What the eff??? 10 minutes into Donnie Darko it looks like an artsy drama. 30 minutes in it introduces the notion of insanity and therapeutic psychology. 50 minutes in your mind is haphazardly propped up against the wall singing lullabies to your inner child. Donnie Darko, like the title character, is either brilliantly profound or certifiably insane. The first time I watched this pilgrimage of a film my housemate and I spent the next few hours, well past the hour of “late”, arguing over its philosophy. Whether theoretically genius or clinically nuts, Donnie Darko is wholeheartedly a movie on acid.
The pace of this film is fairly slow, but there is so much happening it would be unfair to the viewer to speed it up. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled teen who meets a 6 foot tall rabbit during one of his sleep-walking escapades. This rabbit introduces Donnie to the idea of time travel and encourages him to vandalize property before time runs out and the world comes to an end. The rabbit’s name is Frank. He is the stuff of nightmares. Donnie, being totally brilliant albeit a little socially awkward, searches for meaning behind Frank’s warning and dives into a study of time. He finds answers in a philosophy book written by the crazy old lady down the street, Grandma Death (Patience Cleveland), but when this book starts to mirror Donnie’s visits from Frank, he slips deeper and deeper into what we can only diagnose as schizophrenic tendencies.
The movie’s structure mirrors Donnie’s descent into insanity (whether it is medically acknowledged insanity or Donnie’s reasoning that he must be insane). It starts off fairly rudimentary until, wham, a jet engine smashes through the roof of their house. This is clue number one. Frank now appears in all his horrific glory but, to Donnie, he’s a welcome friend, not a traumatizing apparition. These weird little moments build subtly until the film has hardly any solid foundation to cling to. There are also hidden messages that pop up here and there in Donnie’s waking life which are so subtle they’re hard to pinpoint let alone decipher. For example: the polarization of fear and love. The idea that life is made of these two extremes, no exceptions, is presented to Donnie (and we the viewers) by the Evangelist gym teacher with a degree from the University of Sesame Street. Ridiculous as the teacher may be – making us zone out as much as everyone else in the class – the lesson turns out to be one of the fundamental philosophies of the film. Take Frank: the rabbit is the epitome of a drug-induced frightfest, but in Donnie’s eyes he’s a friend and ally. Is Donnie’s immune to fear? Is there ever a moment in the film when Donnie is genuinely afraid? What is fear anyway? Is it beaten by love or can it only exist because of love? And so on, and so on.
Aside from the establishment of deep, troubling black holes in the cavities of your mind, and the promise of sleepless hours picking away at every line in search of clues to assemble the philosophy, Donnie Darko makes its point with a surprisingly star-studded cast. It includes Jake Gyllenhaal’s sister (on stage and off), Maggie Gyllenhaal, along with Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Jenna Malone, Seth Rogen, and High School Musical’s Ashley Tisdale. The set must have felt like a Mickey Mouse Club for the dramatically driven and mentally misunderstood.
So yes, Donnie Darko is totally messed up in… let me think… yep, in every single way. It is dark, confusing, horrific, unsettling, and angsty, oh so angsty. Donnie goes from being a rebellious teen to the embodiment of the Cheshire Cat on depressants. I could spend hours talking about the meaning behind each little turn of phrase and every prop chosen to sit in the background, but I will leave it here with a 10/10 so that I may go brood in peace.