Early in Donnie Darko, Drew Barrymore reads to a high school English class from Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors”: ‘It was as though this plan had been with him all his life, pondered through the seasons, now in his fifteenth year crystallised with the pain of puberty.’ My own pubescent pain is itself crystallised in memory by the approximately seven second shot even earlier in the film that begins with the opening notes of Echo & The Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon”, as Jake Gyllenhaal’s eponymous 16 year old wipes the sleep out of his eyes, riding his bike in pyjamas down Carpathian Ridge, a perfect encapsulation of the entwined angst and optimism of adolescence.
For better or worse, Richard Kelly’s directorial debut has permanent residence in my brain, alongside the likes of The Simpsons‘ first ten years, several Iain Banks novels, the discography of Arab Strap – works of art that I thought at the time were presenting me with a startlingly vivid picture of a world I recognised, but later came to realise had subtly rewired me to better deal with that world. Seeing it for the first time, aged 16, on its UK opening weekend in November 2002, it hit me full force, a perfect reaction from a perfect mark, leaving the cinema in a daze, telling anyone who would listen ‘oh my God, that’s me!’ Seeing it for the first time in close to a decade nearly fifteen years on, aged 30, on a Tuesday night in January, I thought, watching through fingers, ‘oh my God, that was me’, as if I’d discovered a mortifyingly personal teenage diary entry.
Even now, I find it hard to extricate my teen years from Donnie’s, my memories of both a sensory rush: instant messages drafted in purple comic sans while listening to the film’s soundtrack, each cut individually downloaded over a dial-up connection from Kazaa; a girl I took to see it gripping my arm in fear every time Frank appeared; trying to convince my high school Physics teacher to let us watch it in our last class before Christmas because of the time travel business; letting Kelly’s vision of Bush/Dukakis-era teenage existentialism blend with my own post-9/11 update. Obviously, to a too-smart-for-his-own-good-but-not-enough-to-know-better, weird-but-not-completely-socially-maladroit suburban teen with arty pretensions, nascent cinephilia, and a desire to let everyone know he got the Graham Greene jokes, it was complete catnip. I saw it three times on consecutive Saturdays, then imported the US DVD before the month was out. Every frame of it is ingrained in me.
With the benefit of distance, my earlier identification with Donnie seems more aspirational than accurate: no troubled past, no breaking and entering, no destruction as a form of creation, no history of mental illness, just a long-held desire for outsider anti-hero status. Ironically, given that I’ve never seen my 16 year old self as being less like Donnie than on this most recent viewing, this may be the time in my life in which I’ve actually had most in common with him, most pertinently in the form of a very recent first brush with depression. On a particularly bad day, I made a list of things about myself that I thought needed to be addressed, at the top of which was ‘have I changed at all since I was a teenager?’ Revisiting this central piece of my adolescence after so long away, I accidentally got my answer: it feels like an entirely different film now, even if every detail is exactly as I remember it.
It still welcomes and allows easy identification with Donnie, but expertly walks a very fine line, allowing just enough perspective from the characters surrounding him – his parents, his teachers, his therapist – to play as strongly with the concern that comes from watching a loved one self-destruct. In this regard, its continued success rests on the shoulders of Mary McDonnell, a model of empathy, grace and unalloyed maternal love. Fatalistic teen narcissists may see their ideal end in a vision of a misunderstood hero literally crushed by the weight of the world in order that his loved ones may live, but McDonnell’s closing, crushing wave suggests that the film’s real hero is a mother who would happily have taken his place.
(Interestingly, those who stand to lose most in the parallel universe where Donnie survives are the women closest to him: his girlfriend killed in a car accident, his mother and younger sister presumably also killed in a plane crash, his older sister having to live with the knowledge that her brother killed her boyfriend who killed his girlfriend, his beloved English teacher kicked out of school. The only man in Donnie’s immediate orbit who suffers through his continued existence is a charlatan paedophile, unmasked when Donnie burns down his house, accidentally revealing a ‘kiddie porn dungeon’.)
Far be it from me to divide the film into fear and love, but for all the nods to horror and sci-fi, love remains its animating force, whether in the familial form of McDonnell, the heady rush of Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone’s incipient relationship, or in its plotting, which, despite its initial puzzle-box quality, reveals itself on subsequent viewings to be a jaw-droppingly coherent mish-mash of seemingly every cultural artifact Richard Kelly has ever admired: as well as the aforementioned Graham Greene story, narrative elements are lifted (and often acknowledged on screen) from, amongst others, It’s A Wonderful Life, Harvey, Stephen Hawking, Stephen King, E.T., Back to the Future, The Evil Dead, The Last Temptation of Christ, phonaesthetic theory, and the lyrics of every song on the soundtrack. It’s a postmodernist’s reconstruction of 1988 in which art dictates the lives of those on screen, pulled off with the dazzlingly confident formal élan of someone who knows they might never get another shot at this.
If it doesn’t quite hold up as ‘the greatest directorial debut since Citizen Kane‘ ([c] C. Ward, St. Ninian’s High School newspaper DVD reviews section, 2003), it does still hold up as an exquisitely dreamy study of teenage doom, equal parts removed and infatuated, optimism and angst as perennially intertwined as in that “Killing Moon” shot, as it was in 2002, in 1988, and remains in 2017, blurring the lines between past and present, your own adolescence and its protagonist’s, collapsing it all together into an ecstatic unity, always there ready to provide succour to a 16 year old who needs it, or a 30 year old who needs to be reminded why he doesn’t actually want to be 16 again.