Friday, September 21, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Donnie Darko (2001)

Back when I was in high school I rented a movie called Donnie Darko from Hollywood Video in East Cobb back when there was such a thing. I can't remember why, but one of my Quiz Bowl friends was really into indie films and perhaps he recommended it. I remembered actually liking it, or not disliking it, but I haven't seen it since.

Well, then Myopia: Defend Your Childhood booted up the "Cool in College" month in which we watched movies that we (or our peers) thought were so profound back in college to see if they were still thus. I rented Donnie Darko from Videodrome, the last video store I'm aware of in Atlanta, and off we went. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

In 1988, troubled teenager Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins hallucinating a humanoid rabbit creature named Frank. This leads into a convoluted tale of time travel, young love, and mental illness.

The Good

*The performances are generally good. I particularly liked how they cast real-life siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal as brother and sister. That makes how they relate to each other more authentic. Jake as Donnie conveys both mental illness (I think the film establishes that he's a paranoid schizophrenic) and a sweet side that his sickness obscures. And although the character Kitty Farmer is utterly obnoxious, Beth Grant does a good job with her intensity and moralistic fixation. Per her Wikipedia article she gets cast as religious nuts and rule-sticklers a lot, so that makes sense.

*The opening scenes of the film show rather than tell the Darko family's troubles. Mr. and Mrs. Darko have problems managing their mentally ill and possibly dangerous son, while their older daughter Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) rebels against their traditionalism by voting Democratic.

*The film takes place in 1988, which I didn't remember from when I watched it. I liked how they got a lot of the details right--the TVs are square and wood-paneled and the gas can that a character uses to commit arson is the exact same color and pattern of the gas can I remember my dad filling up the lawnmower with back in the day.

*The ending is legitimately sad. That's one reason I didn't like the movie--it actually made me somewhat depressive for a bit--but it shows skill on the filmmakers' part. In particular there's a conversation or speech Donnie is involved in/makes that reminded me of the iconic quote from A Tale of Two Cities:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

*Two of Donnie's friends wish they had a "Smurfette" as part of their group. Although their main focus is sex--there are a lot of people who need to get their minds out of the gutter on the issue of there being one female Smurf and a bunch of male Smurfs--ironically that comes true at the end when Gretchen (Jena Malone), a new girl in school who becomes Donnie's girlfriend, accompanies Donnie and his crew on an adventure.

*Per the above, there's some good examples of foreshadowing here and there.

*There's some stuff that's legitimately funny.

The Bad

*The film is incredibly, incredibly BORING. Seriously, it was a chore to stay focused on the movie for large stretches of it, even though I needed to do in order to discuss the movie for the podcast. There's apparently a director's cut that's twenty minutes longer! Hopefully it's dramatically re-edited so it's not so boring and makes more sense.

(Based on what Lauren said on the podcast it sounds like that was the case. In that case, here it is.)

*I don't remember not understanding the plot when I saw it in high school, but I definitely had problems understanding it now. Maybe it was hard to pay attention enough to "get it" because it was so boring or maybe there's some other reason, but I didn't understand it and that's a problem. I'm not against movies that require me to think, but there's that and there's this confusing morass.

*Donnie befriends Gretchen by helping her get away from a couple slimy guys and walking her home, but along the way he acts really weird and creepy (recounting burning down an abandoned house, for example) and ends with basically asking her to be his girlfriend. And somehow it works. Given Gretchen's history of familial abuse, I had trouble believing this wouldn't immediately trigger her danger alarm. Donnie is sweet in many ways but he's also mentally ill and unstable. This is not going to end well. Many young people have poor romantic taste and Gretchen perhaps saw the good in him and thought perhaps she could fix him. Again, this is not going to end well.

*Drew Barrymore plays the school's English teacher and she didn't impress. She wasn't bad per se, but she wasn't really that good either.

The Verdict

A dull depressing mess. 3.0 out of 10. Don't bother.

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