I just saw (on DVD) Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, which is an extraordinarily beautiful film, certainly one of the best movies of 2001. It’s a delicate, creepy, and quite affecting portrait of male teenage alienation and angst, subtly bathed in the colors of what might be described either as schizophrenic hallucination, or as science fiction….
The film is set in 1988, at the time of Michael Dukakis’ futile run for the Presidency. Donnie (in a carefully nuanced performance by Jake Gyllenhaal) is as much of a loser and outsider as Dukakis. He feels ill at ease both at home and at his high school. It’s not that his peers and authority figures are uniformly heinous. Some of them are indeed awful, like the students who bully Donnie and the creep who runs slick self-improvement seminars. But most of the people Donnie knows are resonably decent and well-intentioned. Though Donnie at one point calls his mother a bitch, his well-to-do parents are more clueless than they are actively malevolent. And he does have a few friends at school, a girlfriend, some teachers who try to help, and a psychiatrist who does her best to support him.
It’s just that Donnie isn’t able to reach any of these people. There is no common measure between his inward sensitiveness and the social environment in which he has to spend his life. The film projects an overwhelming sense of loneliness, emptiness, and arbitrariness. But it suggests that these conditions are in no way surprising or extraordinary; they are just the way things are in affluent, semi-suburban, small town America. This sense of things is conveyed mostly by the mise-en-scene, with its long shots of indoor and outdoor spaces that have nothing wrong with them except that they are so excessively “normal” as to feel like empty facades. The film plays with the contrast between this naturalism and the intrusion of shockingly incongruous events–like the airplane engine that falls inexplicably out of the sky and crashes into the Darko house, initiating the plot of the movie.
Everything is outwardly “normal,” but inner and outer fail to correspond in any meaningful way in the world of this movie. Though some of the film’s incongruities seem to be “objective,” most of them come in the form of the unsettling schizophrenic hallucinations from which Donnie suffers. A mysterious figure wearing a sort of bunny-rabbit skull mask appears to him, prophesying the imminent end of the world, and ordering Donnie to commit various acts of vandalism and arson. Even creepier, he occasionally sees fluid, gelatinous emanations that emerge out of people’s bodies, and draw them like strings along the paths that they proceed to take. Donnie sees these emanations as a materialization of fate, of a deterministic force that denies any hope of difference or change in his life. Notably, the special effects that convey these hallucinations are themselves low-key; they do not have the slickness of mainstream Hollywood digital effects, but they are also without the deliberate campiness of so much low-budget horror filmmaking. The low-key, incidental nature of these effects is precisely what makes them so unsettling. Here schizophrenia does not mark a radical break with reality, but rather a subtle insinuation, as if Donnie were able to see an aura or halo surrounding and supplementing the real, that nobody else is able to discern.
These dynamics might seem to suggest the horror genre. But the film moves in the direction of science fiction instead. The focus is on conceptual, cognitive dissonance–experience that is out of proportion to Donnie’s, or anyone else’s, ability to articulate and understand it–rather than on body dread and visceral intensity. Everything comes together around the theme of time travel, as a way of both undoing the pain of the present, and averting the apocalyptic catastrophe that continually seems to Donnie to be just around the corner. Without giving away the ending, I will just say that the film’s final, science-fictional movement both confirms the despair that has been evoked throughout, and suggests an opening to otherness, an escape from the prison of solipsistic loneliness, which is what Donnie has been looking for all along.