Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Donnie Darko (2001)

"Every living creature on Planet Earth dies  alone."

This is the greatest film of the twenty-first century so far. I thought so the first time round, when I saw this film back when it first came out in my uni days, and I think so now. It's beautifully and meaningfully shot, it has definite yet undefined themes, and it oozes a profundity that can't be nailed down to anything so banal as a specific meaning. And in retrospect it comes from a turn-of-the-millennium golden age of films like this. It's only been thirteen years, but I couldn't imagine Donnie Darko being made now.

From the start we establish that it's going rive beautifully shot. We establish that the soundtrack is going to be awesome, too; it doesn't get much better than Echo and the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon". From the beginning there's a visual emphasis on the contrast between the banal suburban existence from 1988 (fittingly, the year of Morrisey's "Everyday Is Like Sunday") and the slow motion acid trip of the camerawork, establishing a stranger and more beautiful world than dinner tables, 1980s interior decor and put downs of Michael Dukakis.

The debate over politics (and it's sobering, from a modern perspective, that a relative centrist like Bush the Elder could never run for the presidency over politics today) establishes the family dynamic; Elizabeth, the eldest, is the political rebel, Donnie is a very strange boy, and the family is a pretty normal kind of dysfunctional.

Donnie Darko is a fairly standard Holden Caulfield type- adolescent, rebellious, bookish- but things get a little stranger once he's woken up by a giant talking a rabbit- introduced, naturally, by an eerie soundscape. He's not at all displeased, being an angst-ridden teen, that the world will end in "28 days, six hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds". 

Our slow introduction to the school environment  is helped along by a slow montage and a splendid "alternative 80s" soundtrack. It's weird to me, as a Brit, to see the superb and sexy Drew Barrymore, teaching Graham Greene, saying "barrow boy" in an American accent(!), but she's a parallel to Donnie; older, more mature yet also alienated. Also alienated is Cherita, with Donnie, who is certainly alienated, the only one who is nice to her.

Not at all alienated, on the surface at least, is the slimy, authoritarian snake oil salesman Cunningham, alongside his stupid teacher accomplice. But Gretchen Ross is pleasingly alienated, which is why  we want her and Donnie to get together. Donnie doesn't get in trouble for flooding the school but he gets in trouble for challenging Cunningham's vacuous bullshit, which is a very valid commentary on the prevalence of such bullshit and, worse, that it is so widely believed. 

Donnie doesn't want to die alone, but he can't bring himself to believe in a God, much like myself. I don't understand the significance of the wormholes or the time travel stuff, but perhaps the point is partly that, on four dimensional space-time, death is not the end but just a point in our four-dimensional lives. It's the nearest we atheists can get to eternal life.

It's narratively satisfying to see Cunningham revealed as a paedophile, and appropriate that it should be Donnie burning his house down that reveals this. But the world is ending. So we must have a party, a type of party where people dance to Joy Division the mystery of who Frank is gets revealed, but the ending, while deeply satisfying, is mysterious; time reverses so that Donnie dies in the plane crash; he sacrifices all this extra time he had so that the world will not end for others. His life therefore has meaning. Death is absurd but, for this existentialist film, God is dead so it is our choices that matter.

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