Are there still those committed to Sparkle Motion. 15 years ago the cult of Donnie Darko began, but the movie has become more of an early 21st Century antique than a touchstone for future film lovers. With its own nostalgia for the 80s baked into cinematic recipe, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko doesn’t seem to be developing into the kind of underground classic that each generation of movie-nerd harkens back to. Instead, it’s “I Believe In a Thing Called Love,” liking “Family Guy” or other ideas only twenty-somethings were into when W was first President; an idea from yesterday.
Was the love for Donnie Darko a misguided admiration for an alright film that, just by being a bit different than the time’s norm, was graded on a curve? Are the poorly received follow-ups of Kelly less a sign of decline or proof that the filmmaker was never that good to begin with? Was I nuts?
Released on October 26, 2001 to little fanfare, Donnie Darko is sci-fi/horror/teenage drama by writer-direct Richard Kelly in his feature-length debut. The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie, a suburban teenager whose life is a mélange of boredom, arguing with family and pills. Then a jet engine falls into his bedroom and he begins talking to a rabbit-costumed figure named Frank; as happens. Amidst the normal turmoil of high school life, Donnie grows increasingly distant and angrier, haunted by interactions with Frank and this spectre’s claims that the world will end in 28 days, 6 days, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.
With a middling box-office reception, Donnie Darko did get enough critical acclaim to keep chatter about the picture alive. The movie would receive three Independent Spirit Award nominations, with Gyllenhaal getting into the Best Male Lead race. The film that looked dead kept going. According to The AV Club, “The Pioneer Theatre in New York ran it as a midnight movie for two years.” DVD sales, which began really taking off at this time period, became a boon for Kelly’s work, with numbers generally being quoted that the movie made over $10 million from the format in the first few years. Suddenly, you couldn’t go to a Suncoast, Hot Topic or Spencer’s without seeing Frank the Bunny on posters or someone playing the movie’s soundtrack. Popularity continued to grow, even leading to Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut getting a release in 2004, featuring 20-plus minutes of footage, a change in the musical cues and a lot more time-travel talk.
I can rather vividly recall watching Donnie Darko for the first time and imagine the story isn’t too dissimilar from many people’s initial outings. During my junior year of college at Salisbury University, my dear friend Kat (thanks buddy), also a movie-nerd, kept raving about the film and insisted I watched her DVD of it. Slightly hesitant as it featured that kid from The Bubble Boy, I nonetheless gave it a chance. I was quite quickly hooked, in love with the moodiness of it all and the low-key nature of its sci-fi world that manages to mix in a horror tinge. What followed was uber fandom, complete with t-shirt, a Frank the Bunny jack-o-lantern that took three hours to carve and a $30 DVD purchase from fucking Suncoast because Best Buy wouldn’t regularly have it for $10 until a few months later.
Like a virus…but the good kind…of virus…um…I spread the good word of all things Sparkle Motion. Jake Gyllenhaal became someone to watch and I waited with baited breath for what Richard Kelly would do next, which led to the abysmal, yet definitely different, yet definitely abysmal Southland Tales in 2007.
Donnie Darko has to be good, right? I mean, please.
With all of the Amblin Entertainment nostalgia that’s creeping into pop-culture of late, and “Stranger Things” being such a success for Netflix, it’s peculiar that Donnie Darko has not been talked about more of late. Especially since it still remains quite fantastic.
All of those bits you recall adoring continue to ring with confidence, right from the first scene. We all recall the sequence of Donnie descending at dawn from the hillside, as we see him bicycling through the suburbs, his father messing with big-sis and Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” scoring it all, the scene aided strongly by the deep, crisp guitar and bass plucks from that tune. There is an immediate sense that something is a little off. Yet, even before that, Kelly’s movie compels, as we slowly zoom along the first glimpses of morning, mountains in the distance, birds chirping and Donnie waking up on the side of the road, confused by it all.
The economy of storytelling continues right after this, as the Darkos chat, or rather loudly argue, over dinner. Sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is revealed as a burgeoning Democrat, making papa Eddie (Holmes Osborne) freeze in disgust and mama Rose (Mary McDonnell) sarcastically laugh at the notion. As Donnie delights in the fuss, Elizabeth jabs about his failure to take prescribed therapeutic medication. All the while, little Samantha (Daveigh Chase) sits oblivious. The dynamics of home are set.
The complexities of school then come into focus, with Tears for Fears “Head Over Heels” our chorus. Kelly uses a long-take to show our ensemble as Donnie walks down the hallway. There’s the sneering, rebellious kid. A teacher clinging to a book, shocked by the youth. A young girl that walks alone. Seth Rogen doing drugs. An oblivious principal. In a short-while, Kelly has given us a host of players in two striking sequences, and he’ll use a variation of this towards the close of the movie, but not so much as a one-note crutch.
A lot of credit must be given to the cast here. Gyllenhaal is an enigmatic as memory serves, the kid who means well but isn’t concerned with being a prick. His early defense of an Asian classmate hints at his good nature, even as he remains friendly with the teens instigating the cruelty. Gyllenhaal plays Donnie as almost too-smart for his own good, his cockiness and an inability to hold his tongue making himself seem beyond just another high-school kid. That innocence remains though, personified by the initial courting of Jena Malone’s Gretchen. The new kid in town, Gretchen and Donnie are first linked when Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) tells her new pupil to sit next to the cutest boy in class, of which Mr. Darko receives the honor. Soon, Donnie is getting comfortable talking to Gretchen as he walks her home from school. She mentions her father’s “emotional problems”, a fact Donnie perks up to, stating, “Oh I have those too!.” This excitement is quickly rebuffed by the tragic fact that Gretchen’s father stabbed her mother multiple times; deflating Donnie’s eagerness. From then on, Donnie frets, with Gyllenhaal’s speech getting anxious and Malone’s character strangely becoming more confident. The ebb and flow of this pair, each thoroughly trying to be cooler than at all, is delightful.
The unsung highlight of Donnie Darko is probably Mary McDonnell’s Rose, both as a piece of writing and acting. For all of the mystery of Frank the Bunny and the time-travel filling, it all comes back to the family dynamic. Rose is vital to that as she profoundly cares for her son, a boy that grows further away from the baby that once resided in their home. Donnie calls her a “bitch,” a sting that goes far below the skin. It’s interesting to see how much Donnie is her son, as his skepticism of people’s motives and the casual snooty responses are definitely a part of her nature. When Beth Grant’s Kitty comes to Rose’s door in desperate need of a Sparkle Motion chaperone, McDonnell’s face is gold, shaping into faux-sadness that Kitty can’t go now due to unforeseen circumstances. This is all vital to make that conclusion, where the sacrifice that must be made occurs, have the required level of weight. There are others close to Donnie that are impacted, but it’s the pure, overwhelming grief on Rose’s face that makes it mean something.
Kelly may have not made another good movie since Donnie Darko. Perhaps Southland Tales doubled-down too much on the peculiarities and The Box went too deep with the over-explanations of oddities; it’s hard to tell. He will always have this one, the cult classic that briefly escaped into the mainstream, before sinking back into the shadows with other offbeat greats.