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Saturday, April 19, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Donnie Darko (2001)


Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell

Donnie Darko is a masterful blend of science fiction and psychological coming-of-age drama. Ostensibly concerning a tangent universe that must be contained and resolved by the title character before it collapses and takes our own universe with it, there is an undercurrent running through the film having to do with misplaced sexual desire. Donnie’s mission in the film isn’t just to save the world, it’s also to eliminate these sexually taboo elements.

The story begins with Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) being summoned from his bed by Frank, a rabbit from another dimension who speaks to him. This saves Donnie’s life since while he’s out, a jet engine falls from the sky and lands directly on his bedroom. The engine is a mystery, since no one knows where it came from (the answer is that it came from another dimension and came to this one through a wormhole). Frank continues to guide Donnie’s life, encouraging him to flood the school and burn down a house. He will also kill the real Frank and close the Tangent Universe in order to save the real one, the one in which Frank does not call him from his bed and he’s killed when the jet engine falls through his roof.

Through a book written by Gradma Death/Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland) and read by Donnie, much of what is going on is explained. At midnight on the night the jet engine (“the Artifact”) falls through his roof, the Tangent Universe branches off from the Primary Universe, destined to collapse in 28 days due to its instability. Donnie is the “Living Receiver” who has the power to contain the Tangent Universe in order to save the Primary Universe from being eliminated with it. Those who die in the Tangent Universe but not the Primary Universe are the “Manipulated Dead,” the rest are the “Manipulated Living.” Of the other characters, Frank is the only one who seems to have some subtle understanding of what is happening, though I think an argument could be made that Donnie’s mother, Rose (Mary McDonnell), also has some sense that something is off-kilter.

Underlying all of this is the suggestion of forbidden sexual desires. Textually, there is the fact that Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) is found to be involved in a child pornography ring after Donnie burns down his house. Subtextually, there is the suggestion that Donnie harbours sexual desires for his sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Elizabeth’s boyfriend is Frank (James Duval), who will show up at Halloween dressed in the rabbit costume that haunts Donnie. Donnie and Frank are very closely connected because both have some awareness of the real and tangent universes and are able to communicate across their boundaries. In one scene, Donnie asks Frank “Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?” and Frank replies, “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” Both are hiding something beneath a fa├žade. When Frank removes his mask, showing us his face for the first time, we see a bloody hole in his eye, which we learn later has been made by Donnie. Donnie shoots Frank because he runs over Donnie’s girlfriend, Gretchen (Jena Malone), but he’s also eliminating his rival for Elizabeth.

Rabbits permeate the story, especially in Donnie’s English class, where the assigned reading is Watership Down. In a class discussion of the novel, Donnie asserts that being a rabbit wouldn’t be so bad because all they do is have sex, and that it’s difficult to feel badly for the rabbits who die in the novel. This foreshadows the death of Frank, who is presumably having sex with Elizabeth, and whom Donnie kills with barely a second thought. All of this is of course open to other interpretations, but the best evidence that there’s something sexually untoward going on inside of Donnie’s head is in a scene where he’s hypnotized. His therapist attempts to talk to him about his family, but Donnie wants to talk about sex, sheepishly telling her that he doesn’t fantasize about his family as his hand begins to go into his pants and the therapist quickly pulls him out of hypnosis.

Donnie Darko is a good film, but less successful than it is ambitious. It aspires to much more than it actually achieves, and some of its pieces just don’t fit together. It exists in two forms, the original cut and the director’s cut. The director’s cut more or less holds your hand, explaining what is happening as plainly as it could possibly be explained, while the original is somewhat elusive. Both are great, but my preference is for the original and if you’ve never seen the film, my suggestion is to see the original first and then watch the director’s cut in order to fill in the blanks.

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