This was the director’s debut effort and resulted in a piece of cinema that exhibited the craft of a seasoned expert. Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko shines through with subtlety and a sense of uneasiness, compelling the viewer, drawing him in. This film is fantastically thought-provoking, pushing the formulation of one’s own questions. And few opening scenes are better than a weary Jake Gyllenhaal descending a mountain road in pyjamas to “The Killing Moon” by Echo and the Bunnymen. The scene – which somehow suspends the viewer between a semi-dreamlike state and the strange nature of reality – does well in capturing the essence of the film from that point onwards.
Much of Donnie Darko’s appeal emerges from its hauntingly, apocalyptically bleak picture of American, suburban life. Within this picture of existence, a range of themes are explored and elaborated on, from school and family-life, to philosophy and religion, to time-travel and the supernatural. Everything found in the film is open for discussion and debate, and a lot of the story feels as though it has been purposefully left hovering. Certain scenes come to mind like the “foreign” student Cherita and her expressive talent performance. What did it mean? Really, Cherita was one of the most powerful characters in the film, depicting extreme isolation – in some way tying in with the film’s almost obsessive focus on dying alone.
Donnie himself is a deeply evocative figure. He is troubled by “Frank”, a figure in a bunny costume who appears to the protagonist with apocalyptic warnings. Donnie is made aware of the exact date that the world will end – according to Frank. And the accident (caused by a jet plane engine crashing through the roof of Donnie’s house) forces Donnie to come to terms with the fact that his late night stroll and encounter with the mysterious figure (of his imagination?) may have saved his life. At this time, questions of time travel, free will and the existence of God distance Donnie from reality, while his only shelter becomes Gretchen, the teenage girl that understands him.
As a satire, Kelly’s debut is perhaps blacker than most. The characters that surround the film’s protagonist represent an aspect of Americana that we all know too well, while each figure, the desperately black-and-white Kitty Farmer, the self-help guru Jim Cunningham, Donnie’s parents, form the very image of middle class sedation. Donnie Darko is very much a sarcastic critique of its setting– taking place in the late eighties, while mocking the self-improving, somewhat egotistical mentality that developed over that decade. Donnie is a smart kid, surrounded by people and rules he finds difficult to accept. When he finds himself with a weight on his shoulders, he also finds himself juggling with Frank’s prophecy and his fears of insanity simultaneously.
This is a clever film, producing a captivating viewing experience that has made its mark as a cult classic since its release in 2001. Its critical acclaim is much deserved and while some may not have the patience for its meandering philosophical pondering, others will receive it with fascination and a great deal of respect.