You know that twinge of regret when you see a movie later in its life and are left wishing you had seen it in theaters? It’s a sensation that’s true for MOST fans of this week’s film, which found life and legacy after its theatrical run. Annemarie will never know that regret because her first Donnie Darko experience came in a sold-out theater with writer-director Richard Kelly on hand to introduce the picture and answer questions.
B: I actually moved Heathers well up the list when we saw this event crop up, because I felt like that was a gauntlet AM had to run before she could see arguably the cultiest of cult films made in the past couple of decades. More than anything else we’ve covered to this point, Donnie Darko holds a massive place in the landscape of my life.
I came across it the summer after my sophomore year (aka 2005 aka the summer Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out) and was floored by what I saw. I watched it while visiting family in Iowa and was appalled when everyone watching it with me fell asleep. I had a serious jones to do some major discussing when this thing was over and they left me high and dry, those monsters. Through the intervening years, the picture has stuck with me and I’ve had much more satisfying reactions from other people I’ve compelled to watch it.
And due credit to Annemarie for being one of them, and tolerating my insistence that we “discuss” here first, for the benefit of you, dear reader. Okay, AM, for your patience, it’s only right that you should get to properly kick off our Donnie Darko discussion. What say you?
A: I have so many questions. First of all, how creepy was the bunny mask? In all seriousness, this was yet another film that I knew next to nothing about, beyond it starring Jake Gyllenhaal and something about him being crazy. The bunny did freak me out, but it was worth it to experience the film, which was absolutely worth waiting for. Smart writing, an intricate story and great characters brought to life in a world that felt like ours, but not. Everybody brought it, but special shout-outs to Beth Grant and Drew Barrymore. Love love loved both of them.
Ok, now back to the questions. I’m pretty sure I figured out what that was all about, but I’m not 100 percent. Donnie figures out that he can manipulate time and decides to sacrifice himself to save Gretchen. Right? But what does Grandma Death have to do with it? Does Drew’s teacher character have any influence beyond amazing classroom technique? And what about Frank? I’m presuming the bunny costume was inspired by his doodlings, but that can’t have been him talking to Donnie the entire story, right? Donnie was talking to himself?
Like I said, all the questions.
Brooke, sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!
B: CHUT UP, Annemarie! For serious though, I feel like that was a rave review for Donnie Darko from Annemarie and I could not be more pleased about it. This isn’t a competition … but, I win! Okay, now that I’ve exercised that particular urge, on to AM’s questions.
The face on that bunny mask is exceptionally haunting; who would pick that? Do we think Frank got into metalworking and made it himself? It is also my interpretation that Donnie chooses to go back in time to save Gretchen — and possibly Frank’s life and Karen Pomeroy’s job (that’s Drew, btw). And he does this not only at the cost of his own life, but knowing that his family will suffer for it too—though perhaps less so than if he hadn’t meddled. Grandma Death is essential: Without her, Donnie couldn’t have understood about portals, BUT, he also wouldn’t have taken Gretchen to go looking for her. It strikes me like that whole thing The Master is always going on about, how prophecies are a tricky thing. I mean, doesn’t it also seem that the very portal Donnie uses also allows the plane engine to travel in a manner where it would have fallen uninterrupted?
Drew’s character’s role in all of this takes us even deeper into the question of intention versus destiny and coincidence. She teaches The Destructors because she is a badass. It would seem that this story perhaps plants the water main idea somewhere in the plane where Donnie and Frank are communicating. What of her mention of “cellar door?” This rings in Donnie’s head at Grandma Death’s house, but seems to be pure coincidence. But, it seems undeniable that she’ll blame herself somewhat for enabling the love connection betwixt Donnie and Gretchen — “Sit next to the boy you think is cutest.” A thousand times yes if I’m in her class and she makes me that offer — even knowing everything I know.
And then comes the real doozy. Frank. Based on Dr. Thurman’s conclusions, it would seem we’re meant to understand that Donnie is grappling with “paranoid schizophrenia” (to use the term of the day, anyway). But for me, that opens up even more alarming questions. Okay, Donnie is talking to himself. We have no reason to believe he knows IRL Frank, so how can his mind show him Frank’s extremely unique costume? I’ll buy that his subconscious could motivate the flooding and burning down Jim Cunningham’s house, but how is it managing to show him Frank’s endgame? Unless Donnie has seen this all before, of course. It’s a real chicken and egg situation. It could be that at the point we meet Donnie, he has already come back in time once and his mind has created a riddle to help him figure out how to do so once more and set everything right. Or, it could be that he only ever travels once, but his actions perpetuated what he seemed to be living in real time. You know, that whole time is a flat circle bit. The rule that allowed Bran Stark to ruin literally everything in an instant. It could probably be a lot of other things too. But, I can’t … I can’t go deeper down this bunny hole.
Annemarie, let’s talk about the star power and performances in this movie. You touched on the topic a bit already, but I don’t think we can overstate how this cast impacts this story.
A: You just melted my brain several times over. I think I follow, but I would not be opposed to re-watching this bit of cinema in order to pause it and talk through what the fuck’s happening as we go. Whew. For what it’s worth, this is how I felt the first time I saw The Matrix. I totally loved the mood the movie created, but I wasn’t absolutely sure I had followed the important pieces of the plot. Further rewatch and analysis assured me I had, but there’s tons of subtext and foreshadowing and other goodies you just can’t see on first watch.
I am #sorrynotsorry I got the privilege of watching Donnie Darko for the first time in this manner. It was pretty spectacular to see on the big screen and to hear from the horse’s mouth (otherwise known as the director) where some of that story and its influences came from.
Star power! You’ve got the Gyllenhaal clan, the lovely Jenna Malone, Drew Freaking Barrymore (whom I love dearly, I think I may have already gushed about her in this), Noah Wylie (Yeah ER doc!), and the aforementioned Beth Grant (who does bit parts in atmospheric films and TV better than anyone, for my money). Let’s not forget about Donnie’s parents, played with humor and pathos by Mary McDonnell (known by me as the president’s wife in Independence Day) and Holmes Osborne (sorry, I don’t know anything about you, Holmes but I loved your take on Donnie’s dad). Donnie’s parents are exactly who you’d want to be your parents if you were indeed a paranoid schizophrenic. They love their children, they let them be them, and sometimes, they need to get wine drunk at dinner to deal. I totally love and get that.
I can’t believe I didn’t even mention Patrick Swayze. What’s your thoughts on the whole “love-fear” spectrum that Grant’s character espouses? And we should probably give some space over to the “Tears for Fears” scene.
I’m voting for Dukakis.
B: You heard it here, kids, AM wants to watch MOAR DONNIE DARKO. Again, I win. I love this movie dearly and have watched it many, many times, but there are some scenes that still manage to feel absolutely fresh even as I quote along in my mind. That dinner scene that introduces us to the Darko family unit? Ah-mazing.
As is absolutely everything involving Mrs. Farmer and Jim Cunningham. The Attitudinal Beliefs video from health class is almost too well done. You see it and can almost picture your gullible family members buying in. And the boom mic dipping into the frame? Brilliant. Though I am reasonably sure the “I’m not afraid anymore!” bedwetting kid and the “How do I fight?” kid are actually the same kid. As for the love-hate spectrum, I’m 100 percent team Donnie on that. That scene is cathartic in a lot of ways. His response is the response I wish I had to so much busywork encountered over the years. But, I must say, my favorite element in this part of the story is the assembly. The back-and-forth between Donnie and Cunningham is phenomenal. Phenomenal, I say. And it makes me miss Patrick Swayze so very much.
That Tears for Fears scene is absolutely genius. It’s as impactful as the wandering around the school with the seniors sequence in the early stages of Dazed and Confused, but it’s done in far less time and communicated so clearly that it doesn’t even need dialogue. Fantastic stuff. Even though I was in high school nearly two decades after the time in which this sequence is set, it still felt so genuine to the experience. Minus the cocaine. I don’t think I ever saw anyone do blow in the hallway.
We really need to talk about Sparkle Motion and Smurfs and the Donnie-Gretchen relationship.
Kitty, do you even know who Graham Greene is?
A: I recently had learned about the unique nature of Smurfette, incidentally right before we saw Donnie Darko. I had no idea that she was created as a spy, and I absolutely loved how that played into the scene. It felt real because that’s what teenage boys talk about. Right? That’s what I imagine they talk about anyway, but since I never was one, I can’t say for sure. I don’t think that scene had any bearing on the overall story, but it helps establish the camaraderie and characterization of Donnie and his friends. We are led to believe they’re very normal 17-year-old dudes, literally shooting the shit with a cold beer.
Sparkle Motion was amazing. I will shut up about Beth Grant and instead focus on Samantha as a mini Regina George instead. Even though she looked significantly too young to be in a dance corps with high school girls, she walked the walk and fit right in, both in skill and in attitude. Again, I’m not sure what that has to do with the overall story arc except to again establish a strong character in her own right. Or am I missing some secret information yet again?
I think we talked about realistic teenage relationships in Heathers and how Veronica and JD’s relationship (before the murders start) felt too mature for high school kids. I feel the same way about Gretchen and Donnie. Now, we know Donnie is a genius (based upon his ACT score) so it stands to reason that he’d actually talk to a girl he likes like this. Plus, he knew that she found him the cutest out his class, and that’s gotta give any man of any age a huge confidence boost. At any rate, whether it’s realistic or not, it’s a very sweet relationship from beginning to end. Donnie’s sacrifice for Gretchen is the emotional peak of the story, but it feels earned. The way he deals with her family drama in a respectful, loving way is the way any girl (or guy) wants to be treated in that situation. Hits you right in the feels.
I believe that’s all I have to say on the matter, before I dive into online analysis and then watch this film again!
You’re not a bitch. You’re bitchin’, but you’re not a bitch.
B: I agree, the Smurfs scene is pure characterization, but it is so good. Did I tell you about Smurfette? If so, I completely parroted that information from Donnie. Just like the time I used “destruction is a form of creation,” in English, and nearly carried it off. My filterless best pal gave me away, the jerk.
Sparkle Motion is important for a couple of reasons: to give Mrs. Farmer and Mrs. Darko more reasons to snipe at each other, to act as an example of normies that make Drew’s badass teacher eyeroll, and to give us a reason to see the plane from whence the engine fell. In the same fell swoop, the appearance of Sparkle Motion on Star Search gives Donnie and Elizabeth the chance to have their big party. But mostly, they are just, NO-NO-TORI-OUS.
Also agreed on Donnie and Gretchen’s relationship. It is so adorable, and probably gave me false expectations of teenage love. I regret nothing.
We’ve gone fully, fully Ravenclaw on this thing. So let’s leave it at this: cellar door.
Next week, we are going to dance school in New York City with a Mandy Moore soundtrack in the background. That’s right. Center Stage is happening and we’re getting super girly.