director Richard Kelly
I originally watched Richard Kelly’s cult sci-fi time loop film Donnie Darko in 2002, the first year of this film diary, and it was among the first “discoveries” I made in my film-watching of the film diary period. It intrigued me at the time and, interestingly, I even mentioned watching it again back 12 years ago as something I ought to do.
But until now, I hadn’t.
My film diary has taken my film-watching in a direction of mostly films that I haven’t seen, certainly films that I haven’t written about in the 12 years that I’ve been writing about feature films. But the latest twist in my film watching, adding all these streaming avenues, offers films at a click, no premium for keeping them queued, so it’s easier to mix in films that I wouldn’t mind seeing again, with the ones that I more actively want to watch. And a subtwist to that twist is that Netflix rotates their catalog, seemingly randomly pulling films from availability with short notice.
I don’t know how long Donnie Darko would have sat in my re-watch queue without viewing if Netflix hadn’t announced its removal (temporary or otherwise) from availability. I’m still not sure if it’s one that the kids are quite primed for yet, so it hadn’t worked its way up on that heaping list of movies. But down it was to come and so, finally, time it was to re-watch.
There, I’ve just spent as much time talking about the circumstance of rTe-watching the film as I intend to on the film itself (probably already more words from me that anyone else will ever read on the topic).
Richard Kelly’s career post-Donnie Darko kind of went kaboom. He wrote the screenplay for Domino (2005), Tony Scott’s bad but kind of fun biopic of glamour girl turned bounty hunter. Then Kelly’s career imploded with Southland Tales (2006), his ridiculously ambitious follow up to Darko. Then he made another weak flick, The Box (2009).
Donnie Darko, if anything, showed promise. And after watching it again, I still think it shows that self-same promise. Jake Gyllenhaal is quite good in the role of the titular teen with probable schizophrenia, whose delusions of the future and wormholes and a guy in a creepy rabbit costume foretell of doom to come. While his tight, good-natured nuclear family supports him, his coming of age adulthood gives him clarity on the bullshit around him (in the forms of religious-based new age hypocrisy). Still, his looks into the mirror, his repressions with anti-psychotics, his own sexuality and intellect, it’s all more than he can handle.
Kelly’s approach to the material leaves it open for interpretation. Was it all a dream before death? Did he really inhabit the time-loop and save the people he loved? Was he just a psychotic teen in the doldrums of late 1980’s America, caught up in his own mental distortions?
The music is the 1980’s music that reflects that time and emotionality, which Kelly nails as well as any single element in the film. Setting the film during the 1988 election, setting the time of doom as right before George H.W. Bush is elected president is something highly personal but something he works well into his diegetic world.
And casting is a coup as well. The Gyllenhaal siblings play well together, but pulling in Patrick Swayze and Drew Barrymore, two 1980’s icons, seems quite the flash of cleverness (I believe Barrymore aided as executive producer). And heck, Seth Rogan is even in here. I certainly didn’t know him in 2002 (I hadn’t watched Freaks and Geeks in its day).
Ultimately, for me, Donnie Darko is a solid, if flawed, very interesting flick. Kelly captures the mood and tonality he seeks in his complex sci-fi coming of age story, evoking the era of late-1980’s very effectively, while toying with the teen film genre with care, reflection, and craft without resorting to homage or parody. But it’s not quite the masterpiece that its cult status might suggest. It’s good, clever, and ultimately promising.
While Kelly hasn’t achieved that promise yet, who knows? Maybe he still has something in him that helped to shape this film into what it is. Maybe he’s got another work in him yet.