he might have existed and wonder why this bothers us somehow, or that it even dares to prove that we might not be, after all this, alone.
If Donnie – vandal, miscreant, dissembler, rebel – has broken us down for the last 16 years to expose the flaw in our Paradise, we owe ourselves, and the power by which we may come even in the digital age to believe in myths, to ask the question Donnie asks when someone says, “‘Donnie Darko?’ sounds like a superhero.”
He replies, “What makes you think I’m not?”
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the film.