Saturday, 6 February 2016

Elwood's Essentials #14 - Donnie Darko

Title: Donnie Darko
Director:  Richard Kelly
Released: 2001
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Holmes Osborne, Daveigh Chase, James Dubal, Beth Grant, Seth Rogen, Patience Cleveland, Jolene Purdy

Plot: Donnie Darko (Gyllenhaal) a complex teenager prones to bouts of sleep walking finds himself being given a prophetic warning by a mysterious figure called Frank in a demonic bunny costume that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.

Review: Unquestionably a key film in my personal film education as this is one of those films where I can still remember everything about that screening while at the same time putting it in a very exclusive club. More so few films have inspired these kinds of memories while Richard Kelly is still the only director to have two films like this. At the same time by the time this film had finished after that original screening I wanted to rush out and instantly discuss it with someone while perhaps knowing back then that this film was hardly the easiest premise to sell people on. Still originally destined for a direct to video release it was saved by Drew Barrymore’s production company “Flower Films” who enabled the film to have a theatrical release. However despite the film now having a large cult following it was initially a flop in the states only to find its audience in the UK much like Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”. 

Despite being his debut film Kelly directs this film with a truely unique vision for the story he wants to tell while at the same time finding a perfect leading man for his psychologically complex hero in Jake Gyllenhaal who like his sister Maggie here appearing as Donnie’s sister Elizabeth was still an unknown at this point and through this film managed to finally find his breakout role. Infact looking at the cast while many have gone on to more mainstream roles at this point Patrick Swayze was probably the best known name on the cast, alongside Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore but despite this there is really no member of the cast who doesn’t deliver on their characters

Donnie meanwhile is far from your traditional type of hero, which I guess is only fitting as this is anything but a traditional type of story. Here though Donnie is seen as having various issues in his life which his parents are attempting to resolve by sending him to counselling while at school he is seen as something of an oddball, not popular enough to be one of the cool kids yet not so unhip to be at the bottom of the social order which is no doubt one of the many reasons this film spoke to me back on that original screening. Throughout the film the closest Donnie gets to a friend are his two bumbling sidekick-of-sorts Ronald and Sean but the person who has the closest bond to him is his girlfriend Gretchen (Malone) who herself comes with her own set of issues having moved to town with her mother to escape her violent stepfather.

While Donnie and Gretchen’s relationship is a key part of the film it somehow never overshadows the main meat of the story which see’s Donnie exploring the principles and theories of time travel as he tries to figure out the mystery of Frank and the increasingly strange visions he finds himself beginning to suffer especially when his initial meeting with Frank saves him from being crushed under a stray jet engine which mysteriously crashes through his bedroom ceiling. At the same time though Kelly knows when to use Donnie and Gretchen’s relationship and when to push it to the background as he crafts a truly believable relationship between their characters while ensuring because of this groundwork that he lays that the final twist is suitably devastating.

While Donnie’s journey is one which is as gripping as it confusing, its one which is only made the more enjoyable by the catalogue of interesting characters he encounters over the course of the film from his effortless cool English teacher (Barrymore) whose class on Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors” frequently seems to overshadow so many events of the film. Equally memorable is Patrick Swayze’s motivational speaker Jim Cunningham whose life philosophy based around life’s issues being categorised as being a result of love or fear is memorably torn apart by Donnie in the school assembly from hell.  Each of these supporting characters bringing their own small element to the story while never feeling like they are being included as a way to tie the story together.

The other key aspect of the film is unquestionably the soundtrack with the opening bike ride to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” perfectly setting the tone of the film, while at the same time now ensuring that its nigh impossible to think of anything else when you hear the song in much the same that “Stuck In The Middle” will thanks to Tarantino always bring back memories of “Reservoir Dogs” ear slicing sequence. Elsewhere Kelly manages equal success with his use of Tear for Fears “Head over Heels” and The Church’s “Under The Milky Way” while Gary Jules stripped down version of Tears for Fears “Mad World” hauntingly frames the final montage.

Unquestionably this is a truly unique debut film not only with its premise but also for its genre hoping antics as Kelly sees no issue in combining elements of time travel, surreal imagery and comedy alongside pop culture musing such as how a Smurf orgy would play out and somehow he manages to make it work. Yes this is certainly a strange and at time confusing journey which we are taken on, but at the same time it is an engrossing film and one which only continues to reward with repeat viewings.  At the same time the success of the film would see the film being given a director’s cut which ultimately serves to provide what I felt to be a dumbed down version of the film as additional footage only served to explain away more of the mystery which made the film so memorable to begin with, while Kelly changing out music for his original choices ironically fail to have the same impact as his original choices.

As important a film now as it was when it was released this film really has lost nothing despite being ever more of a cult favourite especially with pages of theories available online as we continue to try and figure out what exactly its all about (try pausing the film on Grandma Death's diary pages) while a misguided attempt to continue the story with "S. Darko" only further highlight just how key Richard Kelly was to making this world work, while his follow up "Southland Tales" continues to divide audiences even now. The real mystery though is why Kelly has still been unable to get his forth film made, especially when the likes of Eli Roth and M.Night Shyamalan can seemingly find funding for any half baked idea they can attach a hook to, making us only the more hungry to see where Kelly takes us next when he does return.

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