The very tall and very smart Erik Jaccard returns to 10YA this week with his re-view of Donnie Darko, which asks us to question the narration of reality and why we are wearing that stupid human suit.
Written and Directed by Richard Kelly
Though I’m loathe to start two reviews in the same year with the same comment (see my review of Memento, March 2011), I’d say that one of the more interesting things about Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko is the way it tends to provoke predictably polarized reactions in people. Some love it, some hate, and some are just confused by it, preferring either to write it off for this very reason or simply enjoy it in bits and pieces without worrying too much about whether or not it makes sense. This is typical of films that subvert standard narration through experiments with time and non-linear plot structures, often leaving viewers wondering just what happened. Donnie Darko is ultimately one of those films — a quirky, quasi-surrealist take on indie filmmaking, a teenage drama wrapped inside a quasi-sci-fi package, a quasi-intellectual exploration of space and time. The conscious overuse of the quasi- prefix here is not meant as an insult, but rather as a way of putting a finger on the main reason the film can seem a bit flabbergasting and incomprehensible to some — it’s difficult at times to pinpoint exactly what we’re meant to be focusing on because no one of these intersecting thematic or genre strands are ever given full attention.
Are we supposed to foreground the film’s engagement with consciousness and time, wrapped clumsily inside a pop science framework, or should we privilege its critique of late ‘80s materialism, affluence, and suburban disaffection? From an audience perspective this will always be one of the film’s major flaws: at times it seems as though the film is trying too hard to be clever at the expense of consistency. As a result, viewers can end up resenting the film more than actively disliking it, precisely because it dangles the pretence of a deeper secret or pot o’ gold at the end of the plot or content rainbow, but always only quasi-delivers. I’m sure I believed in the secret underneath it all on first viewing, if only because I’m wont to believe in such things, as they give me an excuse to play cinematic detective. Actually, being honest, I’ve always been excited to the point of titillation by confusion and therefore loved Donnie Darko the first time I watched it, even if just because it gave me a chance to try to figure out what I’d missed, what had actually happened, and what it all meant. Though I can’t deny I still have a penchant for piecing together byzantine plot structures (I won’t tell you how much mental energy I expended trying to figure out the Lost finale), I found on this viewing that I was able to learn a great deal more about the film — and myself — by simply shifting my frame of reference.
I’ll get into that in a moment, but first let’s deal with the plot. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a typical teenager: angsty, rebellious, angry, and confused. He lives in an affluent DC suburb with a standard liberal, upper middle-class family, resides in what can only be described as a mansion, attends private school, and otherwise has a pretty sweet life, at least on paper. However, as we learn early on, Donnie is more ‘troubled’ than most: he wanders around town at night in a somnambulant haze, waking in odd locations for reasons he can’t always recall. More frighteningly, he is prone to hallucinations, in one of which he is told by a tall being in a macabre bunny suit that the world will end in just under a month. While certainly strange, this type of thing is hardly unique. Teenage angst, the dark underbelly of suburbia, and even psychosis are all relatively explicable components of our consensual reality. We’ve seen them treated in film before and no one need be bothered by their presence given that they are at the very least diagnosable conditions we can know and examine (the fact that we have words for them attests to this to a degree). However, to make matters worse, while out on this particular nocturnal stroll a jet engine mysteriously falls from the sky and lands on Darko manor (and, specifically, on Donnie’s room). Soon Donnie is following the destructive dictates of Frank the Rabbit, creating a kind of controlled chaos, all the while growing convinced that he has fallen into a kind of timeslip, of whose existence only he is aware.
It is this irruption of the bizarre into the ‘real world’ which creates the narrative’s most obvious plot tension, as well as the question which looms over the remainder of the film. How can we explain the intrusion of this inexplicable event into our rather mundane story? The film unrolls enough thread for you to follow this question quite a ways down the proverbial rabbit hole. We are treated to a gratuitous shot of Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and offered a few references to theoretical physics meant to establish that — theoretically — time travel, and therefore our plot, is indeed possible. At the same time, when you think about it, trying to explain the science of Donnie Darko is about as pointless as trying to explain the ‘science’ of Inception, with its magical chemical compounds and IV dream-boxes. In fact, chasing explanations in Donnie Darko is about the least interesting thing you can do. But whereas the point of Inception seems to be to simply sit back and marvel at cinematic virtuosity, I would argue that Donnie Darko might offer us something else.
It was at this point that I stopped and asked myself why I was even interested in explaining the intrusion of the fantastic into a mundane world. To do so is to foreground the fantastic part of the story, which, given its quasi-scientific premise, might as well be — as Drew Barrymore’s English teacher notes in the film — a Deus Ex Machina, the so-called ‘magic of storytelling’. It is also to neglect the world into which this fantastic event intrudes, to accept and naturalize it, to privilege one kind of fantasy over another, the latter fantasy being our own world. No, the science and fantasy elements that would have us recognize films and place them in a ‘correct’ category depending what kind of consumer we are amount to little more than red herrings in Donnie Darko. Why is it more truthful to ask for an explanation of a bizarre event into a ‘normal’ world than it is to ask for an explanation for the presence of a ‘normal’ teenage boy in a bizarre world? Why ask whether we are dealing with real, honest to gosh time travel when we could simply be looking through the eyes of a boy for whom the experience of the ‘normal world’ feels like time travel? In asking this question I don’t meant to imply that ‘our world,’ whatever kind of unstable consensus that phrasing implies, is somehow unreal or fantastical. In fact, in order to explain what I mean I have to return to the actual social, human bedrock of the film.
For all its engagement with the timeless discourse of the modern disgruntled teenager or, god forbid, the human quest for meaning, Donnie Darko is an extremely grounded film, both in terms of time and place. The film’s choice of setting (the DC burbs), time (the run-up to the Presidential Election of ’88), and frame of cultural referentiality (We Love the ‘80s!) seem to lock it into a specific moment, something like two steps removed from the nearly amoral universe of a Brett Easton Ellis novel. It seems too coincidental to me that a film about a young man looking at the adult world and realizing he doesn’t want to reside there is set at the height of the materialist decade, the ‘me first’ era of self-help, self-medication, and self-promotion. This is the ‘cult of me,’ exemplified in the film by Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), a motivational self-help guru whose philosophy, amusingly titled ‘Attitudinal Beliefs,’ promotes inner transformation, choice, and change. At the same time, Cunningham and his acolytes actually promote little choice or change at all by — as Donnie points out — clumsily lumping the world’s emotional problems into two reductive categories: fear and love. It’s not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with promoting love over fear (who wouldn’t want that?). It’s just that the way it’s done is so asinine, so obviously profit-based and shallow, that the community’s inability to either see or respond to the blatant hypocrisy involved makes one — and in this case Donnie, feel like they’re taking crazy pills. And this is the world — the story — that Donnie, like any teenager, sees himself about to enter. It’s a world characterized by hypocrites and well-meaning but ultimately impotent liberal folks like his parents (wonderfully played by Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne), whose best foot forward is a meek and principled objection to the simmering insanity around them. It’s a world that — in an attempt to explain and contain any objections to itself — pathologizes those who express such objections as ‘crazy’. The twin responses to this pathology by those around Donnie are predictable: his socially conservative community — in this case, the school — wants to punish him, while his parents and doctor seek to medicate him. Both are forms of corrective control and neither method is an attempt at understanding.
Then again, teenagers are fucking crazy in a lot of ways. In this sense Donnie is similar to another famous malcontent — Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. Both Donnie and Holden are branded as ‘troubled’ youth with ‘emotional problems,’ both deal with the anxieties of adolescence with (a more or less righteous) anger and resentment. Both seem to be saying something extremely important, if only they could get out of their own angsty, immature teenage way. The latter point gives rise to one of the film’s more poignant ironies, which is the fact that pretty much all teenagers, in one way or another, have what could be described as ‘emotional problems’. There’s no need for me to repeat the truisms about hormones, uncertain identities, fear of the unknown, and the looming ‘real world’ in order to state that adolescence is a veritable cyclone of emotion. Even the most stable kids can find it trying, and for some it’s the equivalent of a temporary psychosis. Part of this anxiety results from realizing that for the first time in your life you need to make consequential choices for yourself, to split off and figure out who you are and where you fit into the grand scheme of things. And the real choice seems to be precisely what kind of adult you want to become, what aspects of your life and your relationships with others that you want to value, and how you can go about actually creating those things for yourself.
I said I would bring this back to time travel, and so I shall. When the jet engine falls from the sky and onto the Darko house it opens up a paranarrative lying just outside the story we’ve been told is the ‘main’ one. Whatever literal cause lies behind this event, it seems like the most important result is Donnie’s ability to grapple with the idea that courses are not set and that stories are not already told. This brings us back to the notion of fictions, references to which are suggestively sprinkled throughout the film, from Barrymore’s “What about the magic of storytelling” question to Donnie’s final rumination that what he’s been experiencing “might not be fiction.” The questioning of the line between reality and fiction here cannot be accidental. Any straight demarcation between the two necessarily identifies one as ‘real’ and noteworthy and the other as fake/false/imagined and therefore fanciful. (In writing this I’m reminded of the numerous people who, upon hearing that I study fictions for a living, have replied that they just can’t read it because they prefer ‘real’ stories, ie. ‘non-fiction.) Yet, in order to do so we must turn a blind eye to the fact that whatever ‘real’ world we live is constantly being written, actively, by those who recognize its own innate constructedness. Our story, our reality, is merely a story and a reality, and only one among many potential versions.
Donnie’s first and largest mistake upon being thrust into a story parallel to his own is to assume that what he’s seeing is that dominant tale, just a little further on down the line. What he finally understands, I like to think, is that what he’s been witnessing has absolutely been non-fiction, but only in the sense that all realities are composed partially of fictions, and all fictions are at least partially real, his own life included. In making this realization, by growing aware of where he is and what he’s doing (envisioning a world in which different choices can and do matter when divorced from the specious world of empty choice offered to him), he is able to see not time, but times. In so doing he is able to recognize that one need not move physically through a continuum in order to time travel, but that the future is always a kernel in a dynamic present, each contained in each, that to be in one is necessarily to be in the other.
I’ve always wondered whether the brother-sister dynamic between Donnie and Elizabeth is made all the more believable due to the fact that we are watching an actual brother and sister play a brother and sister. The scene at the dinner table near the beginning is a great example of the ways siblings can be simultaneously hurtful and intimate at the same time, and the two actors capture it with aplomb.
Anyone else think Donnie’s friend Sean (Gary Lundy) is about two degrees away from being a Ryan Reynolds clone, at least circa Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place?
Sans her small role as Corrine McCandless in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, I’ve never cared for Jena Malone as an actress and still don’t.
Watching Jake Gyllenhaal this time around, I came to a very banal, yet slightly exciting revelation: he is Billy Crystal’s young son Danny in City Slickers.
So, right before flooding the school, Donnie dreams in a surrealist image reminiscent of what I think is meant to be Dalí, but which looks more like Magritte to me. Kick-ass. Why can’t I dream in Magritte paintings?
Hey, it’s Seth Rogen in his pre-Judd Apatow days…not very funny, but makes a good bully.
That Watership Down film viewing was so a part of my lovely state-sponsored education.
I wonder what the producers did with that oil painting of Patrick Swayze/Jim Cunningham when they were done with it?
Drew Barrymore is awful in this film. Awful, awful, awful. I’m not sure what the crazed banshee scream into the baseball fields is meant to be about, but I’ve always found it the most pointless part of the entire film. I mean, I get that she’s meant to be released pent frustration, but it’s way, way too over the top.
Sean: “I stole four beers from my dad.” Donnie: It’s ok, there’s a keg.” Sean: “Keg beer is for pussies.”
Donnie’s analysis of The Smurfs is one of the funniest examinations of pop culture since Patrick Bateman’s rigorous explication of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to be Square” in American Psycho.
Oh good, crazy babbling lady who gets blown up by Dennis Hopper in Speed is crazy babbling lady gym teacher in Donnie Darko. Oh, and she’s also a kooky homeless lady on an early (Season One) episode of Friends. Lady needs to branch out, yo.
Yeah, I’ve kind of been listening to Tears for Fears on repeat this week.