The Test of Time: Donnie Darko (2001)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

Director: Richard Kelly

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Patrick Swayze, Katherine Ross

Can you believe it's been 16 years since DONNIE DARKO was introduced to the world? 16! That fact is about as borderline insane as the title character himself. And while the last decade and a half has surely effaced the once promising career of putative wunderkind Richard Kelly, the writer/director who has not made a movie since 2009 (THE BOX), the opposite effect has taken hold on the man's feted feature debut. It's sturdily withstood the test of time. Or has it? Not only was the movie forced to overcome a horrible stint of timing, being released theatrically only a month or so after 9/11 and boasting a barrage of seemingly related imagery (airplane crashes), the movie did so in such towering fashion that it still, to this day, holds rank as #225 on IMDB's Top 250 movies ever made. Question still stands? Has DONNIE DARKO truly passed The Test of Time?!


THE STORY: Much of the DONNIE DARKO'S mystifying allure comes from its complicated story, the kind that isn't so easily codified. Is it an offbeat teen-comedy? A spooky Halloween horror? A suburban science fiction tale? A Spielbergian mash-up of all the above? This much is clear. DONNIE DARKO is about a precocious but troubled, highly intellectual teenager who has only a few friends, a sassy sister, distant parents, a psychotherapist, an antidepressant prescription and of course, a newfound friendship with Frank - a monstrous looking 6-foot rabbit who visits every night with exhortations of impending doom. That is, after a humongous jet-engine lands in his bedroom one night, luckily avoiding contact as a result of his chronic somnambulance, Donnie is told the world will end in 28 days and change. As the month of October 1988 unfolds in the seemingly idyllic town of Middlesex, Virginia - Donnie must figure out exactly what is happening and how to avoid as much Earthly damage as possible. This includes preserving the life and health of new girlfriend, Gretchen (Jena Malone).

WHAT HOLDS UP: Granted, 16 years isn't the largest amount of time to entirely molder a film, but to be honest, much of DONNIE DARKO still holds up pretty strongly today. There isn't a ton of visible decay. Let's face it, with his directorial calling card being a striking visualist, the sheer aesthetic of Kelly's movie hasn't really aged a bit. For this, props must also ring aloud for Kelly's director of photography, Steven Poster, who actually worked second unit on BLADE RUNNER two decades prior. Dude certainly knows how to light a flick! That said, his work, in particular with the inexpensive yet effective enough VFX, in conjunction with two other standout facets of the film - the overall mystery and powerful performances - are the propping pillars that render the film impervious to the erosion of time.

Let's start with the performances. In only his sixth film, at age 20 or 21, Jake Gyllenhaal turned in a complexly curious, palpably painful, emotionally precocious depiction of a tormented teen with extrasensory perception. To think this movie, like most, was shot out of sequence, and still Gyllenhaal was able to cobble together a consistent, gradual evolution of his character, especially at that age, is truly remarkable. We can sense the adolescent malaise, as well as the confusion and social awkwardness, but also sense a flash of that charisma that ends up wooing the girl in the end and leading the charge to save the world from peril. Without such an authentically grounded display, one that allows us to emotionally sympathize with the character, the surreal, dreamlike Lynchian plot-points would likely be far less forgivable. Consider the solid support by way of everyone from sister Maggie, parents Holmes Oborne and Mary McDonnell, teachers Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle, therapist Katherine Ross, pedophilic self-help guru Patrick Swayze, Beth Grant, Jena Malone, James Duval...on and on.

As for the mystery of the film, there's an unquantifiable sense of the enigmatic in DONNIE DARKO. Not just in the way in melds tones, tenors, temperaments and genre conventions, but just in terms of the story itself. Is the entire movie one big dream Donnie is experiencing? Did he really use the help of Frank the Bunny to thwart a world-ending doomsday scenario? Did he really use that jet-engine to enter a black hole and go back in time to do so? All untidily checked queries, dissatisfying to some, but in our minds, is actually one of the things that make the movie so mystical. So watchable. So worthy of revisiting. And to that point, this is going to sound a bit weird as it's hard to explain, but there's a wistful sense of nostalgia about the film that also injects a certain sort of pathos in the viewer. Taking place only 13 years before it was released (1988-2001), there's a strange amount of distance between the events taking place in the movie and the time in which they were seen...not too long ago, but that recent either...that, along with the obvious multi-Spielberg homage (E.T., CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, POLTERGEIST, etc.), really lends a sort of unspeakable longing for the past.

Now back to the VFX. Because they weren't terribly cutting edge to begin with, they haven't lost much of their luster in the last 16 years. With a minimal approach dictated by budgetary constraints, there's a cartoonish feel to the long, squiggly, pellucid tubes that extend from Donnie's solar plexus to whatever path he's drawn to at the time. The big black eyes as well, they also feel a bit too animated to take all that seriously. At least, not too seriously to warrant lambasting a decade and half later. Actually, I think the VFX in DONNIE DARKO are used sparingly enough and are conceived in just enough of a germane manner that serves the story, that they truly augment the experience rather than hinder it.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Holy hell, have you ever seen the 2004 director's cut of DONNIE DARKO? Yeah, that blows harder than a goddamn sperm whale. Sheesh. What the hell was Kelly thinking? If you've not seen the extended version and love the hell out of the original, please take heed and avoid like the plague. Not only does Kelly feel the need to over-explicate all the musing mysteries and sully the puzzle pieces along the way, he begins to introduce his own wild theories, hidden messages and un-calculable back-stories we as an audience could never entertain on our own. It's almost as if Kelly had no idea what he set out to make in the first place, in essence rendering its status as a masterstroke of magical mystery as nothing more than accidental.

Even if you listen to the commentary of the film, Kelly himself admits that he wasn't 100% certain what the ending of the movie means. He copped out and said it's up to the viewer whether or not Donnie was dreaming or really did sacrifice himself in order to save his loved ones. Perhaps most damning though? Kelly radically altered the original soundtrack of the film, replacing certain songs, reshuffling others. Instead of the original opening to the Killing Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen, INXS' Never Tear Us Apart kicks up. A good song on its own, no doubt, but completely alters the tone and tenor of the movie.

THE VERDICT: 16 years or 60, we have a pretty faithful inkling that there are too many good things about DONNIE DARKO to fail the Test of Time. There's an unspeakable aura of mystery and provocation about the story that not only holds up well, but actually invites annual revisiting. The performances are, like the film itself, a bit ahead of their time, all anchored around Jake Gyllenhaal's soul-filled, heartfelt portrayal of the antihero title character. With some solid FX work, a killer 80s soundtrack and a wicked cross-genre, cross-generational tableau, DONNIE DARKO indeed towers tall against the Test of Time!



Extra Tidbit: Do you think DONNIE DARKO has aged?
Source: AITH



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