Donnie Darko, for a sci-fi teen comedy about a boy and his imaginary friend saving/ending the world via the means of time travel and revealing paedophile's sex lairs to the world, is actually quite a small film. Perhaps the best way of explaining why it’s so good is to compare it against Richard Kelly’s next, Southland Tales, a film which is generally agreed to be a complete car-wreck.
Southland Tales touches on those same tropes, all the end-of-the-world stuff, purple prose and extreme drama mixed with comedy, but it’s swollen. There are dozens of characters vying for lead role, setpieces piling upon setpieces, musical segments… And it’s not just a (rather long) film, either- there are comic books and a fictional script, trying to fully explain all the complexities of the plot.
Donnie Darko, by contrast, is tight. It knows – and this is one of those films where the ‘it’ rather than the ‘he’ seems worth considering – exactly what it can achieve in its hour and three-quarters. The sci-fi plot is equally twisty and borderline nonsensical, but that’s just a backdrop, really, to the story of Donnie. A teenager growing up in a small town with emotional problems and fearsome intelligence, who meets a girl, grows up a little, and makes a decision. The story of one boy.
And, okay, to some extent one small community (most of whom we get to know fairly intimately at some point) too. The end of the world is bandied around, but it’s never a true threat. Not beyond the small contained world of Middlesex, at least. It’s a world populated by absolutely fantastic actors - Patrick Swayze, Holmes Osborne, Seth Rogen – and one which is laid out effortlessly, mostly by a couple of wordless sequences, some of the finest moments in the film. The camera sweeps through the suburban streets, the corridors of a school, to music plucked perfectly from the ‘80s.
One month. The film regularly turns back to a countdown, white text on black announcing how many days are left. At the very longest, it’s 28 days and all that time travel stuff I mentioned is really only over the space of a few days. At one point, Frank, the terrifying bunny thing, removes his gnarled mask to reveal idiosyncratically long hair and one destroyed eye, speaking in riddles. Why is he called Frank? “It was the name of my father and his father before me”. The film teases that maybe Frank is from the far-flung future, but in the end he’s simply not.
This is not to say, not to even momentarily suggest, that Donnie Darko is not ambitious.
(A stray paragraph here about the Gyllenhaals. I’m not really the kind of person who is a fan of particular actors; it’s not a skill I can necessarily spot – in the same way that, say, great technical guitar playing means little to me - but this film set up my love of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal for life. They deliver every line absolutely perfectly. A quick example: when his girlfriend confides her father has emotional problems, Donnie cheerily responds “Oh, I have those too! What kind of emotional problems does your dad have?”. It helps that they’re both stunningly attractive, of course.)
Within those self-established confines, it does everything. Trippy sci-fi visuals - Frank’s bunny suit, the wobbly translucent ‘spears’ that grow out of people’s chests – rub effortlessly against straight-up comedy. “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.” “How did you feel, being denied these Hungry, Hungry Hippos?” I could quote funny lines from this film as long as any comedy film on this list, and they’re deployed with precision.
A precision that leaks into all corners; Kelly has the mind of a great music video director. Not just in those montage-y soundtrack sequences, that collage of image and sound, but in simple camerawork like the first time we and Donnie meet Frank. He’s standing on a mound in a golf course in a long shot which fades into a close-up of Donnie, placing the nightmarish rabbit firmly within the outline of his head. Or how the whole screen tilts 90°, turning the letterbox on its side, to show brain-twisting moments. Donnie Darko is at its best when it’s understated, using the power of suggestion. Like how the wormhole portal – the symbol of escape – opens up in the middle of a cinema screen. Of course it does.
Again, this is all in the interests of keeping it tight. When it tries to explain its ideas directly – like in the much-maligned Director’s Commentary, or the moments of full-on cod philosophy. Some of the lines in this film, make no mistake, are of prose of deepest purple.
And make no mistake, it totally is a traditional teen film; in at least some ways. The complex web of high school relations; the stock characters- the hard-case bully and his tagalong, the inspirational teachers… There’s a Mom and Dad’re Out Of Town House Party! But they’re not cliché, quite.
People talk about how The Inbetweeners is just sooo accurate of their teenage years. And maybe it is. Donnie Darko mixes that John Hughes quality, of the youth you wish you’d had, with something that feels like exaggerated reality. (And, personal sidenote, those teachers, young and rebellious but caring, who get sacked, for me has a pretty direct correlation to two teachers I had at an impressionable point in my youth.)
I love art about the teenaged condition, more than is possibly healthy for someone of my age; Black Hole, Sleigh Bells, Buffy… They all amp those emotions up to match how how it felt, that mingling of great pop songs and girls and HIGHEST DRAMA. Everything turned up as high as it’ll go, all the comedy and love and terrifying rabbits from the future. Just like real life.