I watched Donnie Darko once, in college (a long long time ago) and thought it was ok, but I would never say that really liked it, let alone loved it. On the advice of a good friend, I recently re-watched it and found it fascinating.
I can tell you that I definitely liked it.
I can also tell you that I definitely didn’t understand it.
Donnie Darko is the story of the eponymous main character’s struggle with mental illness, or maybe it’s a high school coming of age movie, or maybe it’s the story of a guy that can sometimes see into the future. It’s thought-provoking, and complicated, and has just the right amount of creepiness for someone (me) who doesn’t normally go for horror films. I was continuously impressed throughout the movie at how Jake Gyllenhaal managed to convey this creepiness with just his smile alone. And Donnie Darko has one of the best movie quotes that I’ve heard in a while:
Emily Bates: Mom said the school is closed today because it's flooded, and there's feces everywhere!
Susie Bates: What are feces?
Emily Bates: Baby mice.
Susie Bates: Aww.
But as I think back on it, the movie had so many plot threads and quirky intricacies that I was kind of at a loss as to what story its creators intended to tell with it. So many pieces of the story that looked like the beginning of something meaningful just stopped and didn’t go anywhere. There was lots of intra-family conflict that stopped halfway through the movie. There was a strong political undercurrent running throughout the movie--one of the first lines is Elizabeth, Donnie’s sister, announcing that she’s going to vote for Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election--but there’s no real follow-through. And there were many subplots of the story--Sparklemotion, Elizabeth getting into Harvard, motivational speaker Jim Cunningham and all his issues--that start up, seem promising, and then never go anywhere.
To add to that, Donnie’s delusions, which are pretty clearly the result of either mental illness or the medication that he’s taking to treat his mental illness, turn out to be accurate--assuming, that is, that the events of the ending are reality, and not all just in Donnie’s head. And while that assumption seems pretty safe to me, given the way the whole movie calls reality and sanity into question, perhaps even this assumption shouldn’t go unchallenged.
But then again, maybe this is the point of the movie. Maybe the fragmentation of the story, the moments of intense reality coupled with the moments of surreality, is meant to say something important about what life at the turn of the millennium is like. But if it is, I don’t get it.
I will tell you what I do get, though. I like Donnie. I like his parents, and how they stand up for him and laugh with him when he (rightly) tells off his health teacher. With a few exceptions, I like the people in the central relationships in this movie, and how well they relate to each other, in spite of political disagreements, mental illness, and airplane engines falling through roofs.
And so I think that maybe it’s a movie about not changing who you are. It all starts when Donnie takes his medication and sees a rabbit and leaves his house, and a jet engine lands where he should have been--and then everything else goes crazy. The whole world goes crazy, with a series of completely awful and extraordinarily unlikely events happening one after another, with very little comment about how ridiculous these events are--and the only reason it’s bad is because he took these pills and saw this rabbit and should have died.
The smile that Donnie gives at the very end of the movie, unlike the creepy smiles we see earlier, is the smile of someone who knows who he is, has made the choice he knows is right, and is happy about it. It’s the smile of someone who hasn’t compromised who he is, and in that, it’s a smile that I can understand.