Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Donnie Darko (2001)

There are various ways to view Donnie Darko, one of them being as a kind of anti-John Hughes movie: action takes place in an affluent big city suburb during Reagan's 1980s, contemporary music scores quasi-video set-piece scenes, semi-troubled but sharp-dressed wisecracking teenagers suffer ennui daily at a faceless but well-funded high school. Donnie's life is by all appearances charmed (as charmed as it gets in your teens, anyway); he's a bit withdrawn, has a loving if imperfect family, is growing up amidst material wealth, has understanding teachers, and attentive, geeky friends. There's even a girlfriend. So what's the problem? Why is he sleepwalking? Why does he need to take "medicine"? Why is he talking to an evil rabbit who warns him of the end of the world?

The story works like a Mobius strip, pulling the viewer in seemingly logical but ultimately convoluted directions. An airplane engine crashes through Donnie's bedroom ceiling in the middle of the night; thankfully, Frank the Evil Rabbit has lured him out of the house and Donnie wakes safely, miles away. Now indebted to Frank, Donnie does his bidding; whether he is compelled or simply wants to (with the end of the world coming, what does he have to lose?) is never made clear -- one of the more disorienting angles in the film.

Another: visitations from Frank aside, Donnie is distinctly characterized "disturbed" though by every appearance he's just a normal-ish teen -- detached, disaffected, self-involved, horny. In fact, he expresses insights and has questions for his authority figures that are both poignant and appropriate (if expressed a little gruffly). That is until he starts seeing wormholes projected from the chests of other people (and himself), predicating their next movements through space. Imagine Holden Caulfield on acid, and there's Donnie Darko.

The story is a slow swirl of seemingly unconnected events: the jet engine crash; Donnie's burgeoning relationship with Gretchen; midnight visitations from Frank; English class meditations on Graham Greene; Grandma Death and her forgotten book; pithy lessons from a self-help guru (a downright wicked Patrick Swayze) and his acolyte (the school counselor). To explain in a linear fashion how these things eventually do (or don't) connect would be a disservice to the way the movie assembles itself, which is part of its effect. Or its cause. Whichever.

Darko poses several questions it then does not attempt to answer; in most films this translates to immediate failure, but here that backhanded MO supplies disturbing narrative power. There are issues of time travel, of free will, of emotional intelligence, of isolationism and insanity, all fascinatingly raised, then held in shuddering suspension. It is a puzzle movie where the pieces fit together, but the picture doesn't make visual sense. Visual sense not being the point. Donnie Darko willfully occurs within its own universe, or confluence of universes, where meaning and appearance aren't necessarily parallel -- a pleasurable frustration, like a fun house mirror maze where every exit leads you back to the beginning.

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