Sunday, 17 January 2010

Review: Donnie Darko, dir Richard Kelly (2001)

This fascinating little love story takes the viewer into a Twilight Zone located at the end of every suburban street. In fact, it reaches inside your house, too. No bathroom has ever seemed this weird and malevolent.

A masterpiece of modern cinema, the film tanked when released immediately after the September 11 attacks over New York. Since earning just over $4 million at the box office then, the movie has gone on to become a cult classic on DVD, earning far more in this incarnation.

Brilliant performances are delivered by major characters, including a simmering Drew Barrymore as the cool English teacher, Karen Pomeroy, and Patrick Swayze as the unctuous pop guru Jim Cunningham. But supporting roles are also well executed, including a stunning performance by Beth Grant as Kitty Farmer, the neurologically-challenged health teacher.

Die-hard fans will be keen to unravel the 'truth' behind the mystery presented here, but for any watcher of taste, Donnie Darko offers rare pleasures. Made on a shoestring, the film punches well above its weight by attempting to achieve an almost impossible task.

In short, it gives the viewer a credible insight into full-blown schizophrenia - a condition that molds the world to fit a delusion. Regardless of the 'truth' explicit in the director's vision (Kelly also wrote the screenplay), the overall, low-level unease that permeates the film competently illustrates what schizophrenics go through when beset by their devils.

Some things militate against such a diagnosis, however. Near the end, Dr Lilian Thurman (played by Katherine Ross), Donnie's psychiatrist, recommends ending the use of medication for her patient. Given his delusions, such a decision would be highly unlikely in the real world. What this plot twist does is try to increase the viewer's uncertainty about what is real and what is merely imagined in Donnie's mind.

Kelly sets up an elaborate conceit, with intimations of the possibility (and reality) of time travel. If Donnie can reverse the train of events leading up to Gretchen's death, then he can presumably save her life, even if it also means obliterating their love story. In this scenario (many justifications are possible for the complex plot) the film is a love story. To me, this seems like the most suitable interpretation.

The twists and turns of the plot serve to illustrate a deeper truth, however. The school environment - including satellite centres such as family dining rooms - is a microcosm of the world. Here, individual curiosity is thwarted or channelled into 'worthy' pursuits. The bullies are as much a product of the 'system' as Jim Cunningham's reductive videos, which attempt to circumscribe human behaviour along a rigid, dualistic continuum that reflects the classical Judeo-Christian one.

But many behaviours are not just good or evil. There is sometimes good in evil - such as when Donnie's burning down of Cunningham's house unearths a child porn cache - and sometimes evil in good - as when a typical family dinner at the Darko house ends up as a mere exchange of vicious insults.

Added to a competent soundtrack and a creepy visual aesthetic, the complex and paradoxical world of Donnie Darko promises a ton of goodness for the video enthusiast. I cannot recommend the movie highly enough.

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