Kind Of Funny, Kind Of Sad

As the 15th anniversary re-release of Donnie Darko approaches, Spank The Monkey is starting to doubt his commitment to Sparkle Motion.

Donnie Darko cinema sign

Why is Donnie Darko getting a re-release at Christmas in the first place? It’s not a particularly Christmassy film. If there’s a holiday it should have been released for, it’s Halloween, which runs through the spine of the movie as much as it does through The Nightmare Before Christmas. (Yes, I know, bad example.) Then again, without Donnie Darko‘s use of the Gary Jules version of Mad World over its climax, it wouldn’t have become Christmas number one in 2003, and John Lewis’ festive adverts would be entirely devoid of decent pop classics pushed through a Maudlineriser 3000 in lieu of a proper soundtrack. Nevertheless, here it is back in cinemas this week, showcasing a shiny 4K restoration for its 15th anniversary before the inevitable Blu-ray comes out early next year.

How long is it since you last saw Donnie Darko? Probably long enough that it’ll come as a shock to you to learn that Seth Rogen’s got a decent-sized role in it. (He’s the lesser of the two bullies who torment Donnie at school.) How long is it since you first saw Donnie Darko, though? I’ll wager that it’s more likely to be fourteen years ago than fifteen, all because of one careless story decision that writer/director Richard Kelly made in the preparation of his debut feature.

Set in October 1988, Donnie Darko tells the story of a troubled teenager of the same name (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), getting by through medication and analysis. But the arrival of a new imaginary friend, a terrifying six-foot bunny rabbit called Frank, is going to take his psychosis into new areas. Because Frank keeps suggesting dangerous things for Donnie to do, and Donnie keeps doing them. Initially, though, this doesn’t seem quite so bad: Frank’s first intervention results in Donnie being out of the house when a jet engine falls out of the sky and destroys his bedroom.

That’s why Donnie Darko is a cult movie: partly because of the modish complexity of its plotting, but partly because nobody wanted to see it on its initial theatrical release. It appears that October 2001 was a bad month to bring out a film in America that had an airline disaster as one of its key plot points. I saw it a month later at the London Film Festival, where it had the bad fortune to screen just one week after the Queens plane crash. It’s the 2001 New York aviation catastrophe that everyone forgets, but it was a raw nerve at the time, and it’s hard to watch scenes where everyone’s being flippant about planes falling out of the sky when something like that’s just happened in real life.

Because it’s what I do for fun, I wrote about that LFF 2001 screening of Donnie Darko just after it happened, and you can read my review here. Broadly speaking, I was largely unconvinced for much of it, thinking it was little more than a surreal variant on the disturbed teen movie: but then I was completely taken by surprise by the final reel (which I’ll be spoiling in four paragraphs or so, so beware). When the film eventually got a UK release in 2002 (once the distributors felt reasonably confident that no more planes were going to ruin their box office figures), I saw the film again and loved it: mainly, it has to be said, because I could reassess the elements I didn’t enjoy in the first part, relative to what I now knew about the ending.

Donnie Darko and the rabbit

Revisiting Donnie Darko in 2016, I discovered a curious thing: even though I knew how it was going to end, my reaction to the film’s first 100 minutes was pretty much the same as it was the first time I saw it. Because let’s face it, the forces that Donnie is battling against aren’t portrayed with any degree of subtlety at all. The ineffectual dad, the drunk mom, the battleaxe schoolteacher, the creepy self-help guru: they’re all portrayed as pure caricatures (though you can’t deny Patrick Swayze is enjoying himself immensely in the latter role). The whole thing feels like a sledgehammer satire on eighties suburban mores, as observed from the cosy distance of the last days of the Clinton administration (though obviously we were well into Bush by the time the film came out).

Still, there’s a lot to like here. The tangled plotting as we head towards Halloween and Frank’s vague prophecy of the end of the world keeps you guessing, largely because Kelly gives you the bare bones of the theory he’s trying to propose and lets you fill in the blanks in your head. (Notoriously, his Director’s Cut a couple of years later tried to explain everything in far too much detail, and made itself look ridiculous.) When the soundtrack isn’t coasting on 80s pop hits, Michael Andrews’ score is surprisingly resonant, with several of its themes sounding like old friends after a decade or so of my not seeing the film. And the less cliched performances are delightful, with Maggie Gyllenhaal playing Donnie’s sister as if she’s in an entirely different movie from the rest of the family.

But ultimately, we have to come back to that ending: and if you haven’t seen the film before, this may be where you should stop reading. I’ll quickly point out before you go that I think the sweet spot for Donnie Darko is in its second viewing: you know what all the pieces of the puzzle are, and the joy comes in discovering how they fit together. (For all my misgivings about Mad World, the montage it accompanies in the film has a huge amount of storytelling to do, and it achieves it with surprising grace and economy.) Third time around and beyond, it seems to be harder to recapture that feeling – you can’t get over the fact that narratively, the chips are stacked heavily against our protagonist just so that ending can work.

So, let’s talk about the ending, which possibly explains why Donnie Darko is getting re-released at Christmas: because it’s the Bizarro World version of everyone’s festive favourite It’s A Wonderful Life. By the end of the film, Donnie has realised that all the bad things that have happened in the last 28 days are his fault in one way or another: effectively, he’s been shown how the world is a worse place with him in it. He doesn’t have an angel to turn to, so instead he uses a bit of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey nonsense to invent the Steven Moffat reset button, and heroically undoes 28 days of suffering and death in one fell swoop. (In passing, he also ensures that nobody gets to say the phrase ‘kiddie porn dungeon’ out loud, but nobody said it was a perfect solution.)

I suspect that the message ‘the world is a terrible place, removing yourself from it might make it better’ wasn’t one that people really wanted to hear in the autumn of 2001. It’ll be interesting to see if things are any better on that score in the winter of 2016.

Donnie Darko is in UK cinemas from Friday 16 December, with a Blu-ray release to follow on 9 January 2017.

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