“28 days… 6 hours… 42 minutes… 12 seconds. That is when the world will end.” – Donnie Darko
Writer/Director Richard Kelly uses various techniques to capture not only the spirit of the late 80s, but also the spirit of late 80s filmmaking in the eerie Donnie Darko. Co-produced by Drew Barrymore (who also plays a pivotal role in the film), it remains one of my favorite performances by Jake Gyllenhaal. With a tremendous soundtrack, this movie shot in just 28 days (exactly the time span of the movie’s story) and on a shoestring budget of only $5 million, it is a fascinatingly creepy study of death, fear, destiny, and God. It’s worth seeing, worth owning, and worth viewing with friends.
Donnie seems like a typical, troubled high school student, dealing with bullies and girls and family… but he also has blackouts, and sees a freakish messenger in a demented rabbit suit. The film quickly pulls back a layer of the material world and in grand Twilight Zone fashion, we realize something else is going on behind what we consider “reality”.
Frank (angelic messenger or demon bunny) pulls a presumably mentally troubled Donnie out of bed one night, and we shortly realize that if he hadn’t left his room, Donnie would have died in a freak accident. Subsequently, we experience a world in which Donnie lived through the event due to seemingly inexplicable, miraculous intervention. Like a warped revisioning of It’s a Wonderful Life, Donnie sees what life is like since he survived… and is used and guided in various ways that begin to have dire consequences. Although intentionally vague and understated, it’s a provocative film that can evoke rich discussion and endure multiple viewings.
The film provides scathing commentary on the shallow culture of self-help and the “gurus” of this genre, played with sickening efficiency by the late Patrick Swayze; it also jabs at the legalistic, Christian culture of Jesus T-shirts and judgementalism. As Donnie looks to the world for answers… his high school teachers, a counselor, and the ramblings of an allegedly addled woman, he finds himself in a mad world, desperate to know there is something comforting, something transcendent over it. He cries out, wanting to know he’s not alone, yet his public school teacher (played by Noah Wylie) can’t continue the conversation when the philosophy turns even slightly toward God.
Fixated on the Fibonacci spiral, Donnie’s other-wordly education helps him see a connectivity inherent in all things… a world in which every detail is charted, planned, predestined… it leaves the viewer wondering if it’s fair that Donnie – or we – may be “manipulated” in such a fashion. It’s the double-edged sword of being enamored with “destiny” yet not wanting to believe our lives are “predestined”. We want things to be destined when it suits us, yet simultaneously want freedom to chart our course. So… are we angry, confused, or comforted by an overseeing force that may be in every detail of our world and our experience, involved on every level yet transcendent over it in mastery… someone or something who knows the beginning, end, and everything in between?
“If God controls time, then all time is predecided…” – Donnie
Donnie finds himself stumbling through a tragic world wherein he survived death by this supernatural aid. As a result, the film is set in a temporary world which the director refers to as the “tangent universe” where things are out of order. Donnie is able to act out his darkest desires and fantasies, but at a price. Everything he does has a consequence, as the causal chain put in effect by his survival impacts nearly every character in the film. Although some of his subsequent actions are prompted by the mysterious messenger, Donnie feels a responsibility to set things right.
Beautifully complex yet simple in style, Donnie Darko is a cinema treasure. I highly recommend seeing the film with friends, realizing it leaves much unspoken and you must spend hours debriefing what is intentionally between the lines. As I can’t discuss the ultimate themes and narrative notes without obvious spoilers, we’ll look at those in the next post.