Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
Country: United States
It’s interesting to ponder what Richard Kelly’s career as a filmmaker might have been if he had made his films just a little bit later. I’m not just referring to the fact that Donnie Darko, his feature film debut in which the inciting incident is a jet engine falling from the sky and into a suburban home, was released mere weeks after September 11th, dooming it to an extremely limited release; but also to his two subsequent films, 2007’s incomprehensible Southland Tales and 2009’s underseen and even less loved The Box. While Darko would ultimately be saved from obscurity by becoming embraced as a cult classic, allowing Kelly to revisit it in 2004 with his Director’s Cut and win over some of the critics who were not persuaded by the theatrical cut, there would be no second chances for Southland Tales or The Box, and Kelly hasn’t written or directed anything since. But if The Box had come out in a post-Snowden world of paranoia about the reach of the NSA, and Southland Tales, which was designed to be an “interactive experience” that required a familiarity with a series of graphic novels in order to understand the context and plot of the film, was released now, in an era where audiences seem to want pop culture that can be endlessly dissected and present as puzzles waiting to be “solved,” then maybe Kelly’s career would be entirely different.
In discussing Darko, I’m looking specifically at that 2004 Director’s Cut, which restores twenty minutes that were cut from the theatrical release and includes some of the text from the book within the film “The Philosophy of Time Travel” that explains some of the philosophical and scientific concepts that the narrative is playing with. In that narrative a teenager named Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is summoned from his bed by Frank, a rabbit from another dimension who speaks to him and encourages him to do certain things, which allows him to escape being killed when a jet engine falls from the sky and crashes into his bedroom. Though terrifying when it happens, once his family realizes that he wasn’t killed, it becomes just some strange thing that happened to them, made stranger by the fact that the authorities have no idea where the engine came from. Slowly Donnie comes to understand that the engine came from another dimension via wormhole and that he and everyone around him are living in a Tangent Universe created at midnight on the night of the accident and destined to collapse in 28 days due to its inherent instability. Only Donnie, the “Living Receiver” described in a book written by Roberta Sparrow, known to all the locals as Grandma Death, has the power to close the Tangent Universe and save the Primary Universe from being destroyed with it.
Donnie Darko is the kind of film that begs to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb on the assumption that everything could be a clue as to what is going on. Kelly is a playful filmmaker in that respect, crafting works that function as a kind of direct dialogue between himself and the audience, encouraging the audience to engage with the material as active participants in what is going on. Even though the Director’s Cut of the film does some hand-holding in terms of filling in the blanks and explaining what’s going on, there’s still room enough to make Donnie Darko open to some interpretation. One might accept the story as literally what it’s presented as being, with the majority of the action taking place in a Tangent Universe and Donnie having to close it and sacrifice himself in order to save the real world. One could also see the events that occur in between the beginning and the end as evidence that Donnie is suffering from schizophrenia, with the events of the Tangent Universe being the thought process going on in his head, creating an elaborate narrative that excuses his behavior by attributing it to the lack of free will that everyone experiences in the Tangent, and in which he’s told by his psychiatrist that the meds he’s been taking have only been placebos.
There are numerous theories floating around about Donnie Darko and the fact that viewers can come up with so many plausible explanations for what’s going on is probably a large reason why the film became a cult hit because it invites obsessive fandom. To me, the most interesting interpretation of the film is as a figurative story about forbidden sexual desires. One of Donnie’s tasks in the Tangent Universe is to expose and destroy Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), a motivational speaker and local celebrity, by burning down his house and in the process revealing that he’s involved in a child pornography ring. Donnie reveals Cunningham’s perversion and ensures that he’s punished for it, but perhaps Cunningham’s desire and the necessity of him being punished for it are merely standing in for Donnie’s feelings of guilt about his own sexual desires. Subtextually, there’s some suggestion that Donnie is harboring a sexual desire for his sister, Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose boyfriend Frank (James Duval) will show up at the Halloween party dressed in the rabbit costume that haunts Donnie.
Although Frank is the first “rabbit” to show up in the film, rabbits also factor into the events in Donnie’s English class, where the assigned reading is Watership Down. In a class discussion, 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 who Donnie ends up killing in a rather dispassionate manner after Frank accidentally kills Donnie’s girlfriend, Gretchen (Jena Malone). Donnie is at once avenging Gretchen and eliminating his rival for Elizabeth, and the manner of Frank’s death is revealed several scenes earlier, when Donnie imagines Frank the Bunny sitting next to him and Gretchen in the movie theater and asks why he wears “that stupid bunny suit,” to which Frank replies, “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” Both are hiding something behind a façade, and when Frank removes the bunny head, he reveals a bloody wound where he’s been shot in the head. He’s hiding the gunshot wound, so what’s Donnie hiding?
Then of course there’s the most explicit suggestion that Donnie is plagued by something sexually untoward in a scene in which his therapist hypnotizes him and asks him to talk about his family. Donnie wants to talk about sex and sheepishly tells his therapist that he doesn’t sexually fantasize about his family as his hand begins to go into his pants, prompting the therapist to quickly pull him out of his hypnotized state. Donnie is disturbed, but while everyone is focusing on the external things, there’s this thing that’s deeply rooted inside of him that he can’t openly acknowledge and that’s driving him mad.
Donnie Darko is a masterful blend of science fiction and coming-of-age drama, a work of stunning ambition and the sort of bold imagination that ensures that it doesn’t feel dated. At a time when films from the big studios and independent outlets alike feel so increasingly, inescapably homogenous that many films can be clocked beat by beat depending on genre, it’s impossible not to root for an artist who wants to try things that are different and weird and go against the grain. It’s a steep cliff that Kelly’s career fell off of, but even if it never recovers, he’ll always be the man who gave the world Donnie Darko, a film that contains multitudes.