Sunday 12 November 2006

Donnie Darko

Oh, those Eighties. You'd think that they had vanished forever, since the entire cultural output of this time was probably the first to be so briefly relevant, with such a few number of artists and films still listen- and watchable. Of course this trend continued well into the Nineties, although I always understood grunge and riot as a reaction to the shallowness of the Eighties, to everything Patrick Bateman talks about in his memorized reviews about his own music collection, while torturing his victims (has anybody else taken this as one of the most ironic moments of the film?).
When "Donnie Darko" came out in 2001, first-time director Richard Kelly was only 26 – he had been 13 in 1988, the year his movie is set, and probably grew up listening to The Cure, Joy Division and Duran Duran, watching movies like "Breakfast Club". The way the movie handles its setting resembles that of the equally loved "Freaks and Geeks" – the point of time is like an undercurrent. The presidential election is discussed, putting the movie into a political tradition – it was the last election won by a Republican before Bill Clinton became president, the year Bush Sr. won against Dukakis.
The movie tackles topics which come across as both individually relevant and socially determining – without the conservative backlash pictured, it would have been inconceivable, this is the social structure determining Donnie's own misery. In the beginning of the movie, he is a sleepwalking teenager who takes pills, possibly against passive-aggressive behaviour, who is too insightful for his own good. His family can't really handle him, although both Elizabeth Darko, played by the always enlightening Mary McDonnell (once again I thought that the great thing about her as an actress is that she seems to lack all the cliché expressions, always giving her laugh a certain unsettling ambivalence) and Eddie Darko (Holmes Osborne) provide a cosy nest for their three children, older sister Elizabeth (played by Jake Gyllenhaal's sister Maggie, and the movie really profits from the fact that they are actual siblings), who seems to enjoy going back to her Eighties roots, playing a graduate waiting for her admission to Harvard, and the baby of the family, Samantha (Daveigh Chase). Donnie does not grow up in a difficult, unloving family, actually, we never get an explanation on why he once burnt down a house.
The movie starts with a break, a horrible event completely contrasting with the atmosphere of sleep-walking melancholy established in the very first scene, when Donnie wakes up on a picturesque hill to the sounds of Echo and The Bunnymen's The Killing Moon" (Kelly decided to change the track in the director's cut of the movie, which was a mistake in my opinion – after all, the song recalls "Gia", where it was used in a similar scene involving a dreamlike ride on a motorbike). A jet engine comes crashing through the house of the Darko's, landing on Donnie's empty bed. A giant rabbit named Frank has previously told him to leave the house and that the world is going to end in 26 days, and such he wakes up on a golf course the next day, coming back to his house and family. The event establishes the parapsychological element of the movie – somehow, the turbine has come out of nothing and created an instability in the universe, a parallel-universe, in which Donnie Darko becomes some kind of a prophet, destined to perform tasks given to him by Frank. He floods the school, uncovers that the weird, motivational speaker in fact is a paedophile (Patrick Swayze probably plays his best role here, bringing the Eighties back by his mere presence, and probably being the character most symbolic of those late cold war years – despite Donnie's protests, he is convinced that the entire world can be explained in a black-and-white fear-and-love scheme), and finally learns about time travel (his physic's teacher, played by Noah Wyle, can't really help him, since the school is a confessional one, and the philosophising about human destiny and whether free will exists is against the strict curriculum). In the end of the movie, the world ends, the parallel universe falls apart, and Donnie decides that there is only one way to end his misery, and probably save his girlfriend (Gretchen, played by Jena Malone) and his mother and sister, and his elder sister's boyfriend (who turns out to be Frank) – when he returns in time to the night the jet plane hit the house, Donnie decides to stay in bed.
The movie is too complex to be explained in one review, it gave way to several philosophical discussions about god, the universe and the rest – I was always more concerned with the implications about Donnie's psyche and his situation than with the parapsycholical elements. The movie is at its best when it contrasts Donnie's ability to understand the complexity of human emotions with the simplicity, even stupidity and conformity of some of the adults surrounding him: there is Patrick Swayze's character and a gym teacher supporting his idea fanatically, both completely resistant to Donnie's beautifully crafted monologue about how "There are other things that need to be taken into account here. Like the whole spectrum of human emotion. You can't just lump everything into these two categories and then just deny everything else!" The absurdities of the conservative school becomes most obvious when the uber-religious gym teacher protests that the English teacher (Drew Barrymore in a completely unusual role, which she probably chose herself, given that she also produced the movie) is teaching Graham Greene's "The Destructionists" – a short story about a group of teenagers who decide to wreck the house of an old man because they understand that destruction is a kind of creativity (a topic also tackled in the movie itself). Mrs Karen Pomeroy is helpless and loses her job, everything remaining to her is screaming "FUUUUCK" as she leaves the school building. Donnie Darko is portrayed as a melancholic character (both visually and by the genius soundtrack), who is trapped in a conservative, complex world which has no place for a person like him. In the end, he might fall victim to either the big plan which subverts the free will (ironically, Donnie's mother is reading "It" at the beginning of the movie, a novel about a group of children who are basically used in the fight of the good against the evil by godlike beings), or to his own schizophrenia.

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