Dir.: Richard Kelly
R, 133 min.
Opening Friday at the Belcourt Theatre
It's not surprising that Donnie Darko has earned such a devoted cult following. People are bound to identify with a movie about a pissed-off suburban teenager grappling with apocalyptic visions: I did, and I wasn't even raised in the suburbs. Nor was I all that pissed-off an adolescent. (The apocalyptic visionsthose I've had.) It helped that the movie was a box-office disaster when released in late 2001. When viewers caught up to the movie later on DVD or cable, it became a kind of shared secret too odd and personally affecting for the mainstream.
The movie's underground appeal is so strong now that distributor Newmarket Films is rereleasing it, three years after it first appeared in theaters. The new print, opening at the Belcourt on Friday, is filmmaker Richard Kelly's director's cut, which reinstates scenes and sequences deleted from the original release. Plenty of movies pander to our gut-level identification with teen angst, but Donnie Darko packs a lot into its two-plus hours, navigating unerringly between comedy and pathos as it spins the myth of a modern-day messiah.
The title character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, deals with all the usual crap most kids encounter: parents, stupid teachers, bullies, awkward romance. Only he's also been called upon to undertake some kind of monumental duty. In the opening scene, he wakes up alone on a deserted stretch of road overlooking a cliff, with no idea how he wound up there. The next night, he crawls out of bed, somnambulant, to find a man in a bunny suit telling him that the world will end in less than a month. To say anything more than that Donnie has entered what the movie calls the "tangent universe" would be to take away from the thrill of getting sucked into its ominous tangle.
Writer-director Kelly works bitingly funny dialogue, a science-fiction plot, some typical teen-movie tropes and unusually strong acting into a moving philosophical inquiry. The narrative hinges on time travel and parallel universes, and it's just mysterious enough that it begs repeat viewings. Each time, you're likely to connect the threads a little more and to pick up on subtle (and not so subtle) movie and pop-culture references, such as the thematically apt movie playing at the hero's hometown theater: The Last Temptation of Christ.
It sounds pretty heavy and overwhelmingand it is, in the best ways. Yet the movie's also grounded in day-to-day realities, the rituals of high school and family life. Donnie Darko nails its late-'80s milieu, both on the resonant soundtrack of MTV faves and in several perfectly pitched exchanges, including a family dinner discussion about politics and a left-field discourse on the Smurfs. At the same time, the movie never stoops to nostalgia. However much it might speak to anyone who came of age 15 or 20 years ago, it's just as likely to engage someone emerging from teenhood now. And it has, judging from the countless online discussions, blog entries and fan sites on the Web.
When released, Donnie Darko instantly struck a chord with viewers feeling ill-at-ease in the midst of President Bush's first term and his response to 9/11. Though it wasn't necessarily made with this intent, it was easy to see the movie as a response to the kind of lip-service moral values that would have Americans uniformly bowing our heads in prayer while we deny our fellow citizens basic rights and bomb the shit out of people thousands of miles away. For anyone choosing to find them, there are plenty of comparisons to be drawn between Donnie and Jesus Christ: both are charismatic iconoclasts who speak truth to power and are pulled ineluctably toward a moment of reckoning and redemption.
Kelly himself would be loath to see his movie strictly in Christian termsthe writer-director instead cites the writings of Joseph Campbell as a touchstonebut the fact is that Donnie and the rest of us live in a Christian milieu. The movie makes this wincingly clear through a self-help guru (an oily Patrick Swayze) whose laughably lame curriculum gets picked up by one of Donnie's teachers. We don't even need to see the teacher's "God is Awesome!" T-shirt or catch her pitifully judgmental gaze to figure out who we're supposed to side with here.
If Donnie Darko has a weakness, it's that these bad guys are all too transparent, too readily set up to be taken down with a simple turn of the plot. But this is a teen's world, and Kelly's characters are supposed to be archetypal, the kind of people any 16-year-old would instinctively rail against. It would bother me if it didn't ring so damned true. My high school, at least, had a teacher who didn't see anything wrong with preaching in the classroom.
Even so, most of Kelly's suburban denizens are sympathetic, however archetypal they seem. Even a one-dimensional character like Cherita Chen (Jolene Purdy), an overweight, stolidly shy girl who serves as a stand-in for every kid who gets mercilessly picked on in school, is extended a little grace and dignity. Her tiny moment of triumph is touching and genuine, played as awkwardly as it would happen in real life. Among the movie's ensemble, singling out any one actor is tough, since the cast is uniformly strong, save for Drew Barrymore as Donnie's earnest English teacher. (She served as executive producer, which may explain why she's even in the movie at all.)
But if one person can be said to represent the movie's soul, it's Mary McDonnell, who gives an astonishing performance as Rose, Donnie's mom. It's McDonnell who gives the movie palpable emotional depth, who makes it cohere the same way a mother holds a family togetherthat is, without bringing attention to herself. In the lines of her face alone, she conveys all the weary anxiety of a parent who can't figure out how to reach her increasingly distant, disturbed son. For every scene, though, where we see that quiet worry in her crow's-feet and tightened jaw, nowhere is McDonnell more heartbreaking than at the movie's crushing conclusion, where she stands stoically smoking a cigarette.
Granted, Donnie is who we're supposed to identify with most. In a lot of blog entries, fans talk about how the movie speaks directly to them, and it's understandable, given just how effectively Kelly pulls us in. If Donnie is a surrogate for Jesus, then he makes it possible for us to feel all the dread that we should feel whenever we hear the story of the Passion. It's a little too easy to think of Jesus as a symbol, or a guy with a beard who lived 2,000 years ago. But Donnie, in Gyllenhaal's immensely appealing performance, is an awful lot like us, even if he is funnier and more fearless and brilliant than we'll ever be.
In Donnie Darko's closing scenes, Kelly affirms with just a few poignant shots and a beautiful choice of music that Donnie is simply the vehicle through which we're able to grasp everyone else's humanity. And if it weren't exactly obvious before, he lets us know that even the most laughable character is emotionally complex. It's cathartic to watch Donnie be the rebel with a cause, but Kelly's debut wouldn't be nearly as meaningful if it didn't wind to such a generous, contemplative conclusion. It's one thing to save humanity; it's quite another to consider it worthy of being saved.
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