“Don’t worry. You got away with it,” says an eerie voice to the titular hero of Donnie Darko. Those might also have been first-time writer-director Richard Kelly’s words to himself on the set every day: Of the many varied and rich mysteries in Donnie Darko, perhaps none are so compelling as the mystery of how this mesmeric, contemplative whatsit got made in the first place. But it did — Kelly got away with it — and it’s enough to give one hope for the future of movies as a medium still capable of enchantment and surprise. Having gotten a weak, token release in theaters, the movie has now achieved full, strong cult status, one of those oddities that neatly polarizes viewers into the get-its and don’t-get-its. Me, I’ve seen it four times as I write this (probably more as you read this), so take the following as a bit of preaching from the converted.
Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal, dusting himself off after the indignity of Bubble Boy) is sixteen and one of the brighter students at the Middlesex Catholic private school he attends. As Gyllenhaal plays him, Donnie isn’t a dorky outsize freak of virtuosity like Max Fischer of Rushmore (interestingly, Kelly’s original choice for Donnie was Jason Schwartzman); he wears his intellect lightly, engaging his science teacher (Noah Wyle) in an effortless-sounding conversation on physics during which the teacher seems excited, if a bit nonplussed, at the prospect of having to keep up with one of his own students in science-geek chat (Wyle does quiet, affecting work in his scenes with Gyllenhaal). Donnie has the air of a kid who’s spent a lot of time on his own reading and thinking. Oh, and receiving nocturnal visions of “Frank,” which appears to be a man in a bunny suit topped with a ghastly metallic insectoid mask. “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?” chortles Donnie (who seldom seems afraid of, or even surprised by, his visitor); Frank’s rejoinder is chilling in its ping-pong logic: “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”
The story, which unfolds in the autumn of 1988 (as we learn so economically from the movie’s first line of dialogue: “I’m voting for Dukakis”), involves time travel, tangent universes, portals — the usual metaphysical jazz. Those so inclined can, and probably will, spend weeks deconstructing the temporal riffing, the snake-eating-its-tail circularity of the plot. I’m not so inclined; the time-travel aspect is, to me, the least interesting thing about Donnie Darko. I’m more taken with it as a diary of a mood, a moment; Kelly was thirteen in 1988, and though several ’80s tunesmiths (Echo and the — ha! — Bunnymen, Tears for Fears, Joy Division, Duran Duran) figure prominently on the soundtrack, the movie doesn’t turn them into a jokey K-Tel Super Sounds of the ’80s, as The Wedding Singer did. If you were anywhere near high school between 1984 and 1989, the movie will, on some level, feel like your biography, and not just because of the cultural references. Kelly catches the depressive but unbowed mood of a nation after eight years of Reagan, faced with the choice of two lavishly uninspiring presidential candidates. The great fantasist was on his way back to California; God knew what the ’90s would bring. Kids in school back then grew up post-Vietnam, absorbed the Iran-Contra affair through dinner-table osmosis; we (I graduated from high school in ’88) were perhaps the first generation to be completely steeped in cynicism about our government almost from birth.
That all makes Donnie Darko sound vastly more political than I mean it to; all of that is simply background buzz, the reason its mopey milieu feels so dead-on. I wouldn’t dream of giving away the myriad twists and turns, particularly the one on which the whole quivering apparatus is founded; though this isn’t an a-ha!, the-main-character-is-really-[fill in the blank] thriller in the mold of The Sixth Sense, it really should be experienced as virginally as possible. Which leaves me with damned little to praise, except in the vaguest terms (wholly befitting the obscurantist movie itself).
My mind keeps flitting back to Sparkle Motion, an adolescent-girl dance team including Donnie’s younger sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase), which performs at the school talent show, and gets wild cheers from everyone except unsmiling hipster English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore, also one of the film’s executive producers), who is earlier seen applauding the ungainly interpretive dance “Autumn Angel” by an eternally harassed Chinese student, who appears to have a crush on Donnie, who when not communicating with Frank has eyes only for new student Gretchen (not her given name) Ross (Jena Malone), whose guileless charms move Donnie to near-masturbation during a hypnotherapy session with psychiatrist Lilian Thurman (Katharine Ross), who privately shares the progress of said sessions with Donnie’s parents (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne), who dote on Donnie as well as Samantha and older sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake’s sister in our world, too), who is bound for Harvard and can’t resist tweaking Dad at the table with her liberal leanings, which are definitely not shared by tight-lipped fundamentalist Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), school gym teacher, Sparkle Motion coach, and acolyte of the self-help wisdom of motivational guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who thinks that everything boils down to fear or love, which, in this movie, everything sort of does.
Kelly shepherds this mad tumble of characters and incidents as smoothly and organically as we could want; it’s like Magnolia foreshortened, given a patina of the uncanny, and whetted down to an edge. My favorite moment changes with each viewing; currently it’s the genteel cattiness of the scene between Kitty and Donnie’s mom Rose, wherein Kitty beseeches Rose to take Sparkle Motion to their destiny at Star Search even though Kitty knows she’s the one who should be doing it, and Mary McDonnell coats her line with exquisite subtle malice: “And you can’t go. Hmm.” Previously, the favorite moment was the meeting of Donnie and Frank in a movie theater (showing The Evil Dead) as Gorecki-esque music groans and keens underneath Frank’s instructions to Donnie. Kelly shoots widescreen and dead center, indulging in Kubrickian static shots and drawing out the paranoid trance of the movie’s world. There’s a geek-worthy shot early on, scored to the synth and hop of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels,” that takes us from a sideways view of a schoolbus through a bustling school hallway, introducing several characters wordlessly and fixing them for us visually so strongly that their later words and actions seem preordained — that was my favorite the second time through; and the moment that officially handed my heart to the movie during my first date with it comes late in the timeline, when Donnie asks Rose, “How’s it feel to have a wacko for a son?” and she pauses and, with every ounce of love and honesty this great actress can work up, gives a three-word answer that just speaks volumes, and just flat kills me.
Donnie Darko will inspire some of its fans to geek out over its paradoxes (are they intentional or not?); I prefer to track the emotional throughline of it — to narrow the film and its hero down to psychological or scientific architecture is to diminish it, to draw an X on a simplistic chalkline between fear and love. Kelly has come in for some criticism for what’s assumed to be his sarcastic, superior handling of Kitty Farmer and her self-help savior Jim Cunningham, but I think Kelly loves everyone he takes the trouble to put on the screen — even Jim, who’s destined for a Dickensian fate as cosmic payback for his presumptuous mastery of his universe, is a fascinating specimen, and I don’t believe he belongs in another movie, as some have charged. Kelly isn’t after anything so simple as taking the piss out of fatuous video-hucksters selling the One True Way to Personal Fulfillment (a goal already accomplished in many other films); if anything he’s pointing up the folly of being that sure of anything — including oneself — in this (as we’re reminded by the movie’s closing tune) “mad world.”
Aside from that, the drowsy surrealism and elaborate inconclusiveness of Donnie Darko will simultaneously guarantee it a rabid cult and put it way off limits to the don’t-get-its. It shares with David Lynch’s Eraserhead a stubbornly-what-it-is unhipness that ensures inadvertent, and possibly perennial, hipness. I don’t understand some of it — the brooding talk of wormholes and destiny zips right over my head — and many of the characters are so deftly written and delicately played that I can’t help wanting more than Kelly allows me to see of them. (The movie does escape the too-many-characters dilemma — also known as the Paul Thomas Anderson Syndrome — by zeroing in on Donnie and his quest.) But the flaws, if you find them to be so, are merely grit in the texture. As with any richly woven work of art, if you’re attuned to it, you take what you need from Donnie Darko at each given viewing, and you take something different every time.