Down the Deep, Dark Rabbit Hole
My cult movie experimentation continued with a very explosive guest. A movie that is widely beloved and referenced, with a star-studded cast including everyone from Patrick Swayze to Ashley Tisdale (special shoutout to young Seth Rogan!) – and that’s not even including the main characters.
Donnie Darko is a stand-alone cult movie, as it’s one whose story is so absurd that there are threads on Reddit arguing the truth behind the narrative. It also is very enlightening, of our human experience, of the truths that people hold to their hearts, of the ways in which you can perceive your own purpose in life.
It isn’t easy to present a new take on Donnie Darko, given there are so many sites and forums that have meticulously picked apart every element and theme of the movie. At 26, this is the first time I’ve sunk my teeth into it (I discovered Beetlejuice very young and spent my life as a Tim Burton devotee). It was really special to get to watch it for the first time, and that’s what this reflection is based on.
Watching it, I learned so much – not only of conceptually jarring tangent and the primary universe – but of the construct of looking at fear on the opposite side of the spectrum of love. Though, as Donnie points out, you can’t possibly simplify the human experience into two categories, there is some truth in the concept (that is glaringly meant to be fed to the shallow-thinking masses, as shown through the movie’s hired motivational speaker).
The Fear/Love concept isn’t unique to DD, as Twin Peaks explores similar themes in accessing the Black and White Lodges. In the case of Donnie, however, we see how it can possibly be manifested in one person. When we meet him, giggling, in the middle of a winding mountain road, displaced and endangered, he doesn’t seem to fit into a theme of love nor fear. We see him in a sense of discomfort, though he manages well, almost relishing the fact that he isn’t particularly stable.
Off the bat you know this character isn’t driven by fear or love, but something else. It’s a sensation that, perhaps, if you asked him then in that moment, even he wouldn’t be able to explain.
As the audience, it feels like we’re also being led to choose whether to love or fear what we’re watching. Frank is the iconic man in the bunny suit that’s become synonymous with the title. He appears only to Donnie, somewhat calming, somewhat menacing, and completely freaky. Although his long pointed face, which opens back out into a huge ominous grin, is undoubtedly designed to unsettle the audience, Donnie often greets him with a similarly coy smile; one of welcome and curiosity.
Does Donnie love the encounter as a friendship or as an experience that sets him apart from his family and peers? It doesn’t quite seem like he feels especially attached to Frank, as when he’s under hypnosis in his psychiatrist’s office, the sight of Frank alarms Donnie in a way that also quite alarms the viewers (at least, it made me jump). Donnie also takes a kitchen knife to Frank’s eye in an attempt to break through the liquid barrier he appears behind one evening in the bathroom.
Does Donnie fear him? Another unlikely emotion, given Donnie’s cool demeanor each time Frank barges in on his moments of sanctity. Donnie is unflinching. When Frank gives Donnie a task to do, Donnie accepts it on the spot, pulling his hood over his head in a mobilizing gesture.
Donnie, overall, seems to act on impulse. He jumps at every semi-conscious opportunity for mischief that Frank presents, but he also uses his own internal urgings to press forward.
He tells even his best friends to back down from bullying the outcasted Asian girl (who’s later revealed to have a crush on Donnie – probably from this exhibition of machismo).
He takes the opportunity during which school is canceled (due to his flooding of it) to ask out the girl.
He calls out Jim Cunningham, author and motivational speaker, for being a sell-out who has nothing but vague buzzwords to feed to kids who have real questions about life.
(Well, what he really calls him is “the fucking antichrist.”)
What is likable about Donnie is that he stands up for the underdogs, goes for the girl, and shares well-thought-out perspectives on literature in class; so, in a word, relatable. What is likable about Donnie Darko is that it isn’t really about relating to the common viewer. It’s a story that’s so otherworldly that you would hope not to relate, but rather be the Michael Jackson eating popcorn in the comments.
(Jake Gyllenhaal reportedly didn’t even know what the movie was about once it wrapped.)
Donnie Darko is a movie that makes you feel things that are off the spectrum of what most movies hope to elicit: fear or love. It isn’t a horror. In fact, there are many moments during which I laughed. (As a reply to his friend boastfully offering him “the good shit,” Donnie replies, “it’s a fucking cigarette.”) There’s enough comedy to keep you hooked, enough science fiction to keep you guessing, enough shock-value to keep you awake, but still, the movie falls into a category all its own when it comes to how you’ll feel when you reach the credits.
Donnie explores emotions on a topsy-turvy scale, but also tries to understand the concept of free will vs. fate. Around him he sees people acting in ways that are literally already drawn out for them. He questions whether or not we can make our own decisions, or if what Frank tells him to do is just part of his own blueprints.
This is what’s best about DD, and this is what’s kept it in such popular cannon some 17 years later. The film allows you to go into your own sliding scale of depth. You can enjoy the fear factor and the progression of the story as each piece is presented, or you can spend hours reading up (or watching the Director’s Cut) to uncover the true intent of the script – and come to the conclusion that you have more questions.
For me, the movie ended and I didn’t know what I was feeling. I sat and pondered for a while what it all could have meant – if it was all a dream. As “Mad World” played in the background, you’re guided even further down the rabbit hole of emotions. It’s hard to tell you and it’s hard to take; it’s kind of funny and it’s kind of sad. It’s all up to you to decide.