Middlesex (not that one), 1988. It’s the run up to the presidential election campaign that gave us such political heavyweights as Michael Dukakis and Dan Quayle. Donnie lives in a big house with his middle to upper class family. He is a troubled kid and suffers from an unnamed mental illness. Also, he’s stopped taking his meds.
Whatever it is that Donnie is suffering from, it causes him to sleepwalk and have daytime visions. Oh, and to receive orders from a giant rabbit called Frank, who compels him to commit random destruction. One day, Frank tells him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 47 minutes and 12 seconds. As the film progresses, we counts down this time.
Donnie goes to a high school populated by stereotypes. There’s the progressive young teacher who’s sacked for teaching Graham Greene, the uptight conservative teacher who believes that all actions and emotions are on the matrix between Fear and Love. Then there’s the motivational speaker who’s allowed into assemblies to preach his gospel until he’s sent down for being part of a child prostitution ring.
Donnie’s fellow students, inasmuch as they are allowed a voice at all, are the usual bullies and victims – there’s a fat Chinese girl who only appears to be there so that people can make racist and sexist jokes at her expense. You could argue that director Richard Kelly is subverting old expectations set up in John Hughes films. You could also say that he’s replaced one set of stereotypes with another.
Donnie is allowed a love interest, Gretchen. This is the turn of the Millennium – Manic Pixie Dream Girls don’t exist yet – so she is the next best thing: a girl with a Tragic Past who must be looked after. It turns out that Gretchen’s mother was stabbed by her stepfather who is still at loose, so they moved to Middlesex under false identities. She is wary of emotional contact but, hey, we have time yet.
Donnie is obviously brighter than his schoolmates because … well, because they say he is. We see little evidence from his actual conversation, but what the hey? There is an extended scene where he “disproves” their sexist theories about Smurfette with something that may sound impressive to adolescent boys but to the rest of us its banal fanboy drivel. He also is seen to destroy the Fear-Love teacher, simply by having a self-indulgent tantrum.
Further proof of Donnie’s intelligence is seen by his constant reference to time travel and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time – remember when that was a Thing? Again, this is typical of a film about adolescent boys who think they are cleverer than they actually are, aimed at adolescent boys and so on and so forth (to this you could add film critics, who are pretty much the same thing).
You see, the problem with adding time travel and the like to any drama is that apart from making No Bloody Sense, it removes any actual jeopardy from the film. Don’t like the way one scene turns out? Well you can play it out again. Now there are films that have effectively dealt with this problem – from Groundhog Day to Back to the Future – but the main way they did this was by not taking themselves so bloody seriously.
My problem with Donnie Darko is that I didn’t believe any of it. Now, as we’re talking about a film about a six foot demonic rabbit, then of course none of it is actually true, but I’m talking about something more fundamental here. I don’t believe in Donnie’s illness, I don’t believe in his school, I don’t believe that any of his problems are real, so I end up just not caring what happens to him.
I never saw the film when it came out – it became a cult film later, but initially didn’t have a wide release – but I did see the video later. On my way to re-watching it, I remembered being neither particularly impressed nor offended, but struggled to remember exactly what happens, what it’s all about. All I could come up with was a big rabbit and a scene in a nearly empty cinema, both of which I surely got from photographs distributed after the event.
The film was – eventually – beloved by a large number of critics, but I struggle to appreciate why. It is full of itself, showing off the intelligence that it would like to have. It is quirky for the sake of being quirky. This is often a self-referential way of avoiding talking about anything important, of drawing attention to itself without having anything to say. There was a lot of that in the early 2000s. I hope we’ve grown up since.