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Time and Mortality: "Donnie Darko" Turns 15

Richard Kelly's "Donnie Darko" defies categorization, an apocalypse story that’s also a coming of age tale that’s also a rumination on time, space, and New Wave touchstones. It was a curio when it was released in 2001, and it’s garnered a haunted quality now. In a movie climate eager to stage spectacles of the end of the world, it’s a bit of a culture shock to watch something so quiet, so bizarre that ultimately turns on saving the world. 

Set in 1988, the film’s vibe is a John Hughes movie as shot by John Carpenter working in “In the Mouth of Madness”-mode. Things are Not Right; there’s something in the air. The unhappiness of the family at the dinner table speaks to the larger cultural malaise and the scratchings of the paranormal trying to get through. The supernatural elements help push it past the banalities of a “dark heart of suburbia” tale. If everyone has something to hide, if everything is a facade, why wouldn’t that apply to reality itself? Why wouldn’t signs, portents and omens of great change start bleeding through every picket fence?

The family at this particular dinner table is a mother, father, two daughters and a son. And Mom (Mary McDonnell) and Dad (Holmes Osborne) are worried about Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal). Donnie is moody and maladjusted as any teenage boy, but there seems to be more than growing pains or even depression. He’s troubled by strange dreams that may be much more than dreams. Time is acting up in increasingly unsettling ways. A strange figure in a bunny costume with a terrifying mask keeps appearing and warning him of an upcoming cataclysm. At the same time, he's baffled by his community’s increasing embrace of a New Age phony (Patrick Swayze). Swayze’s ghoulish cheerleading cult leader sticks in the mind. It’s a queasy, brilliant performance; the warmth and sensuality of his persona curdled into That Uncle you know to stay away from at family reunions.

The curious thing about watching the film again after so long is how much it belongs to the women in its cast. Theirs are the faces I’ll remember the most: Beth Grant’s brittle dance mom; Katharine Ross’ kind therapist; Jena Malone yet again finding depths in the troubled young woman she was tasked with playing. Mary McDonnell’s performance in particular sticks out—it's a small part but a ribbon of warmth, of familial love. The film is touched too by flashes of humor, both broad and black, that keep it from self-serious bilge. The best known line is Grant wailing about another character’s commitment to the local dance team Sparkle Motion. But characters go off on bizarre tangents furthering the film’s atmosphere of things falling apart and the only reaction left is to laugh nervously.

The spaces of the film linger in the mind, too. As shot by cinematographer Steven Poster, they are the everyday spaces of home and school that you see in dreams. It takes a moment to realize they are “off,” the air is too still, the light is too diffused. The figures of friends and teachers are both the people you see every day and not them at all. They are someone, something more. A message perhaps, one that’s straining to come through.

It’s that message, and Donnie’s ultimate decision of what to do with it, that make “Donnie Darko” feel strangely out of time, or at least this time. The current movie trends are about saving the world, reluctantly, with full credit for your work and without ultimately sacrificing anything you can’t afford to lose. The ending of “Donnie Darko” is quietly devastating, but life affirming too. We may be helplessly trapped in time and mortality. But there are still possibilities of connection and tenderness that make us briefly not alone in the endless current of time and space. 

Jessica Ritchey

Jessica Ritchey is a writer based in the orbit between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. She credits a VHS copy of "Singin’ in the Rain" as her introduction to a love of movies.

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