Monday, 24 October 2011

Donnie Darko: a true contemporary classic

Donnie Darko crept into cinemas six weeks after 9/11. Out in the real world a decade of confusion, paranoia and fear had began, so it was no surprise audiences stayed away. Richard Kelly's movie is a strange, dark work full of unusual and occasionally unpleasant characters behaving in disturbing and destructive ways. It could have even been the film’s bittersweet streak, as punishing and beautiful as a night spent with the object of your unrequited love, which kept the box office receipts low. Whatever the reason, the film didn’t break even on its theatrical release and grossed little more than $4.1 million across the globe, $400,000 less than it cost to make.

Ten years on, the film has become a success for a host of reasons. Like many of the best movies, it snags one’s mind first time around but rewards on each repeated watch, offering up unmissed subtleties each time.

The eponymous troubled teen is sensitively played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who owns the screen each time he appears, even when a man in an unspeakably scary rabbit suit shares it with him. When we first see Darko he is lying asleep in the middle of the road on a hill above his hometown at dawn. This is a brilliant, beguiling and unorthodox way to begin the film, abetted by Stephen Poster’s stunning cinematography. Poster knows a thing or 50 about the creation of visually arresting images: he was second unit director of photography on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner.

With the film having opened with such a lucid statement of intent, Darko cycles down the hill towards home, perhaps mirroring the mental and emotional descent he is about to embark on. As he rides, the first song of an inspired soundtrack plays. It is Echo & the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon, a midnight tale of beauty and darkness.. Richard Kelly initially wanted INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart for the opening. Although the Australian band’s song is worthy of inclusion and was released in 1988, when Darko is set, it can be no match for the incredible blend of bombast and yearning provided by Ian McCulloch's group.

When we meet Darko’s family, there' a conversation about the merits of then-presidential candidate George H.W Bush and Michael Dukakis. This is quickly forgotten as rivalry between Donnie and older sibling Elizabeth (played, in a stroke of clever/obvious casting, by Jake Gyllenhaal's sister Maggie) quickly escalates into unnecessary but hilarious profanity around the dinner table. The squabble also contains Darko’s first mention of his mental illness and hints at the psychological unravelling to come.

What follows is  confusing, fantastical, and tense, but always compelling. We’re inducted into Darko’s school life with Tears For Fears’ mellifluous Head Over Heels and are introduced to coke-sniffing school bully Seth Devlin, inspiring teacher Karen Pomeroy (played to frustrated perfection by co-producer Drew Barrymore) and a host of others.

Most scenes are either captivating from start to finish or contain a memorable incident, from Dr Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) and Darko’s conversation about time travel, to the movie’s greatest line. Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), Darko’s nascent love interest, askes where she should sit in her new class. Pomeroy replies, “Sit next to the boy you think is the cutest.” Elsewhere, Patrick Swayze is a revelation as self-help guru with a secret Jim Cunningham, while Beth Grant’s Kitty Farmer is monstrous as that most dangerous of authority figures: a pushy mum and an ignorant teacher.

Categories have their uses, but maybe one of the reasons Donnie Darko failed commercially is its refusal to sit comfortable within one. It is a comedy, drama, high school movie, fantasy and love story with moments of terror. It’s also an intelligent, discursive film. Amid the chats about Smurfs’ reproductive organs, there is a constant moral probing at work, with Darko, Pomeroy and Monnitoff loosely on the side of good and Cunningham, Farmer and Devlin more firmly in the camp of evil. What makes Farmer perhaps the most interesting of these is that she would never consider herself a bad person.

There is an argument that Donnie Darko is rather pretentious. By writing and directing a film so clever, beautiful and complex, Richard Kelly is perhaps showing off his intelligence and storytelling skill a bit too much. Fair comment, but so what? Usain Bolt is a show-off and he’s the fastest man in the world. It’s only when the work you produce lacks merit that your methods or temperament matter to anybody except your colleagues or loved ones. Lemmy from Motorhead collects Nazi memorabilia, but that doesn’t make Ace of Spades any less amazing. As for Kelly, he leapt up his own bottom when he went on to make Southland Tales, a mess worse than a post-party kitchen.

Donnie Darko is a film with murder, arson, flooding, teen sex, time travel, disturbing apocalyptic dreams, unconscious masturbation, school talent contests and references to Graham Greene. A decade on, it is still haunting and hilarious and should be revered like the modern classic it so clearly is.