(Originally written November 10, 2007)
What this film set out to do is astounding. What was attempted was a powerful story of sacrifice. Unfortunately, until the twist of the film becomes clear, this film is difficult to watch. It alternates between film school pretention and a clichéd high school drama before it sets out what it seemingly intended to do.
There is so much power in the story in and of itself, yet there is also too much psychological banter throughout the movie. Donnie Darko is suspended from school because he criticizes his teacher’s dichotomous spectrum of fear vs. love. The problem with these discussions (and there are plenty of them) is that they do not always fit in context. This is a thinking movie, but what should be making us think are the stories of the characters and the use of the film, not blatant dialogue. The blatant discourses set up a dichotomy between Donnie (which we can for all practical purposes consider “love”) and the others full of bullshit (“fear”). The film falls victim to the dichotomous thinking that we’re supposed to support the protagonist in fighting against.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is its portrayal of the relationships between the different characters. Its vision of high school is simplistic and would have been under attack from the lovers of this film in the context of any other film. There’s the outcast, the love interest, the inspiring yet misunderstood English teacher, and so on. Until the great twist of the story comes about, we have to sit through Donnie falling in love and fighting with his more successful older sister at the dinner table.
Donnie is a Christ-like figure of sacrifice in the film, yet the film is set up to drain the character of his humanity. He becomes a phenomenon rather than someone who is experiencing the spontaneous effects of a tangent universe. Regardless of the clichéd world is he placed in, he becomes more of a plot device than a fully-fleshed character.
The word “Lynchian” has been used to describe the film, but director Richard Kelly does not understand the medium of film as well as genius David Lynch. Lynch starts with film first and will eventually come up with a story. Movies such as Mulholland Dr. and Blue Velvet are complete experiences in and of themselves. The strength of Kelly’s film is the story, but the cathartic coming together of (some of) the different pieces is not enough to make this a great movie. Movies should be total experiences, and it takes until the last twenty minutes or so of this film for the preceding hour and a half to come together as a cohesive whole. Kelly’s world is so carefully constructed, but he is unable as a director to help the audience through his story.