Time Travel to 1988
What's amazing about Donnie Darko is the confidence with which it's told. Writer/director Richard Kelly dared to pack his debut movie with a lot of layers, characters, and topics. Normally, this would be a handicap, but Kelly meets the challenge head on -- the movie isn't composed of a few particularly strong, memorable scenes surrounded by exposition; instead, it's a cascade of little scenes and snippets, jumping from one time and location to the next, often without missing a beat, and still keeping displacement to a minimum. It's skillful and admirable work, especially for a film which has a thick, befuddling outer plot about time travel but is really about isolationism in the world of conformity in the late '80s.
About those late '80s -- I was a teenager and about the titular character's age in the setting of Donnie Darko (middle-class suburbia, October, 1988). No other movie I've seen has been able to capture that late '80's feel with such accuracy; as a result, Donnie Darko affects me like few other movies can. It was a time when conservatism was hip, when Ronald Reagan seemed like the exemplary president, charming the nation -- and let's just say those barbs thrown at presidential candidate Michael Dukakis had a ring of familiarity to them. I was a generally unhappy kid back then, but I dealt with my troubles by maintaining a strong morality, thinking positively, and remaining optimistic -- unfortunately, that only helped me tread water and not develop. It was a time when I, like many others, embraced that Bobby McFerrin song, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," and took the danged thing literally.
This is the world Donnie Darko depicts so well. Kelly must have an awesome memory because the feel of the movie is oppressive in a way that could only be matched by actually being there. That positive thinking stuff often served as a mask, a cover to hide "bad things" -- without actually daring to face our personal issues and flaws, we wouldn't be able to enlighten ourselves, but that was the threat of the 80's way of thinking. It discouraged individuality, though at the time many of us thought the tonic tasted sweet and were having a good time in spite of ourselves.
What's interesting about the way the '80s are remembered these days is how we've made the decade frivolous. Most of us who grew up then are fine with that -- we like seeing our childhood in neon lights and synth-laden music. Movies like 13 Going On 30 blow kisses to that time, but few movies have decided to look at the ugliness underneath the gloss. American Psycho comes to mind, with its singular, tight-focused attack on yuppie culture. As a teenager of the '80s, though, I can wholeheartedly appreciate Donnie Darko's approach. It doesn't ignore the nostalgia -- its selection of new wave songs to fill the soundtrack is both smart and satisfying -- but it does look at and criticize this time with the benefit of hindsight, through the eyes of an intelligent, cynical kid, cutting through the sheen of high morality and comforting comformity.
The time travel aspect of the film is appropriate in this regard. Because Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been chosen to be the one person who can place his threatened universe on the path away from cosmic destruction, he's been given an extra sense that allows him to see the immediate pre-determined paths of the people around him. Since this effectively means he can see where we're going, this makes him the manifestation of Kelly's hindsight and, consequently, ours as well. Whenever he makes disparaging remarks about the narrow-mindedness of those around him, he does so from the mentality and with the assuredness of a person who's been through college in the '90s long enough to be able to recognize what smelled fishy about the '80s. In essence, Donnie's already a time-traveler, making him the appropriate choice to be his universe's savior, a role that requires understanding of time-travel.
Here's another thing I liked about this film: conventionally, an attack upon a subject such as a dystopian society utilizes a main character (or a main team of characters) who's alone in being as insightful as he/she is. It would have been easy for Kelly to make Donnie smart and everyone else around him, especially the adults, idiotic. But in this movie there are several characters, including Donnie's parents, who are relatively aware of the ills around them. Including this takes maturity, and it intelligently serves to enrich the underlying complexity of Donnie's universe, which is beneficial to the story's thesis of fighting against simple-minded thinking.
The newly released "Director's Cut" isn't much different from the original movie. It adds a few scenes, rearranges some songs (the opening song is now the original one Kelly wanted in the first place, although what he used before worked well enough), and occasionally features some strange graphics. Most noticeably, it separates sections of the movie with overlaid shots of the chapter titles and some pages of the movie's featured fictional book, The Philosophy of Time Travel. While these additions don't make the movie better or worse, they probably make the time travel plot a little clearer. After it's over, you might still be scratching your head over what exactly happened, but it's the movie's time capsule feel itself that has the best chance of lingering within you.
(Released by Newmarket Film Group and rated "R" for language, some drug use and violence.)