Donnie Darko: a piece of junk from the hipster scrap pile

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Donnie, Gretchen and the 'Bunny.'

Admittedly, I sometimes am a late-starter; particularly when it comes to ‘hot’ or ‘new’ fads. One of the fads which seemed to be peaking while I was in high school was the fad for the emos (really the hipsters of the time) to watch cult films like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissor Hands, or the latest and greatest of the hipster films, Donnie Darko.

Granted, the word ‘hipster’ wasn’t widely employed in that time period (around 2003-2004), but it just seems to fit. With that said I finally gave in and decided to see what the fuss was all about with Donnie Darko. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to wait, after all, it helps to wash away the public sentiment for the film, as it falls out of peoples’ collective memories and gives me the opportunity to see it with a less biased mindset.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the lead role was played by Jake Gylenhaal, who I’ve seen depicting a variety of roles, some of the most notable in my mind were Jarhead, Brothers, Zodiac, and October Sky. The film beginning was also quite promising. Early in the film it becomes apparent that the lead character, Donnie has some kind of mental issues when he is seen hallucinating, or dreaming about a man in an eerie bunny-suit with a distorted voice who is telling him how long he has until the end of the world (essentially his death). Suddenly an airplane engine crashes into Donnie’s room, which is supposed to be one of the things that links the events full circle later on in the story.

The psychotic viewpoint of Donnie begins to take a turn for the better, when Gretchen (played by Jena Malone) comes onto the set. She is both mysterious, and sweet, different and refined. She is one of the driving characters through some of the more boring sections of the film. After some romantic attraction is developed between the two main characters, the whole tide of the film changes when it goes from mediocre to just plain confusing. When I say confusing, I don’t mean I didn’t understand the plot, but rather that it appeared that the story writer, the director and producers all were confused themselves about what elements they wanted to develop throughout the film.

One of the underdeveloped elements is one of the minor characters in the story. One of the underdeveloped characters is the crazy old lady who is connected to Donnie’s dreams about time travel. In the movie she also authored a book on time travel before going insane in later life. The old lady really has very little to do with the plot and it is unclear why she is even brought into the story at all. Although it is true the film depicts her as having had similar experiences to Donnies’, in the end she was not a key to any mystery, or a hero or anything of that sort, she simply acts as the sage-like character who gives Donnie some information. One of the other annoying elements of the story is Donnie’s visit with a teacher.

I understand that cinema is all about make-believe stories, however when a movie dresses up nonfactual information as the truth, it is truly bothersome. In one scene there are some gaping factual errors in the conversation between the physics teacher and Donnie. The teacher tells Donnie Darko that time travel is basically achieved by going faster than the speed of light. Meanwhile, a copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is sitting on the table. The teacher’s claims wouldn’t have been so annoying if it wasn’t for the falsely implied attribution to this book, which clearly lays out that it is impossible to go faster than the speed of light within the known realm of the universe. Although it is true Hawking does specify some methods which could “stretch” the time-space fabric such as using a hyperdrive, thereby achieving a similar result to going faster than the speed of light; he explains that time travel can not be achieved by going faster than the speed of light. He also states that the speed of light is the universal speed limit.

Towards the end of the film, the whole feel of the film changes from feeling like American Beauty or Fight Club, to being more along the lines of Weird Science. A string of seemingly unrelated events occur, Donnie has some kind of half-baked epiphany about what it all means. Eventually he wakes up in his bed and is killed by the engine which at the beginning of the film didn’t kill him, but was supposed to have killed him earlier in the film.

It’s clear that the director really missed the mark on this film. It’s also clear why a younger generation of teenagers might be attracted to the film. After all, a lot of the events in the beginning of the film are slightly more reminiscent of a National Lampoon film, than they are of a mind-bending cerebral film. It appeared as if the concept of the movie was to go for the ‘wow factor,’ to impress the audience, in a similar manner that a film like The Matrix was able to achieve. However, it is obvious that if this was the intention, it was a complete and utter failure. The film had a promising start but fell apart towards the end.