Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.
Everyone has a few movies that are on the list of films that they really should have seen but having. Years ago, former blogger and my ex-podcasting partner Nick Jobe spent a year watching movies that he figured he should have seen and spend another year with people recommending additional movies for him. Hell, I did the 1001 Movies list initially because there were so many that I hadn’t seen and I felt like a poser. But still, there are movies that slip through. There are tons I haven’t seen that I certainly should. Up until yesterday, Donnie Darko was on that list and was probably the most recommended film in my unseen list.
So, now I’ve seen it, and it was fine. It was almost certainly overhyped to me, and I fully understand why people like it a lot. It feels like one of those movies that needs to be watched at a certain age. It’s a movie that feels like it was made for white males in their mid-20s, with a character around whom the world might legitimately revolve around but who doesn’t care about his own potential importance. It feels like a cinematic version of nihilism, and while that’s interesting, it’s also bleak in a lot of ways, and thus difficult for me to fully get behind.
It’s also a movie that goes in a lot of directions, and while a plot summary is certainly possible, there’s a limit to how much I really want to write. So I’ll try to hit just the high points. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled young man in high school made more troubled by the fact that his sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is looking to get accepted at Harvard. Donnie has started sleepwalking and is apparently hallucinating a man named Frank (James Duval), who wears a demonic bunny suit, who tells Donnie that the world will end at the end of the month.
Donnie continues to have hallucinations about Frank and starts to research time travel. He is also influenced by Frank to do things like cut the water main on the school and flood it and set the house of a local man (Patrick Swayze) on fire. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking, Donnie’s family tries to make sense of his behavior (led by the always-worth-watching Mary McDonnell), and Donnie falls deeper and deeper into trying to figure out what is meant by the world ending and trying to understand how to travel in time.
One of the more impressive elements of Donnie Darko is the cast list. In addition to those already mentioned, the film has both Drew Barrymore and Noah Wylie in relatively small roles and Seth Rogen before anyone knew who he was and includes Jena Malone as Donnie’s love interest Gretchen. It’s an impressive group of people for a movie that ultimately has a very dark and nihilistic message. It’s also a time travel movie, and that is something that feeds into the nihilism of the film.
It’s the nihilism that bothers me, in part because it’s nihilism. Look through enough of the reviews on this site (don’t, really. I love you too much, Gentle Reader) and you’ll see me railing against nihilism in other movies as a philosophy that doesn’t deserve much respect. A bigger part of it is that nihilism in Donnie Darko is made to look attractive and cool. Donnie attacks the Patrick Swayze character in public, not so much dressing him down as just attacking him, and it later turns out that the character in question possesses a massive collection of child pornography. And even before that happens, we believe that the character is a phony, so it’s fun to watch him get attacked. And because it’s a nihilist doing the attacking the nihilism is given a sort of value. It’s made to look cool, and, honestly, nihilism doesn’t need that sort of public relations for the average young, white, American male.
Donnie Darko is a movie made for that audience just as The Notebook was made for unattached 20-something women and Fight Club was made for disaffected Gen-X men 25 years ago. There’s a reason that this movie has never been recommended to me by someone who wasn’t male, white, and at least 15 years younger than I am.
Look, I won’t say that Donnie Darko isn’t a good movie, or an interesting one. It’s certainly a lot easier to follow than other things from Richard Kelly like Southland Tales. It is a good movie. It is an interesting movie. It has a lot of ideas that it wants to get out there, and it succeeds in most of them. But it does have a philosophy problem in that it even as it attempts to prevent the end of the world within the context of the film, it feels like it’s doing it specifically because existing is worse than not existing, and fuck you.
I take issue with that, even if I find much of the movie admirable.
Why to watch Donnie Darko: It’s trippy.
Why not to watch: It’s nihilistic.