Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Donnie Darko

Do you have a favorite movie? Something you can watch over and over again, and find something new to love each time? Well, in a Bizarro world kind of way (or perhaps the alternate dimension Donnie explores in the film), I feel the same way about Donnie Darko, except each time I find some new tidbit that fills me with loathing. I've seen the film only one and a half times and watched it another with the director's commentary, yet I've come no closer to gleaning a point from this jumbled mess of psychological and philosophical clichés. I would have preferred never to watch this again as long as I live, and perhaps to turn to alcoholism one day to purge the final remnants from my memory, but my film teacher couldn't find a copy of The Usual Suspects to buy or rent so I had to pack my bags for my third trip into Hell.

The protagonist of Donnie Darko is an unbalanced teenager living in suburban Virginia in 1988. He's heavily medicated, he sees a shrink and he's so brilliant that he just lazes in his classes out of boredom. He has two sisters, Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Samantha (Daveigh Chase) and two loving but concerned parents, Rose and Eddie (Mary McDonnel and Holmes Osborne), who try to understand Donnie but cannot.

One night Donnie wakes up to a mysterious voice leading him out of the house. On the lawn, he meets a man named Frank, who wears a perverse bunny suit and tells him the world will end in 28 days. That same night, a jet engine falls on Donnie's bedroom while he's out. The next morning he returns to the house, and his parents greet him so casually it's as if he went out for a few minutes to go get milk. Here's where the problems start.

Despite some serious talent on-screen, from McDonnel to both Gyllenhaals (and keep a look out for a young Seth Rogen), the acting in this film is laughable. Jake Gyllenhaal just looks sullen the whole time so that when he smiles you'll react (you won't), while Drew Barrymore, who plays a teacher unafraid to teach outside the curriculum, kills every scene she's in with her atrocious performance. I understand that the character speaks in a thickly ironic tone, but the utterly blank look and feel of the character do nothing but suck the life from the film. And she's supposed to be the fun teacher.

As for dialogue, Kelly gets laughs on the back of the tried and true method of "Just say random things and people will chuckle" rule of anti-comedy. There's a Chinese girl who shouts "Chut up!" whenever someone speaks to her (usually to insult her), but really she has a crush on Donnie so that gives her depth, I suppose. Bullies shout crass nonsense at every turn. At a dinner scene at the beginning Donnie and Elizabeth trade non-sequitur barbs at the table. All of it got a chuckle out of my classmates, but the film did not earn them; the recent Gran Torino used similar tactics to get a rise out of the audience, but at least that became genuinely funny after a fashion.

Plot-wise--oh, who am I kidding? There isn't one. Kelly uses Donnie's survival to open up an alternate universe, as in the real world Donnie would have died in the engine accident. From this comes a number of highly complex themes, which are promptly handled with child-like simplicity. Eventually Donnie inquires about time travel, and we can smell the beginning of the end.

Perhaps if Kelly had stuck to these themes he might have made sense of them, but instead he tries to cover everything under the sun. There's an old lady who lives on the outskirts of town, so riddled with dementia that everyday she stands in the middle of the road and routinely checks her mailbox to see if she has any post. A religious teacher attempts to ban books from the curriculum and forces students to watch a self-help video series offered by a charismatic yet immediately off-putting salesman named Bill Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). She also runs the dance team Samantha works on, and frequently criticizes Rose's parenting. A girl (Jena Malone) transfers to the school and falls for Donnie, who falls for her.

All of these strands offer interesting potential, yet Kelly leads them along with uncertainty, as if working without a script, only to crush them all together at various points in ways that offer no insight into the characters and no real resolution of narrative. We learn that the mad old woman wrote a book about time, Donnie's relationship with Gretchen is sweet but pointless, and Rose covers for the uptight Miss Farmer even though she had no real reason to do so.

The only satisfactory moment of the entire film comes in Donnie's rebellion against Miss Farmer and Bill Cunningham. When he calls Bill the Antichrist it's the first real emotional release of the film. Then we learn a secret about Bill that adds nothing to the story other than to confirm our suspicions that he was not to be trusted.

The ending lacks emotional resonance because, like Donnie, we know it's coming. This does necessarily mean that emotion could not be wrung from the event, but Kelly treats it like a surprise and thus does not go out of his way to make it powerful. In the end Donnie meets his fate because he must, not because he's grown or matured, and it offers no sense of closure for the character. His actions set the world right, but we now know things about the characters that makes them not worth saving.

I did try even after my miserable past with this film, to examine it closer than ever before, to see if I could connect the dots and maybe see whatever it is its supporters see in it (the usual response I get is "because it's awesome!"). Yet the only thing I discovered this time is how cheap and punny the music selection is. Using music, even contemporary pop songs, to establish moods and characters is great, but Kelly seems to read the title of the song and/or the lines of its chorus and play that over a relating event as if it encapsulates the mood of the scene.

Also lacking is any skill with a camera. Kelly tries his hand at pseudo-experimental flourishes, some of which (the speed of the frames) relate to the themes of the film but nevertheless distract and annoy. He seems to loop shots out of laziness, not emphasis. He's not a terrible director, but I'd rather see a film in which the camera barely moves than one in which it calls attention to itself, especially if it's not doing anything that impressive.

All in all, this is a muddled journey through Richard Kelly's head; it's like watching a chalkboard where he's outlined the themes of the film he wants to make rather than a finished product. Our teacher told us to look out for rounded characters in the film, and I honestly can't pick one. Donnie becomes a little three-dimensional when he admits he's afraid of being alone, but that's never truly built upon, even in his relationship with Gretchen. Because these themes never pay off, the film lacks flow and plays like a disjointed series of shots. Kelly wants to craft an existential quandary with these themes but opts not to show us his metaphysical musing but to tell us bluntly.

Yet the most maddening aspect of the film is how much it overflows with potential. Somewhere, buried deep in Kelly's inability to link everything, lies a real story, one that can utilize at least most of the themes he presents in a way that will work. His follow-up, Southland Tales, which is even worse than this, has the same potential, and that will keep me interested in the director. One of these days Richard Kelly is going to figure out how to make all the ideas floating around in his head work, and I can't wait to be there when he does.

Now, I don't like focusing solely on the negative unless something is truly without artistic merit, so here's some food for thought: Mary McDonnell absolutely owns her role. She has little to do but she walks away with the entire film as the mother who wants so desperately to connect with her son, but never presumes to change him. If only we got more characters like her this film might have been worth watching. But the real delight of this viewing is that, as I looked around the room, all these kids who'd been so happy to watch the film were fast asleep. Now that they actually had to pay attention they were bored out of their skulls. My faith in humanity has been somewhat restored.


  1. I'll be surprised if this comment goes up before the horde of Darko fans catch wind of the fact that a negative review of their religion has surfaced somewhere on the internet. Don't get me wrong - I love the movie. Not a movie I recommend to everyone and must watch at least once a month, but I think the movie is great. I just think it's great to see a review that's seemingly more aimed at the performances and construction of the film than at its audience. Like them, however, I do think that people who dislike the movie are "missing something," but I don't think it's a bad thing. Personally, I love the fact that it's the type of scifi story that isn't usually told in big movies with largely subdued performances to sell the tone of a tangent world that has to end. Just my two cents.

  2. You clearly don't understand this movie. It's a shame because some of your other reviews are quite likeable.