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I Liked this in College: Donnie Darko

In I Liked this in College, Jeff rewatches a movie that he once adored to see how it holds up now that he’s a pretentious blogger.

Lets talk about tangent universes!

Why I Liked Donnie Darko:  The first time I watched Donnie Darko was as a joke.

In 2001 and 2002, the trailer for Donnie Darko preceded 90% of the weird indie flicks that I rented from the video store. It looked awful. Here was some low budget horror movie with a giant creepy rabbit, crap special effects (the goofy scene where Donnie looks into his girlfriend’s time travel worm and his eyes go all acid trip was featured prominently), and a slumming Drew Barrymore. I wasn’t interested in seeing it, but when I came across it at the video store on a particularly barren night for rentals, I decided to give it a go. Shockingly, from its opening moments – where Echo and the Bunnymen play us into a scene of 80s suburban unease – I was hooked. As an aside, this kind of random video store one-night-stand is something we’ve really lost in the age of Netflix (not that I’m complaining, just feeling nostalgic).

I really liked the style of Darko (more on my all-abiding love for director Richard Kelly later), but more than that I really liked Donnie’s style. Here’s a statement that I’ve had only one other occasion (Zodiac) to use in the last 10 years: I really enjoyed Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance. How could Donnie not strike a chord with a college freshman? A troubled young man with an “intimidating” intellect, quirky and sardonic, and also the freaking chosen one with the ability to move time and possibly super strength. Oh, and Jena Malone thinks he’s the cutest boy in class. What’s not to like about a kid that calls Patrick Swayze’s pedophile motivational speaker “the fucking anti-christ” and then, as if that wasn’t anti-authority enough, proceeds to burn his house down?

I don't want to discuss this. Where's Swayze?

As I entered my final two years of college and began to take more film theory courses, I suddenly found myself as an innocent bystander at the ascension of the Cult of Darko. Somehow, between its almost nonexistent theatrical release and the hotly anticipated 133 minute DVD director’s cut 4 years later, Donnie Darko developed a passionate cult following of excitable young people. So passionate, in fact, that Darko is still ranked at #127 on iMDB’s Top 250 movies, ahead of films like Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, and The Terminator (not that this means much considering Inception is currently ranked #3). I remember a contingent of Darkoheads petitioning one professor to include Darko in his curriculum (this was met with an academic scoff by a professor that would later teach Doug Liman's Katie Holmes starring frenetic drug comedy Go). I remember a second incident where a group of students expressed dismay that their Darko related thesis proposals had been rejected. Simultaneously, my love for Darko began to cool.

It wasn't so much that other people had discovered my secret cult movie and thus spoiled it for me, although I'd be lying if I said that wasn't part of it. I didn't begrudge the Darkoholics their patronage, but I couldn't stand talking to them. It was always about the mythology! Time loops and wormholes, fate and predestination, Roberta Sparrow and manipulated dead - ugh. To me, an examination of the science fiction elements in Donnie Darko was completely beside the point, but I was in the minority. My case wasn't helped by the release of the shaggy director's cut and its easter egg heavy DVD laden with features designed to tweak the imaginations of the Darkonauts. I found myself gradually alienated from the fanbase of a movie I once really enjoyed.

It's probably been 5 years since the last time I watched Donnie Darko.

Why do you wear that stupid blogger suit?

What I Think After the Rewatch:  I should start this section by mentioning that while my enthusiasm for Donnie Darko might have diminished over the years, my enthusiasm for Richard Kelly has grown exponentially. I adore the divisive dystopian funhouse that is Southland Tales, and I even like the widely derided paranoid melodrama of The Box. I admire Kelly precisely because he gives me cause to use phrases like "dystopian funhouse." He’s out of his mind. He makes big messy idea films that are grounded in familiar territory (like Darko’s medicated suburban malaise) but end up in wildly divergent places (like pulling a turbine off of a jet with mind powers). Yet, and this is especially true of Darko, the characters feel real enough to keep us invested in the reality, no matter how batshit insane and nonsensical that reality becomes.

In my post-college life as a pretentious pop culture blogger, I’ve had plenty of occasions to discuss Darko with non-fans and what they most often criticize is the tangle of science fiction nonsense they argue is the film’s backbone. I resent this position as much as I do those Darko fans I mentioned above that are so enamored with the mythology. Both sides miss that Darko is really about being young and lonely and coming to terms with life’s big unanswerable questions. There is a lot of real heart here – from the early Darko family dinner scene to Donnie and friends’ typical stoned teenage meditations on Smurf gangbangsDarko is built on well-drawn characters with realistic relationships that shouldn’t be ignored simply because some of them eventually sprout liquid destiny worms from their sternums.

Who hasn't watched their girlfriend get run over? Get over it, high school.

The thing that really changed for me during this viewing of Darko was my opinion of Donnie himself. Don't get me wrong, I still think he's a badass, but this time I met some of his teenage angst with eye rolls. Not in a condescending incredulous way, mind you, but in a squeamish embarrassed way. Gyllenhaal does almost too good a job of portraying a teenager struggling with mental illness, complete with delusions of grandeur. I pitied Donnie more during this viewing than I ever had before, and the late scene with him and his mother (played by future president of humanity Laura Roslin, reliably awesome) struck me as particularly poignant.

All that makes Donnie Darko a pretty melancholy film if you subscribe to my preferred theory: that the whole movie is Donnie's heroic fantasy in those split seconds before he's randomly snuffed out by a turbine. The poor screw-up is fantasizing about what he could've done with his life before finally coming to terms with the emptiness of it all, man. What? You didn't think I had a theory? It's Donnie Darko - of course I do! The Darkoboners though, haunting me always, poopoo all over it at their website.

They can suck it.

Huh what? Oh. No, just ripping a hole in the space time continuum.

Do I Still Like It? I still really like Donnie Darko. If nothing more, it's the debut of one of my favorite directors (Kelly was 26 at the time, by the way, if you feel like feeling unaccomplished), and weirdly his most grounded and accessible film. However, I feel there’s a lot more to enjoy about Darko. It’s a great film about being young, creepy, and time traveling. I think it's going to age well, although the jury is still out on its fanbase.

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3 Responses »

  1. "Darko is really about being young and lonely and coming to terms with life’s big unanswerable questions."

    Couldn't agree more. People who get too bogged down in the plot details are missing the point entirely. Same thing happened with Lost.

  2. I never really got on board the Darko train. I think I was too busy being cool and getting laid in college.

    While revisits now might reveal it to be dark, annoyingly teenage and angsty, and basically a little overly hipsterish (I don't think "hipster" was even in the average American's lexicon at the time of Darko's release), that's sort of how I always viewed it. From the first time I saw it, back when I was...what, 19 maybe...it struck me as being weird and corny (for lack of a better word), not to mention that there were movies that far better exemplified the plight of the American teen at the time.

    Basically, I never really got the appeal of this one. I certainly acknowledge that it struck a chord with a lot of people of my generation, but hell, so did the dull-yet-overweening Radiohead and the deplorable Da Vinci Code, so I don't see college cult-appeal as a sign of quality or validity.

  3. One of the great films that I think gets overlooked more and more as time passes. Stellar use of soundtrack. Would love to know what Richard Kelly has cooking, he would be great on TV as well I feel.