No 53 - Donnie Darko
Director - Richard Kelly
I wish to begin with a question. Why isn't In Bruges on this list? I sat down and watched In Bruges and was all prepared to write it up only to find it ISN'T on the list. A criminal omission - go see it... it is good. But badly advertised....
So, having failed on the first front I asked the mighty Richard Wyatt Hughes to select a film. He selected this film and we watched it and MY GOODNESS.... I'd forgot just how good it is.
If we ignore the sheer head-fuckery of the story for a second, I wish to begin with some of the amazing little flourishes which make this film so wonderful to watch.
Firstly... the soundtrack. There really was a lot of good music in the 80s and this film has an amazing selection of tunes. The music is good but it is helped by some really beautiful shots. The two which spring to mind are the opening shots of Donnie cycling home to the Killing Moon and the wonderful tracking shot of Donnie's school to Head Over Heels.
In fact, the tracking shot deserves more than a flippant remark. It deserves to be truly celebrated. By now, I'm hoping you've all seen the shot, either in the film or by clicking on that link up there. It is such a wonderful scene, as the camera scrolls through the school introducing all the characters who will be part of the film. As we scroll through there are a handful of characters I wish to focus on.
The first is Jim Cunningham. I have never given Patrick Swayze the most respect as an actor. I mean, he is at least partly responsible for this - and even this glorious rubbish couldn't get me to forgive him. However, he is amazing in Donnie Darko. I always found the character of Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing to be a bit of a sleaze, and therefore can't help but shake the connection of Patrick Swayze and sleazy 80s camp. However, I think that Swayze might be aware of his reputation because he plays up on it marvellously. Cunnigham is almost the pastel suit wearing embodiment of sleazy 80s camp. It is perfect. It is terrifying.
Speaking of terrifying. There is some (retrospectively) very strange casting in the bullies. Go back to the school corridor video and have a look at the bullies. They're doing coke in the lockers. Well the one with his back to the camera is Seth Rogen! Seth Rogen! In his cinematic debut! Don't believe me? Here he is again being a hilarious heckler with chief mullet bully.... How bloody odd. Have they learnt nothing from the never ending story 3... never let a comic actor play a bully!
The next character I want to talk about is Karen Pomeroy, the English teacher played by Drew Barrymore. It is not necessarily the character I deem important, but Drew herself. Firstly her voice is amazing. There is something quite hypnotic about her tone that makes it wonderful to listen to. Not quite atonal, but a strange (and beautiful) flatness to it (you're going to have to watch that steadicam school shot again, but after it this time there is a scene of Drew Barrymore delivering an English class (about 2:20 into the video). What an excellent voice)... Again, that isn't important. What is important is that Drew Barrymore was the driving force behind this film. She was the producer, she had the clout (what an ace word) to get it made. Thank you Drew. Thew.
Even Richard Kelly feels the need to homage Drew. After all... there is a scene where the characters travel by bike. At Halloween. In costume. Does it remind you of anything?
The final of the peripheral characters I wish to talk about is Grethchen Ross. Donnie Darko's girlfriend, played by the lovely Jena Malone. If you read my blog on Into The Wild you will see my rambly rambly views on Jena Malone. Let me paraphrase here by saying they are quite favourable and I do somewhat fancy Gretchen in this film. It is made stronger by the fact that Gretchen has quite a tragic element to her. Searching for love and physical affection only once bad things have happened to her....
But I feel I have been bandying the issue too much. Let us tackle to plot.
So.... roughly.... and remember, this is one man's opinion. Mine. Donnie sets up a parallel universe by dying when a jet engine falls on him. In this parallel world he survives but many other people are killed. However this sets up the situations needed for a plane to fly over his house, allowing a jet engine to fall through a worm hole and kill him in the original universe.
However. Donnie has a choice.... does he die and let all these people live? Or does he continue living in this new parallel universe.
Or is it all a side effect of his behavioural problems or the medication he is on?
Throughout this, he is given a guide... Frank - the 6ft rabbit grim reaper figure and a character Donnie kills at the end of the film (It is a Halloween costume.... this isn't Fight Club meets Harvey) - who has travelled back in time to the start of the parallel world in order to help Donnie set up the events needed to get the jet engine to fall.
Frank is a visually arresting presence, as is his soft reverberating and chilling voice. He is brilliant designed and (rightfully) became instantly cult, instantly iconic, and for many the selling point of the film "Wow! A 6ft tall demonic bunny rabbit predicts the end of the world?! Lets watch that!". The other thing I like is that scenes with Frank have a dream like progression. They are individual moments joined by slow ghostly fades. there is no order or logic to the scenes, which helps imply that it could all be a dream or hallucination.
There is a lot more that can be said about Frank... and his reveal at the end of the film is a true open mouth shocker of a moment. However, I don't want to get bogged down with the many many theories and ideas which orbit this. I just want to enjoy the film.
As we come to the end of the film, it becomes clearer and clearer that Donnie will have to die, just to stop the horrible repercussions that have spilled into his new universe.
After Donnie's death there is a truly beautiful scene. Sadly, it has been slightly musically ruined these days because Gary Jules' cover of Mad World has been somewhat overplayed. However the first time I saw this was the first time I'd heard it and I found it truly moving. (ooh did you know the music video for Gary Jules' cover was directed by Michel Gondry?! Neither did I... thank you google).
Look at the way the song is used in the film, and look at what each of the moments imply...
The film hints that those who have been involved with Donnie's choice (The Manipulated Living, to coin Richard Kelly's phrase) have been left with an echo or faint memory of what happened. This is shown the most blatantly when Frank traces the edge of his eye socket with the faint memory of a bullet hole.
But it is also seen with Jim Cunningham who wakes up sweating and crying as he has the faint memories of being caught for his paedophile ring.
It is seen with Cherita Chen, who spends the whole film being bullied until she is told by Donnie that everything will be OK. At the end of the film we see her sleeping soundly and content with a smile on her face. The first smile on her face.
It is also seen in Donnie's family. Another moment of the film's superb casting. Not only the excellent decision of casting Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Donnie and Elizabeth Darko (creating a beautiful, natural and witty sense of sibling rivalry) but also in the casting of the rest of the family. I specifically want to point out Mary McDonnell as Donnie's mum because it is Laura Roslin and I'm still in a bit of a Battlestar Geek Mode.
In fact, if you watched the Mad World scene in the video above you would have seen it end with Gretchen's interaction with Donnie's family.
It illustrates beautifully the sense of unknown, unexplained connection that they share and the idea of subconscious memories which have been touched on in the musical moment.
This film shows off Richard Kelly's ability to handle massive themes and philosophies and work them into beautiful human dramas with subtlety and restraint. And it works perfectly.
Far better than when he doesn't have to use restraint. (Though Southland Tales has the occasional brilliant comedy weird moment).
And far better than when he is not in control of the Franchise (shame that producers even think there should be a franchise on such a film....)