It’s A Wonderful Death – Donnie Darko Revisit

Because this happened to come up recently (and there is talk of a sequel), and because I’m still working a bit on changing over and don’t have so much time to really get to work here – I’m going to revisit my Donnie Darko review.  I hope you enjoy it.

For something a bit more recent, you can check out my review of Leatherheads over at CinemaBlend.  I enjoyed it more than a lot of critics.

Warning. There is virtually no sense in which this review could be thought not to ‘spoil’ the movie. On the other hand, I try not to talk about much that happens. Figure that out.

All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces

There are a lot of things you can say about the movie Donnie Darko (and believe me, I’m going to), but the one I find oddly most interesting is that it has one of the best soundtracks ever, and you can’t get the soundtrack. By ‘best’, I mean that the soundtrack is made up of songs with definite purpose, whose lyrics relate precisely to the story. By ‘can’t get’, I mean that the movie’s budget was so limited that it wasn’t possible to get the rights to get the songs on a CD.

On the DVD, along with a host of special features, there is a commentary track with writer/director Richard Kelly and the movie’s main star, Jake Gyllenhall. We learn some interesting things by partaking of the movie with this commentary track on. First, we learn that the movie is in some sense even smarter than it is. Second, we learn that whatever it is that makes a great writer and great director is perhaps far removed from whatever it is that makes a person good at making a commentary track. It’s not altogether uninteresting, but it told me virtually nothing I wanted to know. On the other hand, there is no one I am more interested in seeing more from than Richard Kelly. No one.

I fear there is no way to explain Donnie Darko. Richard Kelly can’t do it, and it’s his movie. It’s a movie that is in some sense purposely obscure (according to Kelly), such that there is more than one way to see things, and there are several interpretations of things, none of which can be called ‘wrong’ in any serious way. This being the case, I have invented my own addition to the title of the film, Donnie Darko: It’s a Wonderful Death.

Donnie Darko introduces us to highschool lad Donnie (Jake GyllenhaalThe Good Girl, Moonlight Mile), and he’s a lad with problems. Long under the care of a psychiatrist, Donnie’s main problem seems to be extreme non-fitting-in-ness. That and the odd sleepwalking he does, and the demonic six-foot rabbit he keeps seeing who tells Donnie the world will end in just under a month.

Donnie Darko Movie Review

And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had

At the beginning of our story, said Rabbit (his name is Frank) calls Donnie out of bed to have a little chat with him. While Donnie is away, a jet engine falls from the sky and crashes right into his bedroom. Bizarre as this might be, and certain very official-looking people are quite interested, we soon go about our lives, though we do spend a few nights in a hotel.

The movie splits (sort of…), and though we are always focusing on Donnie, we are moved back and forth between two emphases. The one ‘movie’ simply looks at Donnie’s life, and what happens. A new student at the school, Gretchen (Jena Malone – Stepmom, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), enters Donnie’s life, and as Donnie semi-unwittingly gives away, he wouldn’t have met her if not for certain manipulated events.

Throughout this focus of the movie, Donnie and Gretchen get closer, Donnie goes to class, life goes on. We meet several of his highschool teachers. One is an absolute nut who has given herself to the darkside that is yet another self-help guru, going so far as to include his witless psychobabble into her class structure. Another is the somewhat stereotypical ‘good teacher’ who is really trying to make a difference, and is naturally disowned by the system. Yet another is a science teacher that helps guide Donnie, but alas can only talk about so much because the conversations angle off toward ‘that which teachers cannot talk about’. It’s not sex, it’s the other one.

This is the side of the movie where young people go about basically being stupid (not in a particularly bad way, just in a young way), teasing each other, feeling hopeless and bored, and meeting wide-eyed, useless platitudes, if not complete indifference, at every turn.

The other side of the movie follows Donnie in the more personal sense. His efforts to understand time travel, as he is led to believe this may have something to do with what is happening to him. His encounters with Frank (don’t forget that he’s a six-foot, demonic rabbit), and Frank’s commands to Donnie that result in some seriously reckless activity. The flooding of the basement at the school, and the torching of a certain person’s home. Here we also find Donnie’s trips to his psychiatrist, his interactions with his family, and his attempts to understand the bizarre circumstances of his life.

Naturally, the two ‘films’ overlap at times, and come together in the end.

Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me

If you haven’t guessed from my clever title, the gimmick is that Donnie was ‘supposed’ to die when that engine hit his house. Everything that follows after that point is (in the vernacular of the film’s creator) an alternate timeline. I think of it as being simply the corresponding ‘event’ to watching what would have happened a la ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, except that obviously you aren’t ‘outside’ events, because the trick isn’t ‘let’s see what happens if you died (or hadn’t existed)’, but ‘let’s see what happens if you didn’t’. So, you’re still there.

The situation is a little different, and Frank can give an exact time-frame for our little endeavor, because things are a bit more controlled. The powers that be are pulling strings, and setting things up by manipulating the actors on the stage. People are saying and doing things to put Donnie in the proper places, so that ultimately he will make the ‘right’ decision, but also so that he will learn what he needs to learn. In Wonderful Life, our man learned that things turned out horribly without him, and he learned to appreciate how great he really had things. He learned to appreciate life. Here, our man learns how horribly things turn out with him, and he learns to appreciate…, well, maybe he just learns how to appreciate. Maybe, depending on how you choose to look at things, he doesn’t really learn a whole lot. He doesn’t exactly have the same sort of epiphany as our man in Wonderful Life (though he manages a hell of a giggle out of the thing). His is a subtler epiphany (if there can be such a thing), but it is also the same epiphany. Though these are very different looks at things, the end result in both cases is that you find you wouldn’t really change things.

Whatever we make of the plot, what really makes this movie one of the best and most memorable of all time (seriously), are the details. It’s not really whether or not the story is ‘good’ (though I think it is), it’s that the movie tells that story so perfectly, and with such incredible precision. This is tricky ground, in more ways than one, and everything has to be just so. It’s an admittedly bizarre (Kelly calls it ‘comic-book’, though I’d lean more toward ‘graphic novel’) mix of sci-fi, superhero, and metaphysics. Making things more difficult, and some might say better, it’s a movie that doesn’t take any easy out by telling you what’s going on. That sounds strange even to me, but if the movie came right out and said we were dealing with angels or aliens, we’d at least start with some hope of finding footing. Not only does the movie not take a stand on the more serious ‘what’s going on’ question, Kelly will tell you later that he doesn’t know himself. It’s not really important. Love or hate that idea, it’s bold. If the movie picks what’s going on, no matter what it picks, it’s a slightly different statement.

But as I said, it’s the details that really matter. The story can suck you in to some degree, but the details turn it into something completely engrossing. Little details like excellent acting, brilliant direction and cinematography, challenging dialogue, and even a soundtrack filled with late 80s songs that might as well have been written for the movie.

Jake Gyllenhaal is simply amazing as the solid, yet unstable, foundation for this nightmarish turmoil. His centered-shot, maniacal, backlit grin is instant classic material (see Rules of Attraction for its first copy), and his ability to snap in and out from his ‘visions’ is done to perfection. He has to carry this movie almost completely by himself, and he does so brilliantly.

The entire supporting cast (with the unfortunate exception of the movie’s ‘godmother’, Drew Barrymore) performs beyond expectations. They are limited roles, but the most is made of them. It’s also a diverse and interesting cast. Mary McDonnell (Dances with Wolves, Independence Day), Noah Wyle, Jena Malone, and others, alongside Patrick Swayze who is perfect as the self-help guru, as well as none other than Katharine Ross (Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Graduate) as Donnie’s therapist.

Donnie Darko doesn’t simply set you on the road of this ‘Wonderful Death’ idea, it takes up the challenge in a pretty serious way. The catchphrase of the quest is ‘Everyone dies alone’, and Donnie, whatever else he may be, is not at peace with that idea. It oozes out of him onto every aspect of the movie. He points at it directly several times, most notably in a discussion with his psychiatrist. At one point in the conversation she asks, “The search for God is absurd?”

“It is if everyone dies alone,” he replies. That’s an overly simplistic, perhaps childlike spin to put on things, but it’s damn right.

Donnie is a kid with problems sure, but perhaps mainly because he’s got a lot of questions, and no answers. At the top of his list, he’s wondering (in keeping with the theme song) if it really is a ‘Mad World’. It seems like it is, and taking on the persona of a deranged, hopelessly pessimistic Socrates, Donnie fuels his fate not by having answers himself, but by knowing no one else has any either. While Socrates perhaps found a comfort in the realization that pretenders to knowledge had none, Donnie finds nothing but disillusionment. Ultimately, Donnie gets no answers, it actually is a mad world after all, but he discovers at least that there is perhaps a method to the madness. It seems a mad world, and it seems that everyone dies alone, but it seemed like you’d change things if you could, and if one seeming didn’t pan out, maybe the others don’t either.

There is a nice encapsulation in this movie, and it’s an interesting device that is becoming very rare. It’s nice to see it again. It was once not uncommon for a movie to have a scene in it which was actually the story of the entire movie in one brief glimpse. The masterpiece of this idea is found in Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, where the ‘bridge scene’ delivers the entire message of the movie. Kelly does not make anything like as serious an attempt at the idea, but he still does (though I’m not absolutely sure he knows it). In one scene, Donnie sees Frank again while at a movie theater. Their conversation is a restatement of the entire movie, culminating in Donnie asking Frank why he wears that stupid bunny suit, and Frank responding by asking Donnie why he wears that stupid man suit.

At the end of the movie, we stroll alongside several of our main characters as they (apparently due to some magical event that corresponds with Donnie’s ‘decision’, and the rebound back into the proper time) are confronted with themselves. We see Donnie’s teachers, the self-help guru, his disciple, our integral (though otherwise not mentioned in this review) ‘fat girl’ who has been on the receiving end of much teasing, and even Frank. We fly over these people with ‘Mad World’ carrying us along. A small moment, in these people’s lives, of extreme introspection. Only the fat girl smiles.

It’s tricky, this movie that seems not to have a definite answer. There doesn’t look to be much ammunition to use against those who might say it makes no sense. Except that it doesn’t matter. It pulls you into a mysterious, absorbing set of circumstances, and there is sense to be made in the end. I have my version of what I think is going on, and I’m not sure Kelly would agree with me. But, if it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t matter. It’s the story of Donnie Darko, and this is what happened to him. It’s not a movie about answers, and answers aren’t interesting in any case. Questions are interesting, and there are more questions here than in most any ten movies combined. You may not love it because of all the unresolved thinking it made you do, but in the movies defense, you don’t love it because of all the unresolved thinking it made you do.

Hello teacher tell me what’s my lesson
Look right through me, look right through me


Marc Eastman
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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