Donnie Darko (2001)

The faint light of dawn is not enough to make out much as the camera follows the winding road down. It’s uncertain where we are going, or what we’ll see until a lump appears on the road, our protagonist, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), is as lost and confused as the audience is likely to be by the end of the road. Much like the opening shot the film is unclear, obscure and idyllic. Where it’s taking us, what’s going on and more importantly when it is going to get around to explaining all this is not something the film is interested in letting us know.

On the surface the film is the tale of an out of place teenager who has got some mental issues. But his imaginary friend Frank (James Duval), a man in a disturbing bunny suit, suggests there’s more going on, that there’s something wrong with this world and that it will soon come to an end. Is this the tale of a troubled teen who is compensating for the crummy state of the world around him or an enlightened being becoming fully aware of an entirely new dimension.

Part of the beauty of the film is that the character has space for either possibility. There’s time when his rebellion seems more like ramblings of a child suffering Tourette syndrome but other times he’s got some truly enlightening, if inappropriately hilarious, points to make. Either way he’s a disturbed and haunted individual who is either a delusional fool or a man burdened by the truth in a world full of lies. The way that the film allows space for both interpretations while distinctly defining him as a character is one of the film’s many subtle, brilliant strokes.

However, the plot itself does make one conclusion certain. I’ve always struggled with the end. A strong part of me wants a film that allows the audience to draw their own conclusion, make what they will of this Donnie Darko. Yet without the definitiveness of the ending the film would quickly run out of narrative and meander into a series of disjointed and unrelated sequences. Upon repeat viewings it becomes apparent how intricate and complex the film is and how there’s all these elements at work.

It’s a puzzle putting it altogether and trying to make the film work in a logical sense. I hesitate to spoil anything but let me just say that the pieces are a bit scrambled. In fact, trying to make it all fit together presents these two extremes for me. Either I’m investing far too much attention in every scene trying to ascribe meaning to every last shred of possibility or I’m simply not paying enough attention. Like most opposing extremes the solution is probably somewhere between the two but there’s stretches where I’d swear nothing important is happening and other stretches where it seems every last line has some double meaning.

Some people will never get to such a meta-level with the film as they’ll be put off by a lot of things along the way. The film can be rather crass at times as the protagonist has a blunt, profane way of putting a lot of things. More than a few F-bombs have been launched by the end and there’s not a lot held as sexually taboo. It’s hilariously inappropriate at times and at other times unnecessarily foul. But the film is only as disturbed and offensive as its protagonist.

And the language might not be as near off putting to some as that disturbing rabbit suit. The film has got a good taste for the surreal and bizarre in the stylistic vein of David Lynch. It’s not quite the deliberate mental screw over that Lynch delights in but the film has its share of under lit, creepy rabbit action going on. On that level alone it works as this distinctly obscuring film with a number of scenes that made me wonder if someone fiddled with the brightness level on my television.

And like the style the film is just deliberately obtuse. Some might say it goes out of its way to alienate audience members and that it is deliberately trying to be a cult classic. Make something, bizarre, obscure and offensive enough and people will love it. But such though circumvents trying to engage the film on another level and understand that Donnie Darko exists in a dimension that few films even acknowledge. I’m still not sure if it’s a dimension I particularly want to be aware of but it makes for an interesting mind puzzle and a distinct experience.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

Donnie Darko (Collector’s Edition) [Blu-ray]