First Takes: Donnie Darko

Calum Cooper gives his first impressions of Richard Kelly’s atmospheric head-scratcher in the third installment of our running series.

Very few movies have escaped my sight in the past five years. I go to the cinema roughly 150 times a year (excluding repeat viewings) and in my downtime I take it upon myself to find the classics of older generations and discover what all the fuss is about. Whether those films win my captivated enjoyment, face my (admittedly over-the-top) ire or merely serve as a couple hours of light entertainment, cinema takes up a big chunk of my life. Yet of course, being a mere twenty one year old university student, I still have a lot of catching up to do and many films still to discover. However, one film in particular that I’ve often heard about yet which has always seemed to elude me is the cult classic Donnie Darko – that is until now.

Realistically, given my taste in film, I should have stumbled across this one much sooner. It was supposedly a mind boggling thriller with uncanny visuals, thought provoking ideas and of course the man, the myth and the legend that is Jake Gyllenhaal. For whatever reason though, I just never got round to watching it despite years of my friends moaning at me and subsequently questioning my integrity as a self-proclaimed film nerd. However, as qmunicate has introduced this ‘First Takes’ series within their film section, I figured I no longer had any decent excuse to miss it. My initial thoughts in brief: I liked it… but what the fuck just happened?

I should probably mention that there are two versions of this film, the theatrical cut and the director’s cut. I wasn’t aware of this fact before watching the film yet, if Wikipedia is anything to go by, I apparently watched the theatrical version released in 2001. There’s heated debate over which is the better version which I won’t wade into, especially since I’ve only seen one version once. The film is about the adolescent, titular Donnie Darko, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who survives a near-fatal accident and begins to have visions of someone in a demonic rabbit costume, oddly-enough called Frank. This rabbit recites a series of numbers – a countdown to the end of the world. From there questions of time travel, mind control and the undead all present themselves on screen in one atmospheric ball of weirdness.

This was a real head-scratcher to say the least. However, in the days it’s taken me to stop procrastinating and write this piece I’ve found myself dwelling more and more on several aspects of the film. It certainly stays with you if nothing else. The film deals with a wide and disparate range of themes, as you can probably gather, which kept the film unpredictable throughout. I’ve seen films that have tried to tackle this many things simultaneously before that ultimately turn out to be unrefined messes. However, in the case of Donnie Darko, I could tell that there was a definite line of thought to it, even if it remained somewhat subdued. As strange as they were, there always seemed to be meaning to the film’s creative choices, and this wasn’t simply an exercise in pretentious showcasing of directing style. There’s something to its absurd originality that’s itching away at me and making me want to come back to it.

Luckily, even if you factor out the batshit insanity, I do think the film is technically competent. It has good acting, writing and characters on top of everything else. Donnie is an interesting protagonist, not only because of all the weirdness he’s seemingly linked to, but because he so clearly embodies the film’s more obvious themes of high school angst. His rebellious nature leads to a ton of great moments both funny and intense; my personal favourites being when he deconstructs the morality of a teacher’s exercise and later straight up calls Patrick Swayze’s life coach “the fucking Antichrist” to his face. Mindfuckery aside, the film is funny, engaging and compelling, which is maybe what’s attracting me to it so much.

It’s both a blessing and a curse that this First Takes article is all about first impressions, as I do believe Donnie Darko is one of those films that requires a couple viewings to fully format an opinion on. However, as far as first impressions go, I am satisfied. It’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever witnessed, but one of the most original too. I’m looking forward to the next time I have two hours free so that I can re-watch it and see how my respect for it grows.

[Calum Cooper – @CalumTheFilmGuy]

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