Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Jun 6, 2009

Donnie Darko (2001)

by Will Ross

When movies achieve cult status, it can be a beautiful thing. Movies like Night of the Hunter and The Big Lebowski that failed to impress critics or draw large audiences on their original releases have garnered their reputation through the word of the communities that rediscover them. Blade Runner, Evil Dead II, Ace in the Hole, and many other films were only recognized as classics after cult adoration exposed them to the world.

One of the biggest cult sensations today is Donnie Darko, a bizarre, modestly budgeted sci-fi mystery that never quite broken even at the box office. With a story far more complex, ambitious, and dark than almost anything else released in 2001, it was a remarkably daring freshman effort from writer/director Richard Kelly, and gained such an enthusiastic cult following that a director’s cut was financed and released on DVD.

Trouble is, Donnie Darko is a mess.

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The movie is an overloaded, incoherent jumble of satire, romance, and surrealism. Not that these things are mutually exclusive – David Lynch used a similar formula in Blue Velvet, but he blended them seamlessly into one story instead of jamming them together as clashing storylines as Kelly does in Donnie.

The movie’s biggest problem is its sci-fi doomsday story, in which a six-foot rabbit that only Donnie can see visits him promising apocalypse in 28 days. Sure, it’s okay to have an incomprehensible science-fiction story that can only be speculated and theorized on, but never solved (obvious props go to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). But with no identifiable conflict (internal or external) from either Donnie or the bunny beyond Donnie lowering his head and glowering, there's no sense of tension, urgency or even interest to the proceedings. Kelly relies on the bizarreness of the scene to hold our interest. Exacerbating the problem is that the movie is completely transparent when it withholds information from the audience. Donnie asks why the world will end – cutaway. His father asks what a mysterious old woman whispered in his ear – cutaway.

Donnie is more or less a stereotypical teenager (he actually says “Get out of my room” to his mother within the first ten minutes) – rebellious, shy, profane, and depressed. There’s nothing compelling or really uniquely drawn about him, which is part of what makes his reactions to supernatural events/hallucinations so dull. His best moments come from when he lashes out at the world with intelligence instead of whiny angst; Unfortunately, Donnie’s most violent and physically passionate moments are always off-screen, so we never have an emotional payoff to make up from the unresolved mystery at the core of the film.

Despite all this, most of Donnie Darko takes place in a “realistic” world. Donnie goes to high school, where he meets and begins dating a new girl, blandly played by Jena Malone, for whom family tragedy substitutes characterization. His English teacher is played by Drew Barrymore, who has never produced a movie she did not star in, and not coincidentally has never produced a good movie. Her producer’s credit might also have something to do with her emotional breakdown scene, a completely unnecessary self-indulgence that makes one wonder if self-produced stars like Barrymore and Sandra Bullock actually believe they’ve earned their place of celebrity through their talent instead of their wallets.

The film’s greatest mistake is that it tries to be a satire, a teen drama, and a psychological thriller, only the first of which it does well. The film’s mockery of simplistic self-help methods and censorship and those who govern their lives by such easy, extreme rules easily constitutes most of its highlights. Instead of focusing on those, Richard Kelly has overextended himself, creating a film bustling with half-finished ideas. There’s no doubt that Kelly has talent and ambition – there are good moments here and there, some pretty good camerawork and imagery, and when it’s not taking itself too seriously the dialogue is witty. But Kelly mistakes variety for grandeur, which is a shame, since there are a few potentially good movies cluttered into Donnie Darko.

(The director’s cut provides some hints at the nature and unfolding of the film’s central enigma, and that does it some service, but not enough to make it worth recommending.)

and his girlfriend go to a theater to see a "Hollywood frightmare double feature". When they leave, the two movies on the marquee are "The Evil Dead" and "The Last Temptation of Christ". If that's not an example of shoehorning Christ parallels into a film, I don't know what is.


Sara Fontes said...

Interesting... IMDb gave this movie 8.3/10.
I'm debating whether or not it's worth watching.

¬Will Ross said...

IMDB didn't give it 8.3/10

Public users who decided to rate the movie on IMDB gave it 8.3 out of 10.

That said, IMDB also gave Forrest Gump 8.6, and Forrest Gump is awful.

Sara Fontes said...

Sorry I overgeneralized IMDb and it's rating process.
I suppose the ratings posted there can inaccurate.
Twilight got 6.1/10 and it was more of a 4/10.

That being said, I think I'll go with your rating of Donnie Darko for now and not waste my time :)

Anonymous said...

Probably the lowest rating for Donnie Darko I have seen anywhere.

¬Will Ross said...

I was wondering whether you were right about my rating being one of the lowest, but I checked some reviews on Rottentomatoes and they pretty much have the same issues with the film as I do: The movie mashes together teen angst and time travel stories without much grace.

There are plenty more.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a good movie,not great, but the movie is a must see for a teen audience, and the ratings you guys gave, should be higher...the grace wasnt too mashed for the angst/love of teens and time travel stories, I dont see how you think that.

¬Will Ross said...

The ratings we gave should be higher? Devan's given out three full scores (Evil Dead 2, Star Wars and The Big Lebowski, and I've given out almost nothing but praise before this review.

"The grace wasn't too mashed." I don't see what you mean by this, but I think you're talking about my criticisms of the teenage angst plot and the time travel mystery plot clashing. The time travel and teen angst/love stories just did not fit cleanly together, there were some blunt causal relationships between them but no real flow. Tonally, thematically, and content-wise they had almost no relationship to one another.

As for "A must see for a teen audience", I don't think see how it's more a must-see for teenagers than anyone else. I review movies based on their merits and achievements, and the two points I gave for the film's ambition and some of its better scenes are positive points. Yes, the movie has a bustling teen cult, but I'd argue that most of these teens aren't well-entrenched in the film community. Certainly I'm not going to give a better rating just because some people think it's better than I do; that defeats the entire purpose of writing reviews in the first place.

As I said, I did have praise for several aspects of the movie, but it fell short of being a wholly accomplished work. Considering you don't even think it's a great movie, our opinions don't strongly diverge much.

If you think this is a "Must see" for a teen audience simply because it has complex fantasy-mystery, a broad scope, a unique tone, and is nearly impossible to figure out on first viewing, I would counter there are many films that are better to recommend in Donnie Darko's stead: "2001: A Space Odyssey", "8 1/2", "Blade Runner", "My Winnipeg" or "Mulholland Dr" come quickly to mind.

All of these movies are easily more challenging and accomplished than Donnie Darko. If you're going to argue that Donnie Darko is more accessible, my response is that a movie that appeals to the public is not necessarily a good movie.

Anonymous said...

How do you guys pick the movies? Random Selection?

¬Will Ross said...

I wouldn't call it random, but we try to be pretty eclectic. We're sort of trying to cater to a wide audience without compromising by ignoring obscure/older films. In the case of Donnie Darko, it's a film that's well known by most people with a fair amount of enthusiasm for cinema, so it makes sense to review it. Then, it also makes sense to review something like The Hangover that's new and recognizable, but we'll also review foreign films that are released. The basic method is to have variety.

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