Donnie Darko (review)

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Choose Your Own Psychotic Breakdown

(Best of 2001)

We were teenagers in the 1980s, and we gobbled up the stories of our cinematic counterparts, like Ferris Bueller and Marty McFly. But their happy popcorn angst isn’t how it was for us — we should have had it so easy. No, we endured the high divorce rates of our parents and stock market crashes and the constant threat of nuclear war (and no one coddled us with therapists and grief counselors like today’s kids get to help them deal with the specter of terrorism). And we didn’t complain.

You didn’t think we’d keep quiet forever, did you?

On October 2, 1988, Donnie Darko — a euphemistic “troubled teen” — receives a dreamlike message from a satanic bunny named Frank, that the world will be ending on October 30. Donnie accepts this news fairly stoically, but it’s just the beginning of a month of nightmares about destruction that Donnie then re-creates in real life. Or does he? Is anything that happens between the warning to Donnie of impending apocalypse and the date of its predicted arrival real? Is it all a drug-induced hallucination? Or a psychosis-induced fantasy?

For Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal: October Sky) does indeed visit a therapist (Katharine Ross), not to alleviate any dread about impending apocalypse, nuclear or otherwise, but to treat his sleepwalking, his hallucinations, his general “detachment from reality” with hypnosis and, of course, pharmaceuticals. But who can blame him for being detached? His life in generic Middlesex, in upper-middle-class American suburbia, is a struggle to keep one’s sanity in an anti-intellectual environment in which “You need to go back to grad school” is an insult, and in which the impossible solutions to complicated problems are presupposed to be feel-good Band-Aids dished out by motivational gurus. In Gyllenhaal’s capable hands, Donnie is a tormented hero fighting for the right, nay the duty, to be alienated from such a reality. His Donnie is an Elwood P. Dowd for the dawning of a new era, one in which we stopped pretending that Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America was anything other than bullshit, a Dowd whose Harvey invites him to follow him into the future. The sick joke on Donnie is that there is no future… which is exactly how it seemed to teens in the 80s.

Ferris Bueller, call your office.

Donnie Darko is, in fact, what Ferris Bueller’s Day Off might have been if David Lynch had ever gotten his hands on it, a daring, disturbing, visionary debut from 26-year-old writer/director Richard Kelly. Its temporally spiraling plot is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book transferred to the screen, influenced by music videos and tempered with a fatalistic sense of humor that makes twisted reference to other beloved Xer relics of the 80s: Donnie’s impassioned, intellectual diatribe about Smurf reproductive habits brings to mind Stand by Me’s Superman–versus–Mighty Mouse debate; Donnie and his friends racing their bikes through the dark streets of Middlesex on the night of pre-Halloween partying is nothing so much as an allusion to E.T…. and to all the subtle creepiness of what is mostly remembered as a light fantasy.

True to the spirit of the time is Kelly’s casting of Donnie, with his superhero-esque name, as a genuine hero, transforming the suicidal impulses of adolescence into an act of gallantry, one that goes utterly unrecognized. It’s a cynical and pessimistic attitude, but it reflects the feeling of Xers that we’ve been ignored and unappreciated our whole lives… and also that that doesn’t matter. We know the good deeds we’ve done, even when they go unnoticed and hence uncelebrated.

Marty McFly, call your office.

(For those of you playing along at home, Jake Gyllenhaal has now redeemed himself for Bubble Boy.)

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