Episode 67: Donnie Darko (2001)

Film chosen by Gali, introduced by Devlin

I read a fantastic oral history of Donnie Darko which described the film as “everybody’s first deep thought”, which, while hyperbolic, does help describe the particular temporal space that I found this film in. Approaching 18, chafing at what I felt were the strictures of my small town, studying philosophy at A Level, and subsequently possessed of the half-baked notion that I might actually know anything at all. In our episode, Gali talks about the inherent narcissism that comes with the transition from to adulthood, where the cocoon of childhood is only partially sloughed off and the smallness of our worlds up until that point, our limited real world interactions, allow us to cling to any piece of received information that makes us feel smart and, often, smarter than those around us. Tellingly, in ways they just won’t understand. A whole bunch of little Dunning-Krugers running around, the inarticulate heroes of our own metaphysical dramas, full of persecution complexes, just waiting for the call to action to finally transform us in to whatever better version of ourselves we think we should be.

I don’t know if I can think of a film that better encapsulates this feeling than Donnie Darko. Maybe Mike Mills’ Thumbsucker, although that film seems wiser, sadder, fondly chiding of its protagonist as an embodiment of misguided, smart-arse youth. Richard Kelly, barely 25 at the time of the film’s release, seems to be writing about the nightmare of being 17 from the inside out, the film’s twists and leaps of convoluted sci-fi and angsty high school drama perfectly encapsulating the way adolescents will yearn and reach outwards for some explanation as to why everything around them seems so…wrong. Like our consciousness does stretch out ahead of us like a wobbly CGI tube, beyond arm’s reach, but frustratingly not much farther. If only we could know, or be led, or find somebody who has written a guidebook for us to follow. Not the bullshit rules laid out by society, but some lone, wise weirdo sage who can articulate the monolithic fear of the hugeness of everything. Our own Roberta Sparrow.

Perhaps that’s part of why so many of us, certainly me at least and I can only assume my co-hosts, cling so tenaciously to the art that we encountered during those turbulent years. Why I don’t think I’ll love another book as much as The Crying of Lot 49, or why Gared O’Donnell’s voice on those early Planes Mistaken For Stars albums – a ruined, husky, throat-shredded roar that means that even today I can barely make out any lyrics other than the odd emphatic chorus shout – will stop me in my tracks and send me down a rabbit hole of introspection, while I struggle to stop myself from idle phone scrolling when something algorithmically similar pops up on my music streaming service that didn’t accompany me at that time. Donnie Darko was almost the archetypal millennial film in this vein. It had confidence, mystery, and vulnerability – just like the expression on the face of its emerging superstar in the titular lead role. It told us the story of the misunderstood teen hero, smart but troubled, shy but brilliant, immature but perceptive, romantic and, ultimately, doomed. A classic tragedy of love and death, rabbits and, tellingly, jet engines – just in time for a consciousness-cracking real world tragedy that meant the adult world we were just stepping in to would be marked and defined by perpetual war, division, strife, and grossly negligent political leadership.

Sadly, Kelly’s follow up Southland Tales failed to capture the public’s imagination in quite the same way, derailing his career in, retrospectively, pretty brutal fashion. While a comeback for this clearly talented, thoughtful director would be extremely welcome, it’s unlikely he’d ever be able to hit these heights again in terms of audience impact. And it’s even more unlikely we’ll ever see another maverick upstart filmmaker manage to span the distance from box office flop to see his soundtrack hit the Christmas number 1 slot in the music charts. For good or ill, Donnie Darko remains one of a kind.

Our Matt has compiled another fantastic YouTube playlist of trailers, clips, interviews and more, and an as-always terrific Spotify playlist.

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