As it features Echo & The Bunnymen’s single The Killing Moon within its first five minutes, and Joy Division’s epochal Love Will Tear Us Apart within its last ten, Donnie Darko is the sort of film I have a natural weakness for. It plays like an 80’s version of American Beauty. And while it’s nicely ironic, well written and cleverly engineered – too cleverly engineered, really – I think it lets itself down badly in execution. An awful lot of signposts the movie needs to make it understandable are down, unclear, or just flat out missing.
As a result the film is largely incoherent. Many of the positive reviews praise it for a dark post modernism which I really don’t think was intended. There’s a fine line between post modernism and incoherence, of course.
A case in point: the episode where a jet engine falls out of the sky but which no-one reports as missing. Rather than being a wry satire of corporate responsibility and American victim culture, this is actually intended as plain old daft science fiction: it isn’t reported as missing, because it has fallen through a wormhole in the space-time continuum from another universe. You don’t discover this until much later in the film. But at least you do find out eventually: there are several aspects which are key to understanding what is going on that you can only discover by watching the director’s commentary and having the incidents pointed out:
While I was busy soaking up Will Sergeant’s jangling guitars in the chorus of the Killing Moon, Frank appears briefly in the first scene of the film, driving past the camera in a red Mustang, having dropped Donnie’s sister off after a date. He is also mentioned briefly as having died thirty years ago driving to Donnie’s father’s school prom. These are important to the exposition (and understanding whether Frank is real, an apparition, or a figment of Donnie’s deranged mind) but without the director’s commentary you would (on a first viewing) be none the wiser. Similarly underemphasised is the fact that, as Donnie leaves the house on the night of the jet engine incident, he moves into a parallel universe. There is nothing at all in the script that, as far as I could see, gave any hint of that. Nor of the fact that Donnie’s pills are only a placebo. The film toys with the question of whether or not Donnie is schizophrenic, but never answers it.
In general, Donnie Darko asks a lot more questions than it answers, and by the end of the show I was kicking around a further question: “what on earth was that all about?”
Which I don’t think is a good thing.
Director: Richard Kelly
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell
Runtime: 113 min