[The Social Opportunist] Movie Review – Donnie Darko (2001)

Written by Phil June 20, 2012

Donnie Darko (2001)

This is the third of 50 movies to be reviewed as part of The Challenge (for more info and reviews of the other movies, visit the post for Cycle #1).

Since I’ve been neglecting The Challenge for the past month or so, I decided that it was finally time to cross another movie off my IMDb Top 250 list before I forgot about it entirely. The first place I went to do this was Netflix, given that it would be a lot easier than running over to the video store. While the online streaming movie site doesn’t host about 90 per cent of The Challenge’s list, Donnie Darko popped up on my screen almost immediately as a suggested title. Looks like my decision had been made for me! I have been hearing about this movie for ages and all that I really could associate with it was the terrifying bunny costume that takes over so much of the film’s imagery. However, I wanted to know more! Donnie Darko has garnered a huge cult following, making me feel like I couldn’t ignore for much longer if I wanted to be seen as a legitimate movie blogger. I’m going to try and get through this as best I can though, as this movie might be one of the deepest and most confusing I’ve ever sat through.

Check out the trailer below before reading the review, just to give yourself a little context (or if you’ve already seen it, a little reminder).

***WARNING: The following review may contain spoilers.***

Taking place in the year 1988, Donnie Darko centres around its title character, played by a young Jake Gyllenhaal, as he and his family battle his ever-worsening social, emotional and psychological illnesses. After neglecting his medication, Donnie is drawn from his sleep by a voice in his head, eventually discovered to be coming from an imaginary (and horribly terrifying) giant rabbit named Frank. Frank informs Donnie that the world will end at the end of the month and, while Donnie is wandering around outside, a mysterious object crashes into his house from the sky. The Darko family survives, including his mother Rose (Mary McDonnell), his father Eddie (Holmes Osborne), his older sister (real-life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal) and younger sister Sam (Daveigh Chase). However, this episode prompts Donnie’s demented images to become ever more vivid and frequent, leading him to commit mischievous acts of vandalism all around town and develop an obsession with the study of time travel and divinity. While dealing with his worsening mental state and managing his interactions with teachers Ms. Pomeroy, Ms. Farmer and Dr. Monnitoff (Drew Barrymore, Beth Grant and Noah Wyle respectively), life coach Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swazye) and his new girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malaone), Donnie tries to figure out Frank’s messages before the apocalyptic prophecy comes to fruition.

Needless to say, it was easy to get completely lost in the overarching philosophical themes of Donnie Darko. If you want to enjoy this movie at all, it’s important to stay focused and avoid getting left behind by the highly intellectual content. Not only does Donnie delve into theories of quantum physics and possibility of time travel, but he also questions the existence of God and an imminent apocalypse in consultations with his therapist. As well, the entire film seems to be a foil of the story being taught to Donnie and his classmates by Ms. Pomeroy, adding to the film’s philosophical permeation. Given that we are treated to both Donnie’s reality and his altered state of mind, it’s hard to tell whether or not these ideas are simply the ravings of a madman or legitimately profound thoughts. However, I believe that this ambiguousness is part of the film’s overall appeal! It allows the movie to move at a unique pace and feature scenarios and characters that can be completely ridiculous without detracting from what makes the movie watchable. Where else would a creepy man in an exoskeleton rabbit suit or bubbles extending out of people’s chests seem completely understandable if not for Donnie’s psychotic visions? And while I think the general premise of this movie is far beyond my realm of understanding, I was definitely aware that I was being exposed to new and exciting trains of thought throughout Donnie Darko.

Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone) watch a movie while Donnie's imaginary companion Frank joins them.

However, despite what I say above about Donnie Darko challenging its audience and presenting unique philosophical themes and images, I felt that the movie’s true meaning was almost too difficult to understand. I like to think of myself as an intellectual, however, after watching the movie, I realized that I wasn’t going to fully understand what was going on unless I watched it a few more times. I suspect other viewers have felt the same and this is a characteristic that could potentially prevent people from enjoying the movie. It almost felt as though I wasn’t able to sit back and enjoy the movie just for what it was at face value because the philosophical themes were so deeply entrenched in the plot. I had to continuously be thinking about what was going on instead of just enjoying it! I’m reminded of Inception, which, although chalked full of musings about the nature of reality and of the mind, had great appeal as simply an entertaining and action-packed film. You didn’t need to fully understand the deeper meaning of that movie to enjoy it! So for Donnie Darko, while very interesting and undoubtedly watchable, I felt that I was limited in my enjoyment because I wasn’t given the time to understand it nor was I able to pull focus from just trying to piece it together.

I should note that there were two very appealing things about Donnie Darko that are hard to ignore. The first were the characters. It should have been no surprise that Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of the title character was going to be spectacular given his recent history as a captivating thespian. The troubled Donnie Darko, while dangerously psychotic, never seems like a dangerous or unlikeable character. Gyllenhaal makes him into an engaging force that allows the audience to empathize with his situation (to the point where his craziness doesn’t appear all that crazy) and genuinely care about how his story will end. Mary McDonnell also gives a strong performance as Donnie’s mother Rose. While seemingly frail and confused, Rose is kept afloat by Mary’s effective portrayal of quiet resolve in the face of her son’s debilitating condition. She is a woman who tries hard at every moment to salvage her family life, making her a beacon of motherhood and respect amid all the ridiculousness surrounding her in this movie. The supporting performances by Drew Barrymore and Patrick Swayze were also welcome additions to Donnie Darko. While hardly representing anything significant to the movie’s overall storyline, they were effective in keeping some interest alive to casual viewers lost in the film’s philosophy.

Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) during one of his psychotic episodes.

The second appealing factor of this film was the soundtrack. Of particular interest to me was the the aptly named track “Mad World” by Gary Jules. Played towards the end of Donnie Darko, this song is one of the most haunting and emotionally charged pieces of music that I have ever heard. The first time I heard this song was in the commercial for the video game Gears of War and it was so mesmerizing that I immediately went to download it. That is when I discovered that it had been originally featured in this movie and made it my mission to listen for it as I watched! It was a song that perfectly captured the atmosphere being portrayed throughout the movie and allowed the audience to really understand the movie’s emotions. It’s rare that a song can capture so much about a movie in such a short period of time, however this was truly a unique instance. “Mad World” was effectively used to at least try and help people to comprehend Donnie’s twisted mind in a unique and creative way.. Along with all of the other amazing tracks featured in Donnie Darko (which you can see here), the audience was treated to a complete experience that appealed to the eyes and the ears.

It is easy to see why Donnie Darko has such a large cult following. It is strangely unique, highly intellectual and appealing on a number of levels. It also has plenty of iconic imagery (i.e. Frank the bunny) that will not easily be forgotten in the world of movies. However, as a casual, first-time viewer, I was disappointed that the movie’s thick philosophical overtones made it harder to understand and therefore less entertaining. When a movie makes you work too hard, fatigue will set in and you are unlikely to enjoy yourself on any significant level. While I would watch Donnie Darko again, it would be primarily to gain a better understanding of the film’s meaning. At this time, I can’t say that I was overly impressed (as I know many people typically are by this movie), but hopefully this opinion will change as I revisit the film in the future. I realize that this characterization probably makes me seem simple-minded and many of you are probably criticizing me for not understanding, but maybe my brain wasn’t working as quickly the day I sat down to watch this movie.



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