At the height of my fandom of Richard Kelly’s first movie, Donnie Darko (2001), I attended a midnight screening of the director’s cut at The Egyptian Theatre in Seattle. During the trivia contest that preceded the movie, I was asked to sit out due to my long string of correct answers. The movie struck something in me at a time when I needed to be struck. As Kelly himself put it, “I think you are challenged by things that are slightly beyond your grasp.” It is those things obscured that make a movie like this so engaging, endearing, and enduring.
Like its lauded indie debut cousin Reservoir Dogs (1992), Donnie Darko starts with a conversation scene set over a meal, a scene in which we meet most of the main characters of the film. It’s an elegant and efficient way to establish not only the characters but also their social dynamic. In Reservoir Dogs, the scene revolves around Mr. Blue’s Madonna monologue, which one assumes at this point was written by Roger Avery and not by Quinten Tarantino, who delivers it in the movie, Joe’s address book, and Mr. Pink’s refusal to tip. In Donnie Darko, it revolves around Donnie’s sister Elizabeth’s politics, Donnie’s apparent refusal to take his meds, and their use of foul language at the dinner table. In each, the trio of topics reveals just enough about the characters’ attitudes and how they play together.
Aside from Donnie and Elizabeth (played by the real-life siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal), the Darko family consists of father Eddie (the inimitable Holmes Osborne), mother Rose (the fabulous Mary McDonnell), and kid sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase, the only original Darko defector to the abortive sequel S. Darko). Other stellar performances are turned in by Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), Kitty “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” Farmer (Beth Grant), Jim Cunnigham (Patrick Swayze), Ronald Fisher (Stuart Stone), Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), Ricky Danforth (Seth Rogan, in his big-screen debut), Seth Devlin (Alex Greenwald), and, of course, Frank (James Duvall).
Though he’s never formally acknowledged it, Kelly’s Frank the Rabbit character can be interpreted as a play on the pookah legend, which Robert Anton Wilson explained as follows:
The pookah takes many forms, but is most famous when he appears as a giant, six-foot white rabbit—which is the form most Americans know from the play and film, Harvey. Whatever form the pookah takes, he retains the special ability of his species, which is like that of Thoth in Egyptian legend, Coyote in Native American myth, or Hanuman the Divine Monkey in Hindu lore — he can move us from one universe, or Belief System, into another, and he likes to play games with our ideas about “reality.”
The iconography of Donnie Darko starts with Frank. Like Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask or Freddy Krueger’s razor-fingered glove, Frank’s rabbit suit is as distinctive a symbol for a movie as there has ever been. Frank is from the future and he mentors Donnie through the film with cryptic guidance and disjointed advice. The setting and surroundings of Halloween, as well as the late-night bike-ride nod to E.T. (1982), are also endemic to this movie. For example, take the music video for “What’s a Girl to Do?” by Bat for Lashes, directed by Dougal Wilson. Aside from the rabbit mask, nothing here directly refers to the movie, but the cumulative homage is obvious.
The references to other movies in Donnie Darko are as subtle as the soundtrack is. Like Tarantino, Kelly uses music to add another element to the film. It’s a different approach to soundtracking than many movies use. For instance, I always wonder what the music in True Romance (1993) would’ve entailed had Tarantino ended up directing it as well. Tony Scott did a fine job, but the music wasn’t handled the way Tarantino usually does it. The music in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (1994) adds so much to the overall feel of the films. Kelly pulled off the same added element with Donnie Darko‘s soundtrack, saying, “there were opportunities in this story to put a musical code on the character’s experience within this era. Picking those songs was, on our part, not to do with making it campy and mocking of the 1980s… We wanted the music to be sincere.” To wit, the feeling and lyrics of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon,” INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart,” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” as well as Michael Andrews’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” all play thematically and lyrically with the complex motifs of the story.
Somehow in the midst of the musings of a confused, possibly schizophrenic teenage boy, Kelly puts no less than the future of humanity at stake. Drawing from Graham Greene’s “The Destructors,” Richard Adams’ Watership Down (the inspiration for Frank, according to Kelly), and The Last Temptation of Christ (what is Donnie Darko if not a teen-angst-ridden, sci-fi version of the Christ narrative?), he carries us to the absolute brink on All Hallow’s Eve. The meaning of all of this is never fully explained, but whatever it means remains important to us. It’s not enough to just like the characters and to wonder. We have to care. As Stephen Jay Gould explained:
But we also need the possibility of cataclysm, so that, when situations seem hopeless, and beyond the power of any natural force to amend, we may still anticipate salvation from a messiah, a conquering hero, a deus ex machina, or some other agent with power to fracture the unsupportable and institute the unobtainable.
The official story consists of a rogue alternate universe that must be resolved through a comic-book logic involving Manipulated Living, Manipulated Dead, The Living Receiver, and others, all explained in Roberta Sparrow’s book, The Philosophy of Time Travel; however, one of the enduring features of Donnie Darko is that even given an “official story,” one can draw many meanings. This is essential to its proven shelf-life.
My favorite scene in the movie is a short snatch of conversation between Donnie’s teachers Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) and Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle). She’s having a snack while he grades papers, presumably in the teacher’s lounge at Middlesex High School. Monnitoff mentions Donnie, chuckling incredulously, and she laughs, agreeing. The scene is so brief as to be completely missable, but it indicates that they’re in on something, that they know the answer. We all know now whether or not Deckard is a Replicant in Blade Runner (1982), and as Christopher Nolan said of whether or not Dom is dreaming at the end of Inception (2010), there is an answer. That the answer doesn’t impede further speculation or meaning-mining is one of the things that makes Donnie Darko so tenacious. As Jake Gyllenhaal says, “What does it mean to you?”
When Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko follow-up, Southland Tales (2006), finally hit DVD, I rented it and watched it six times over the five-day rental. Like Donnie Darko, this is another absurdist eschatological fairy tale, albeit on a much grander scale, with a Pynchon-esque sprawl and a large focus on politics. Where Donnie Darko shows remarkable restraint whenever the plot threatens to spiral out of control, Southland Tales just pushes that much further, reveling in its own chaos and spectacle. It’s a carnival, a war, an end to humanity, a social comment, a political satire, a science fiction romp, and a laugh-out-loud comedy — it bends and blends genres so much as to be “as radical as reality itself,” to borrow a phrase from several sources. Not that it doesn’t have a plot or a focus, it does, but a single viewing will not provide one with all the clues to its many secrets.
This is the way the world ends.
Not with a whimper, but with a bang.
The full story spills over from the film into three prequel graphic novels and borrows liberally from The Book of Revelation, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Jane’s Addiction’s “Three Days,” T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Man” (quoted in its adapted form above), Kiss Me Deadly, Repo Man, the writings of Karl Marx, and many other places. The full scope of the story is ridiculously vast. As Richard Kelly explains, “I spent the last four years of my life devoted to this insane tapestry of Armageddon,” adding that this was about “getting the apocalypse out of my system once and for all.”
The centerpiece of this “insane tapestry of Armageddon” is a drug-induced music video sequence featuring Iraq veteran Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) recontextualizing “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers. Like the rest of the movie, it’s over-the-top delirious, but its delirium eventually disintegrates into head-hanging melancholy and the beginning of Part VI, “Wave of Mutilation,” the final act, ridden by the motif of “friendly fire” and self-destruction. This movie must have the highest incidence of characters putting guns to their own heads in the history of film-making. It also must have the highest incidence of cameras: They’re everywhere. This movie is nothing if not panoptic.
There are so many jarring non sequiturs throughout the film that when Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) dropped his signature line from the film, I was surprised that I was surprised. Absurdity is the rule here, not the exception. In one scene, Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) makes Martin Kefauver (Lou Taylor Pucci) put on his seatbelt, just after stopping him from blowing his own head off! Some of the lines that seem to come from out of nowhere are a part of Southland Tales' “self-conscious irony,” as after “officer” Bart Bookman guns down two performance artists he utters, “Flow my tears,” offering a fleeting key to the whole mess. On the side of his police car is the Latin phrase oderint dum metuant: “Let them hate, so long as they fear,” which was a favorite saying of the Roman Emperor Caligula. These are only a few examples of the film’s many references and absurdities.
Like Donnie Darko, Southland Tales seems to have finally found its cult audience, and the newly released Cannes Cut (More Kevin Smith! More Janeane Garofalo!) is furthering its fanbase. Here’s hoping Richard Kelly is on his way to becoming the next Kubrick and not the next Gilliam, because with his first two movies, he proved that he deserves to share their company.
Gould, Stephen Jay (1999). Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown. New York: Crown, p. 58.
Kelly, Richard. (2003). The Donnie Darko Book. London: faber and faber, p. xiv.
Rogers, Thomas. (2007, December 19). Everything you were afraid to ask about “Southland Tales” Salon.
Wilson, Robert Anton. (1991). Cosmic Trigger, Volume II: Down to Earth. Las Vegas, NV: New Falcon, p. 29.