Deconstructing Cinema: Donnie Darko

Deconstructing Cinema: Donnie Darko

Newmarket Films

Original release: May 29th, 2004
Running time: 128 minutes

Writer and director: Richard Kelly
Composer: Michael Andrews

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Patrick Swayze,, Noah Wyle

Burn it to the ground: 01:15:27 to 01:23:50

Deconstructing Cinema: One Scene At A Time, the complete series so far

When I first heard about Donnie Darko, I thought “not another teen-angst-blah-blah movie” and didn’t watch it until Kelly’s Director’s Cut was released in 2004. To my surprise, I had ignored a masterpiece. I was bewildered as the movie looked so blatantly real and was so oppressively surreal at the same time.

I had no clue as to what that film had to say but I sensed a message, just that it seemed to be a wordless one – you either get it or you don’t.

“What is Donnie Darko about? I have no idea, at least not a conscious one. But somehow I’ve always understood it.” Jake Gyllenhaal (1)

Deconstructing Cinema: Donnie Darko

The film might see a comeback this year when the Doomsday hype will reach its heyday. Donnie Darko is nothing short of an end-of-the-world prophecy in its own right, annunciated out of a weird suburban atmosphere that intriguingly plays back the zeitgeist of the prediction-loaded 2012.

Back in 2001, Jake Gyllenhaal was 20 when he portrayed the teenage boy Donnie, and the director just five years older so both were close enough to this certain age that to most people will remain a conundrum once they have survived it.

The story feels like it has lived deep in the director’s mind for quite some time. It is monolithic and, to me anyway, a piece on Good vs. Evil and the false subordination under ideas that are not our own. Shut off from the world, the writer must have been free of outside influences – and apparently he was:

“I just kept writing. I never stopped to change anything, it just came out. It was really long, 150 pages, but it was very close to what you see in the finished film. It would never be what it is if I had stopped and second-guessed myself because I probably would have gotten scared. Everyone has that post-college meltdown where they are second-guessing every decision they make as they are taking their first uncertain steps towards adulthood. It was written in that moment.” Richard Kelly (1)

Deconstructing Cinema: Donnie Darko

Donnie is a 16-year old misfit living with his parents and two sisters in an average American town. A sleepwalker and on meds for some psychological problems, he meets Frank, a monstrous six-foot rabbit, who lures him out of the house to tell him the world will end in some 28 days. The encounter saves Donnie’s life as the engine of a jet aircraft crashes into his house where it would have killed him.

In hindsight, this scene was the obvious reason why Donnie Darko had a limited release some six weeks after 9/11 and was sent right onto the cult movie highway. In some way though this circumstance also gave the film a historical dimension as it appears that exactly the kind of Donnie’s teenage rebellion against authority is what has become politically incorrect in the years since.

During the countdown to the end of the world, rabbit Frank makes Donnie pull some destructive pranks upsetting the town’s people. Donnie appears to exhibit some superpowers which also involve his ability to see people’s near future in the form of liquid spears growing out their chests. Donnie’s contempt for a newly arrived motivational speaker gets him expelled from after-school activities, and he enjoys his outsider freedom with his new girlfriend Gretchen, a newcomer to the town as well.

Deconstructing Cinema: Donnie Darko

What follows is a scene that in itself is a masterpiece. It interweaves the three worlds of the film and, maybe now more than ever, displays the madness of each of them. The scene sends an outsider into an ultimate seclusion where he experiences a time portal; it makes him an arsonist and a saviour at the same time, whereas the rest of the world is nothing less than ignorant.

While the whole town is celebrating at a school talent show, Donnie and Gretchen go to the movies and watch “The Evil Dead”. Gretchen falls asleep in Donnie’s arms, and the teenager sees his new friend Frank sitting a few seats down in the same row.

DONNIE: Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?
FRANK: Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?
DONNIE: Take it off.

Frank takes off the rabbit head, and Donnie sees a young man with his left eye missing as it has imploded into the socket; blood is oozing from the wound.

DONNIE: What happened to your eye?

Frank says nothing.

DONNIE: Why do they call you Frank?
FRANK: It is the name of my father… and his father before me.
DONNIE: Frank… how much longer is this gonna last?
FRANK: You should already know that… I want you to watch the movie screen. There’s something I want to show you.

The movie morphs into a time portal, and then into an image of a large Tudor house.

FRANK: Have you ever seen a portal? Burn it to the ground.

Deconstructing Cinema: Donnie Darko

The large Tudor house is the home of the motivational speaker Donnie had confronted with some rather inconvenient truths. Donnie leaves Gretchen and, in a celebration of blissful rage, lays the house to fiery waste. During the ensuing investigation the owner will be exposed as paedophile.

Donnie returns to the cinema where “The Evil Dead” is about to end. Gretchen wakes up, and like her no one else in town knows what just happened…

People have argued over the nature of the narrative. Is the movie an intricate sci-fi story with lapses of time or a subjective exhibit of teen angst and a lapse into a paranoid-schizophrenic universe? Aside from Kelly’s own intentions that seem to tend more to the sci-fi narrative, Donnie Darko wouldn’t have survived its première if it really was an either-or question. In fact, neither part of the story would be viable without the other.

“The film would have collapsed and become unwatchable and pretentious had we tagged it with a single solution.” Richard Kelly (1)

Still, everything that happens in Donnie Darko seems to be part of a jigsaw puzzle of madness, skilfully playing the cause-and-effect game of a genius mind that is a frenzied one, too. In the end, Donnie has no chance to get away, he is the Chosen One to save the world.

Deconstructing Cinema: Donnie Darko

It is both cool and frightening to follow the “plan” working out however, Kelly’s film is far from being a construct. He may have had a very clear vision that in some sense could turn out to be a prophecy. He wrote an addendum, “The Philosophy of Time Travel”, a book he ascribed to one of the movie’s characters, Roberta Sparrow.

“The Primary Universe is fraught with great peril. War, plague, famine and natural disaster are common. Death comes to us all. The Fourth Dimension of Time is a stable construct, though it is not impenetrable. Incidents when the fabric of the Fourth Dimension becomes corrupted are incredibly rare. If a Tangent Universe occurs, it will be highly unstable, sustaining itself for no longer than several weeks. Eventually it will collapse upon itself, forming a black hole within the Primary Universe capable of destroying all existence.”

  • Richard Kelly, The Donnie Darko Book with introduction by Jake Gyllenhaal (2003) Faber and Faber

With Donnie Darko, Kelly told us about one of these incidents, one that’s maybe happening all the time. It forces us to truly look into our own soul and beyond the distractions of modern life – quite possibly a not so popular challenge right now but an unavoidable one I think.

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