The New Cult Canon: Donnie Darko
by Scott Tobias
February 22nd, 2008
In embarking on the mammoth, open-ended project that is The New Cult Canon, I face the scary and exhilarating prospect of a journey with no set course and no planned destination, but there was never a question that I'd be leaving port with Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko. To my mind, Donnie Darko is the quintessential cult movie of the last 20 years: Here was a much-hyped washout at Sundance that fell to a second-tier distributor (Newmarket), which released the film to middling reviews and feeble arthouse box-office (barely half a million when all was said and done). The film was left for dead until, miraculously, word of mouth started to swell and an audience steadily grew and rallied around it. The Pioneer Theater in New York ran it as a midnight movie for two years—this at a time when the midnight movie itself had long been left for dead. And DVD sales were so robust that Newmarket attempted to re-release the "Director's Cut" theatrically. (It tanked a second time, too.) The movie has inspired a level of obsession that separates cult phenomena from the everyday hits that wither past opening weekend.
I saw Donnie Darko three times in the theater: Once at the press screening, where I was apoplectic to find many of my fellow critics shrugging their shoulders; a second time during its two-week run here in Chicago, where I saw it with maybe five or six other people in the theater; and a third time at the Gene Siskel Film Center, where it kept coming back month after month to packed houses, including the near-soldout showing I attended. (And on a weeknight, no less!)
Why did I and so many others keep shuffling, zombie-like, to see this movie again and again in the theater? It certainly isn't perfect—films this crazily ambitious, from a first-time director no less, are rarely flawless—but Donnie Darko accomplishes perhaps the one thing I value most in cinema: It creates a world to get lost in, so particular and full of life that other concerns (in this case, an overstuffed mind-bender of a plot that has never quite cohered for me) fall by the wayside. And though I'll probably be defining cult movies a million different ways in this column, that's likely the common denominator, because once you have the ins and outs of the story figured out, what's the point of seeing a movie a second or third or hundredth time? The world of the film is paramount. And sequences like this one help, too:
If Donnie Darko coasting through the suburb of Middlesex, Virginia on his bicycle as "The Killing Moon" plays on the soundtrack wasn't attention-getting enough already, the "Head Over Heels" sequence had me sitting bolt upright in my seat. In this mesmerizing five minutes, Kelly introduces many of the major characters (and wordlessly suggests the tension between them). More impressive still, he evokes the life of a late-'80s adolescent with a tone that hovers somewhere between nostalgia and dread. It's very hard, especially when the soundtrack is this irresistible, to revisit a period without making it seem like facile "I Love The '80s" nostalgia. (Just ask Richard Linklater, who intended Dazed And Confused—another New Cult Canon contender—to be suffused with melancholy, but doesn't always get that response from viewers who groove on the music and stoner comedy.) But Kelly maintains that ambivalent tone from start to finish, and for as much love as he displays for the popular music and movies of the period, the film is still sobering, hypnotic, and more than a little sad.
Back in 2001, when the film was first realized, a wise man (okay, me) summed up Donnie Darko thusly:
A dense and wonderfully stylized amalgam of genres and influences, Donnie Darko resists any clear definition, which is perhaps its most appealing quality. Is it the flip side of Blue Velvet, a blistering satire of Reagan-warped suburbia? Or is it an anarchic, Fight Club-style punk film about the impulse to tear down a corrupt world in order to build a new one? Is it mind-bending science fiction? An adolescent romance? Catcher In The Rye?
Of course, the film is all of these things and more. But it's also a case where the individual parts don't necessarily work that well until they're factored into the whole. As a satire especially, Donnie Darko takes a fairly broad, predictable indie-movie posture toward the Reagan '80s: Dad nearly spitting out his dinner when his daughter announces she's voting for Dukakis; liberal intellectuals (like the teachers played by Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle) falling prey to narrow-minded conservatives looking to shake up the curriculum with guru Patrick Swayze's New Agey baloney; a cartoonish Supermom (and chief Sparkle Motion sponsor) who at one point dons a T-shirt that says "God Is Awesome." As for the Holden Caulfield angle, or the enormously sweet relationship between Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the new girl (Jena Malone, always terrific), the film can only strike a glancing blow, since Donnie's metaphysical journey overwhelms any deeper character-sketching.
And how about that journey anyway? One reason why people might rewatch Donnie Darko is to figure out all that mind-bending stuff about portals and wormholes and rabbit suits that twist up the story so intriguingly. For me, the science-fiction elements are mysterious and perhaps not altogether accountable, though I know I'm not alone in resenting Kelly's attempt to iron everything out on the DVD commentary for the film. (And on a related note: I have never seen the "Director's Cut" of the film, because I didn't care much for the deleted scenes I watched on the original DVD, and didn't want any more of the film spelled out for me.) For me, Kelly not tying up every loose thread and explaining away the film's mysteries is a major plus, though his fiasco of a follow-up, Southland Tales, proves just how easily a movie like this can devolve into a clutter of half-realized ideas and references masquerading as ambition and substance. Here, Kelly has the good sense to let the audience connect the dots and advance their own theories and meanings.
Perhaps we can hammer out the details in the comments section, but here's my general take on it: When Donnie and his girlfriend go to see Evil Dead at the town's single-screen theater, the other movie on the marquee is The Last Temptation Of Christ. To me, this is the skeleton key that puts the entire film in perspective: The whole of Donnie Darko is analogous to the infamous dream sequence in Last Temptation, where Christ is on the cross and fantasizes at length about the life he might have had if he rejected God's plan and embraced his human side. The temptation is appealing: marriage, a home, making love (gasp!) to his wife, having children, etc. Throughout the course of Kelly's film, Donnie comes to realize the tragic consequences of him not being in his room when the plane engine drops through the ceiling; as much as he endeavors to change the world and bend time in his favor, he eventually has to reconcile to his fate.
Or something to that effect, anyway. There are plenty of holes in that interpretation without question—for one, it would never have been revealed that Swayze is harboring a "kiddie-porn dungeon" in his house— but for me, figuring the film out on repeat viewings has always been secondary to simply returning to that world one more time, like a tourist. Kelly piles on the '80s signposts—the amazing soundtrack; the nods to Evil Dead, E.T., Blue Velvet, The Karate Kid, Back To The Future, and Stephen King's It; the reactionary tenor of suburbia in the Reagan era—yet they add up to a specific and deeply personal vision of what it was like to be a teenager in October 1988. And for a guy like me, who at that time was a 17-year-old living in Newt Gingrich's district (Cobb County, Georgia), that's pretty fucking resonant.