In praise of Donnie Darko
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What's it's all about, Donnie? Was this cult-classic a time-travel saga or a Lynch-ian expedition into madness...?
Why am I writing this? Because “they made me do it!”
Coming out of nowhere with a masterpiece Richard Kelly has had problems delivering on ever since, Donnie Darko is one of the most beguiling and fascinating films cinema has ever given us and I love it. But what is it that makes Donnie so unique and adored by many?
Firstly, Kelly may have lost a few fans with the bizarre Southland Tales, but hit form again with recent puzzler The Box. Few directors though will have impressed with their debut as much as this man, and there’s little doubt it marked him out as a talent to watch. And boy, were we watching.
Secondly the characters themselves make Donnie so brilliant. Set around a typical family in typically small-town America, we soon learn that Donnie and co are anything but run-of-the-mill. A mentally unstable son, rebellious older daughter and precocious dancer living under the same roof are bound to cause trouble. Add to the mix some great casting in Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle as hard-working teachers and the late Patrick Swayze as a corrupt motivational speaker who takes too keen an interest in the kids, and you’ve got a terrific mix. That Beth Grant’s Kitty Farmer steals the show as some kind of PE teacher/loony church leader/dance instructor mom hybrid says a lot for the supporting roles.
Then there’s the plot, which even after repeated viewings, I can’t truly nail down. It’s time-travel, yes? So the plane whose engine crashes into the house is the same one carrying Donnie’s mum and sister a month later, which should kill him but doesn’t, meaning he has to spend a month righting wrongs and getting back to be in the wrong place at the right time is a good stab. But that’s only a fraction of the story – there’s just so much in there. Love, Youth, Education, Corruption – and a giant rabbit, all without the use of CGI.
In addition, crammed with some deliciously quotable lines and a keen ear for dialogue, Kelly’s script sparkles as much as the teeny dancers. Who wouldn’t laugh at Kitty’s earnest plea to Donnie’s mum, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion,” or Donnie replying to his sister’s insult, “Exactly how does one suck a fuck?” Even better is Kitty’s outburst in the Principal’s office at Donnie’s behaviour during a lesson – “He asked me to forcibly insert the lifeline exercise card into my anus!”
"Never has a film made so much sense and yet mystified in equal measure, and that’s exactly why I love it so much"
Penultimately, ever since Paul Thomas Anderson chose to use all three minutes of Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” Magnolia, it’s been a sort of indie-quirk to do the same, and so aside from the great 80’s tunes that accompany the film – Tears for Fear’s “Head Over Heels” being the best - it’s Gary Jules’ piano-led version of “Mad World” that really sticks in the brain. Which brings us to the ending.
Having shown us a glimpse into the past for the final three minutes, Kelly’s film slots itself nicely into the “Ambiguous Endings” Hall of Fame along with the final moment of Lost in Translation. Pulling up at Donnie’s house, his girlfriend for the past month, Gretchen, sees ambulance crews wheeling a dead Donnie into the vehicle. Of course she’s not lived that month yet, so she wouldn’t know…oh wait…she waves at Donnie’s mum, who waves back and… Perhaps memories live on after all – even before they’re made.
Never has a film made so much sense and yet mystified in equal measure, and that’s exactly why I love it so much. There can be no sequel, a prequel perhaps but this is one film that stands alone way above the others.
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