2001: Looking Back At DONNIE DARKO - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

2001: Looking Back At DONNIE DARKO

Why are you wearing that stupid man suit? Asks Alexander Wallace...
Nostalgia for the 1980s is not a new thing. Even in Back to the Future Part II, the people living in that strangely colored, strangely hairstyled decade predicted that some people were going to look back upon it with a degree of affection. In the 1990s people who didn’t like the hip-hop of the day would instead continue to play the music of the 1980s. Certainly, many during the Clinton administration looked lovingly back at the days when Ronald Reagan ran America (and its nuclear arsenal). In more recent years, nostalgia for that period has surged, most prominently by Netflix’s smash hit original series Stranger Things.

Here, we shall take a look at another work of 80s nostalgia, if that’s the right word (this movie is strange enough as it is, even without the late 80s setting). The decision to set it when George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis were debating who would become the next commander in chief was not out of any intentional decision to eulogize the time of coiffures, crack, and Contras, but rather that the director, Richard Kelly, had in mind a story about a teenager, and that he would have no background for a story involving such a character set in 2001. As someone whose childhood was the 2000s, I thank him for it; I’ve seen enough butcherings of my own upbringing and am happy that he sought to avoid such a thing.

That film was Donnie Darko.
Calling Donnie Darko ‘strange’ is doing it a disservice, if anything. It is a screwy film, one that is deliberately hard to understand. Such a conceit would seem pretentious in the hands of a lesser director, but Kelly sells it; it helps that the entire enterprise is meticulously planned and above all feels coherent. Kelly has all the answers, but he simply chooses not to tell you them.

This is bolstered by Jake Gyllenhaal’s sterling performance as the titular main character, a high school student in the town of Middlesex, clearly American but in no defined state (it looked like the East Coast to me, being a lifelong Virginian). Donnie is clearly troubled, but nobody is sure what he has been afflicted with; his parents are worried sick and his therapist is deeply concerned with his rather strange activities. Donnie is a character that I found myself relating to at several points; like him, I was a confused and disconnected adolescent who had a hard time actually grokking other people. That is such a huge strength of this film: Kelly understands adolescent isolation very well, that overwhelming sense that no matter how much you try, you will never quite be cut from the same cloth as your peers.

Even beyond the mind-screwiness in the plot, there is a certain social commentary that hits even harder today: it is how the little town of Middlesex deals with its youth, mentally ill like Donnie or otherwise. So much is made of the turgid dreck spouted by the secular evangelist Jim Cunningham (portrayed so irritatingly well by Patrick Swayze), a binary simplification of the world’s woes that sounded so much like some of the similar platitudes rolled out by my own teachers; it was immensely satisfying seeing Donnie give these hucksters a piece of his mind when so few students of that age ever get to speak up in such a manner.
So much of this film is about loneliness, and how people try to deal with it. You have Gretchen, portrayed very well by Jena Malone, who helps Donnie through a lot, but doubtlessly the most memorable of these ways of coping is Frank, the rabbit-faced phantom (of sorts - like much in this film, his nature is never quite explained) that haunts but also sometimes aids the titular character. Frank is an embodiment of the darker, angrier emotions that haunt people like Donnie (and I say this as one of them), emotions that are seductive and oftentimes self-defeating.

Donnie Darko is ultimately a film about living in a world that you find incomprehensible, where strange things like apparent time travel or a jet engine falling through your roof are apparently commonplace. It is how those who can’t quite fit in have to process that fact in the face of stultifying conformity and the apathy of social superiors. In its twentieth year of existence, it remains as timely as ever, and it will endure.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad