Does Donnie Darko Hold Up?

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On its tenth anniversary, we reassess the cult phenomenon.

Donnie Darko Does Not Hold Up
By Rick Paulas

When Donnie Darko first came out ten years ago, it earned a scant half-a-million dollars, covering about one-ninth of its budget. It wasn't until DVDs of the film started getting passed around college campuses and high school lunchrooms the following spring that its underground cult audience was unearthed, eventually leading to a 2004 director's-cut theatrical re-release and phrases like "Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion" entering the pop-culture vernacular. But cult films like this are a tricky bunch. When one that's unique and stylistically impressive — as Darko is on both accounts — sneaks through by way of word-of-mouth raves rather than multi-million-dollar publicity campaigns, it's not always held to the same standards normal movies are; their underdog status gives fans a parental sense of ownership that lets inconsistencies slide. A decade later, it's time to rewatch Darko with clear eyes to see if, actually, it's worthy of its reputation. Spoiler: it's not. Here's why.

1. Donnie Darko is a terrible protagonist.

With his puffed-out frowny face, slumped shoulders, and sweatshirt hood pulled halfway over his head, Donnie Darko's brooding, mad-at-the-world type is so familiar, you could throw a protractor down a high-school hallway and hit a dozen of these gloomy Eeyores. At this point in his career, it's clear that Jake Gyllenhaal can act, so he's not to blame. Instead, blame goes to director Richard Kelly, who apparently wanted the hero of his movie to alternate his moods between brooding, sleepwalking brooding, under-hypnosis brooding, smiling brooding, and then regular brooding again. And make no mistake about it, this isn't Kelly creating a compelling anti-hero. We're supposed to identify with Donnie.

2. The story needed an editor.

Darko feels like a debut film, in that it's clearly the work of someone taking a pile of disconnected ideas he's had over the years (liquid darts shooting from people's chests, an old lady whose life consists of checking her mail, a creepy rabbit costume, a mystery jet engine falling from the sky) and shoehorning them into a single story; who knows when or if they'll get another shot at a movie? For David Lynch, this "everything is connected" form of filmmaking works, because he's dealing with emotional states rather than plot. But in Darko, these are all plot devices thrown in because they're cool rather than because they make sense.

Donnie Darko's brooding mad-at-the-world type is so familiar, you could throw a protractor down a high-school hallway and hit a dozen of these gloomy Eeyores.

3. The nostalgic setting is manipulative.

The only reason Darko's set in 1988 is because Kelly wanted it to be. He doesn't have anything interesting to say about the era, despite critics trying to attach political symbolism in their postmortems. He doesn't even have anything biographical to say, like George Lucas did in American Graffiti. The setting is simply Kelly's excuse to dig into his synth-pop collection, let characters say "Dukakis" a bunch of times, and have bullies snort coke in hallways between class periods.

4. Drew Barrymore is insufferable.

Barrymore, also a producer on the movie, plays Donnie's airy high-school English teacher. During her few scenes, she introduces the class to Graham Greene (and, thusly, Symbolism!), screams out "fuck!" after getting fired before sharing a Moment Of Connection with the foreign exchange student who gets it, and tells a new student to "sit next to the boy you think is the cutest." I'd go on, but I don't think I have to.

5. The complex plot is muddled.

The bread-and-butter of any time-travel story is the cause-and-effect paradox the hero has to overcome. Marty McFly accidentally keeps his father from meeting his mother (cause) which means he's in danger of not being born (effect). Now, bear with me here, because even if you've seen Donnie Darko, this is confusing: Darko ends with Donnie committing suicide by traveling back in time to willfully get crushed by a jet engine that fell through his bedroom twenty-eight days earlier. With his death, Gretchen (Jena Malone) never travels down the path to her eventual death; the unearthing of Patrick Swayze's kiddie-porn dungeon — great band name, by the way — keeps Donnie's mother off a flight that presumably crashes; and Donnie doesn't kill Frank, the guy in the creepy rabbit costume, by shooting him in the eye.

Which is all well and good. If Donnie wants to play sacrificial lamb, that's in line with his woe-is-me character. But the whole reason he gets to make that decision in the first place is that the ghost of Frank (or future ghost of Frank?) got him to sleepwalk out of harm's way in the first place. So, unless we're dealing with one of those reality-seeping-into-a-dream-state-in-the-moments-before-a-character's-death, as in Mulholland Drive (and there's no indication we are), then Donnie only has a choice to get pancaked by the jet engine because… he was saved by the ghost of someone from the other timeline? Or something like that?

6. Richard Kelly's made only bad work since.

When Darko hit cult status, Richard Kelly was included with names like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry on the list of brilliant up-and-comers in the post-Tarantino generation of filmmakers. But we may have elevated his legend a bit prematurely. Since Darko, Kelly's made Southland Tales, an incomprehensible mess that can be applauded only for actually getting green-lit, and The Box, a paint-by-numbers re-imagining of an old Twilight Zone episode. Besides that, nothing. Oh, unless you want to include his producing the adaptation of Tucker Max's I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. That, in itself, should be enough to make us second-guess the idea that we were in the hands of an expert filmmaker during Donnie Darko. And with that, the prosecution rests.

Next: "As with many real-life cranky teenagers, there's a bright, sweet, curious kid in there…"

Donnie Darko Does Hold Up
By Peter Malamud Smith

I love Donnie Darko, but I'm not going to claim it's perfect. Rick, I'll go with you on a few of your points — Drew Barrymore is bad, the plot is confusing, and Kelly's later work has been less than inspiring. All granted. (Especially on Barrymore. I've never been able to watch this putatively serious scene without laughing.)

Donnie Darko features a loving family that's struggling as hard to understand their son's demons as he is himself.

But I've got to contest the claim that Donnie's a terrible protagonist. I think he actually gets a remarkably nuanced and sympathetic characterization. He's a cranky teenager; he gets in trouble at school, argues with his sisters, and calls his mother a bitch. But, as with many real-life cranky teenagers, there's a bright, sweet, curious kid in there, trying to make sense of himself. He treats the bullied foreign exchange student with kindness. He engages his teachers with real interest and tells his girlfriend that antiseptics were the most important development in human history. And he shares a moment of shame and vulnerability with his mom ("How's it feel to have a wacko as a son?" "It feels wonderful") that I find really moving.

Actually, in contrast to the standard angsty-teen movie, in which the clueless parents represent all that's bad about authority, Donnie Darko features a loving family that's struggling as hard to understand their son's demons as he is himself. (I love Donnie's dad barely suppressing a laugh in this scene.) Those empathic characterizations set Darko apart from your average teen movie. (Not like it needed help, I guess.)

As far as the setting, to me, Donnie Darko is set in the '80s not for one reason but for the uncountable psychic resonances anyone who grew up in that era will feel while watching it. All that Spielbergian footage of suburbs at night and teens on bicycles sends strange echoes through my soul. Plus, the Reagan-era backdrop points up the theme of searching for a complex truth amidst a lot of oversimplified dogma. (I'll admit that the Kitty Farmer love/fear stuff is a little broad, but it works if you look at it through Donnie's subjectivity; if you didn't know — or didn't think you knew — authority figures like that when you were a teenager, you were hardly a teenager at all.)

It's a rare movie that has this kind of emotional palette, veering from frightening to heartbreaking to funny to sublime. Sometimes it's all of those at once, as in the slow-motion footage of Sparkle Motion dancing to "Notorious." Donnie Darko's pretty singular. You could call the story overstuffed, but you could also take it as an embarrassment of riches, managing to incorporate everything from highbrow themes of religion, sacrifice, and mortality, to jokes about Hungry Hungry Hippos. Rick, you say this works for Lynch because he's dealing with emotional states rather than plot; I'd say both filmmakers deal with both, and if Donnie Darko doesn't seem to come together logically, I think it comes together emotionally in a very satisfying way. (Actually, Kelly's director's cut spends a lot more time explaining the nitpicky little details of the plot, and it doesn't work nearly as well.) However you interpret the film's time-travel metaphysics, the final scenes are devastatingly sad. Growing up is tough, you know? Not everyone makes it through. (Granted, few are crushed by jet engines, but take it as a metaphor.)

Lastly, the soundtrack is awesome. Any movie that starts with a kid biking home to the sound of "The Killing Moon" doesn't need to do much else to win my love — but luckily and improbably, the rest of Donnie Darko is just as bewitching. It's a rare original, and I'd take it, whatever its flaws, over a hundred films that make more left-brained sense.