Donnie Darko (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #26

Twenty-eight days, six hours,
forty-two minutes, twelve seconds…
that is when the world will end.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 113 minutes | 134 minutes (director’s cut)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 26th October 2001
UK Release: 25th October 2002
First Seen: cinema, November 2002

Stars
Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time)
Jena Malone (Saved!, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition)
Noah Wyle (A Few Good Men, The World Made Straight)
Drew Barrymore (Never Been Kissed, 50 First Dates)
Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing, Ghost)

Director
Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box)

Screenwriter
Richard Kelly (Domino, Southland Tales)

The Story
Troubled teen Donnie Darko is saved from a jet engine falling on his bedroom by a vision of a grotesque rabbit that tells him the world will end in less than a month. Over the coming weeks, more strange and possibly supernatural events occur, and it all gets quite complicated and stuff.

Our Hero
“Donnie Darko. What the hell kind of name is that? It’s like some sort of superhero or something.” “What makes you think I’m not?” The eponymous teenager is a troubled young man, possibly suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, who begins to perform acts under the influence of his imaginary rabbit friend.

Our Villains
Who’s the greatest evil: Frank, the six-foot imaginary rabbit who proclaims the world is going to end; Jim Cunningham, the motivational speaker with dark secrets; or moral-crusading gym teacher Kitty Farmer?

Best Supporting Character
New girl in town Gretchen may be the only person who ‘gets’ Donnie. Bonus points to Kelly for writing a geek-fantasy girlfriend character who doesn’t conform to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype.

Memorable Quote
Donnie: “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?”
Frank: “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.” — Kitty Farmer

Memorable Scene
Donnie wakes up in the middle of nowhere at dawn, in his pyjamas but with his bike discarded nearby. As he rides home, we see snapshots of his small town and his family, all set to The Killing Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen.

Memorable Music
The film makes strong use of contemporary pop music. It all seems to sit perfectly, which is a little ironic as a good number of tracks were changed because they couldn’t afford the rights on such a low budget. The director’s cut restores some of the original choices, which was a mistake. The film’s soundtrack composer, Michael Andrews, and his chum Gary Jules recorded a cover of Tears for Fears’ Mad World for the film, which wound up being the coveted UK Christmas number one for 2003 (beating the likes of The Darkness’ Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End), and Bill Nighy’s Christmas is All Around from Love Actually).

Next time…
Whoever owns the rights attempted to cash in with sequel S. Darko, about Donnie’s younger sister. Richard Kelly wasn’t involved at all. It was not well received.

Awards
Toronto Film Critics Association Awards special citation for “the best film not to receive a proper theatrical release in Canada”.

What the Critics Said
“has a texture and tang all its own, despite its remarkable mixture of genres and expressive modes — horror, romance, science fiction, teen flicks, and Robert Bresson meets Generation Y, to name a few. There’s also a dry realism in its evocation of suburban life, which abrades nicely against the bouts of slow- and fast-motion photography that jiggle time and make the ordinary shiver. Kelly, who also wrote the script, has a great ear for family dinner-table arguments about politics, teenage debates about the sexual habits of Smurfs, and the quotidian absurdities of small-town colloquy. Local busybody Kitty Farmer’s near-hysterical complaint to Donnie’s mother, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” (the name of their daughters’ dance troupe), is for some unfathomable reason my favourite line of dialogue this year.” — Leslie Felperin, Sight & Sound

Score: 85%

What the American Critics Said About the Director’s Cut
“First-time writer-director Richard Kelly’s breathtakingly ambitious Donnie Darko was one of the best pictures released in 2001. Now that it has returned in a 20-minute longer — and richer — director’s cut, it seems sure to be ranked as one of the key American films of the decade.” — Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

What the British Critics Said About the Director’s Cut
“If it’s your first viewing, you should still be wowed by an astounding masterpiece. But this is undoubtedly the lesser of the two cuts, and since you have the choice, you should stick with version one. […] All this director has done is cut a star off his five-star debut.” — William Thomas, Empire

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“Maybe Richard Kelly’s fate is to be the cult circuit’s Michael Cimino — forever admired for one great film amid subsequent missteps, including a director’s cut of the same movie. Kelly has yet to match the mysterious mood or magnitude of his filmmaking debut […] a collision of time-travel sci-fi, commentary on ’80s Reaganomics malaise and teen angst that’s simultaneously witty and poignant. Non-Darkolytes should start with the enigmatic theatrical cut and proceed further if curious.” — Nick Rogers, The Film Yap

Verdict

When it finally made its way to UK shores, about a year after its initial US release, Donnie Darko was something of a hit — it made more money here than Stateside, in fact. I know several people who stumbled upon it “just because it was showing”. Conversely, I made a special trip to see it at a distant cinema at an inconvenient hour, having heard about it from US reviews. I would’ve been 16, which is probably the best kind of age to become enamoured of its misunderstood teen hero and its complicated, semi-inexplicable sci-fi story. I haven’t actually watched it for years, and never made time for the divisive director’s cut, but (whatever I’d think of it now) it remains a key touchstone in my teenage film experience.

#27 will be…

Gone Girl (2014)

2015 #18
David Fincher | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Gone Girl“Horrible people do horrible things to each other” is the Post-it Note summary of this dark drama-thriller from director David Fincher, adapted by screenwriter Gillian Flynn from her own novel, which is short on heroes and overloaded with villains. An alternative brief summation is, “modern society is shit.”

Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike) are a married couple living an affluent-seeming life in middle America. One morning she goes missing, their house showing signs of a violent struggle. Nick calls the police, naturally. He has an alibi, but there are gaps — both to the police and for us, the viewer. Flashbacks reveal the courtship and subsequent middle-class-hardship of the Dunnes, their picture-perfect marriage built pretty much like one might build a picture of a perfect marriage. As the media descends on Nick’s small hometown, he’s swept up in the narrative of a nation deciding his guilt or otherwise in tweet-sized bursts of opinion, due process be damned. The heightened situation and an ever-lengthening chain of increasingly incriminating evidence bamboozles Nick into some ill-advised decisions, which only compounds the public’s negative perception of him. And halfway through there’s a killer twist that turns everything on its head, sending the film spiralling out in all kinds of new directions.

Depending on which set of critical reactions you choose to follow, Gone Girl is either Fincher’s latest masterpiece — possibly his most masterful masterpiece — or Fincher-by-numbers, a director treading water with a film so tailor-made for him that it’s all a bit too obvious. I think the latter is to reduce the greatness of Fincher’s work — and Flynn’s too, not to mention the talented cast and everything else that’s superb about this movie. Girl, goneHowever, that opinion may stem from the same point as my view on the more praise-filled reactions: that Gone Girl is not a film as great as Se7en, Fight Club or Zodiac, but that it is, along with The Social Network, a half-step behind them. Who knows, perhaps if I re-watched the pair they’d catch up with the pack; but then Se7en is my oft-cited “favourite film ever”, so good luck with that.

So, the people who have written Gone Girl off as a thriller made of audacious twists but, ultimately, no more than that have, I would wager, missed something. Analysis pours forth already — Richard Kelly, director of Donnie Darko and several other lesser films, wrote a lengthy comparison to Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s posthumous final film that had a mixed-to-poor reception on its release but, in the ensuing decade-and-a-half, seems to have been re-evaluated as something of a classic. Kelly’s piece is worth a look for those who don’t mind pieces that include multiple uses of the word “heteronormative” (no, wait, come back — he’s not as bad as most people who insist on using that phrase! And you’ll be pleased to know “cisgender” doesn’t even come up once), but do be aware it thoroughly spoils the plot of Gone Girl (and, I presume, Eyes Wide Shut, but as I’ve not seen that I’m not sure how much I’ve been spoiled).

Comparisons to Kubrick are nothing new for Fincher, of course; both directors being equally famed for their technical virtuosity and obsessive perfectionism, notoriously expressed in their renown for insisting on dozens, sometimes hundreds, of takes. (There’s a bit in the Gone Girl commentary where Fincher addresses this reputation head on, highlighting a shot that was achieved perfectly on the first take, so they didn’t do another.) However, A.V. Club’s list of the 100 best films of the decade so far (which places Gone Girl at #40) has a different suggestion: “isn’t there a bigger hint of Hitchcock in his choice of projects, the “disreputable” material to which he applies his immense talent?”

PolicierThis is an argument for which I have a lot of time. The majority of Fincher’s filmography is made up of policiers and thrillers of one form or another, and even when he breaks out of that mould — in The Social Network, for instance — he often brings a similar perspective and toolset. Many of these films are borderline-rote, heavily-generic schedule-fillers at screenplay level, and would have been just that in the hands of a lesser director; in the hands of a master filmmaker, however, they become genre-transcending classics. I think that same sentence could be said about most (all?) of Hitchcock’s best films.

Gone Girl is the latest in that vein. Yes, there are the straightforward thrills of a twisty whodunnit plot, but that’s carried off with infinite panache, the film as crisply edited and with as darkly glorious cinematography as anything else on the Fincher filmography. Beneath and around that, there’s a seam of thematic material for the engaged to sink their teeth into. Some have labelled it as a deconstruction of marriage, which is a bit broad. Although there’s no functioning relationship on screen to serve as a counterpoint, I think we’re all capable of imagining one. Rather, Fincher and Flynn are showing what a certain kind of person will do to fulfil their ambitions, especially when that ambition is only multiplied by contact with a similarly desirous other. This is a ‘perfect storm’ of two people — perhaps two fundamentally unlikeable people — setting out to achieve their goals with a “rest of the world be damned” attitude; an all-or-nothing game where the stakes are both life-or-death and, at the end of the day, the chance to live the American (1%-er) Dream. Is that worth what they go through? It is to them.

No news is good newsIs it for the masses, too? Maybe. In his review for Little White Lies, David Jenkins reckons that “ideas of the essential unknowability of other people and the fluid nature of trust… form the basis of the entire movie [and] this is where the 24-hour TV news cycle comes in… As events in the film play out, panel shows, news pundits and twitter feeds are swift to offer their unique spin on things, spouting wild conjecture as if it’s copper-bottomed fact.” I can’t help but be reminded of the social media reactions surrounding the Oscar Pistorius case: so many people on Twitter were so convinced they they knew what happened, and what should be done about it, that they had pre-judged him and were shocked by the trial’s outcome, leading to condemnation of the judge and/or the entire South African legal system, which must of course be inferior to the American one (because it’s different and therefore the American one is by default superior).

It’s this kind of reaction that the film is, in part, observing and commenting on; it is, as Jenkins dubs it, “the ocean of fickle public backwash… the collective hunger to say something, anything, [that] will, in the end, prevent justice from prevailing.” The role of the media may seem like a subplot, or even a sub-theme, early on, but by the end it has become vital to the film’s third act: key decisions are made to influence the media and public; further decisions are based on the media and public reaction to that influence; and, come the climax of it all, it’s the media and its consumers — more than the police, or even Nick Dunne and his relatives themselves — who decide the outcome.

I haven’t written much about Gone Girl’s production elements, because I think with a Fincher film you can trust they’ll be exemplary and you can focus on the dramatic/thematic points instead. One thing that does merit highlighting, however, is Rosamund Pike’s performance. She is incredible, offering a performance with more layers than a pack of onions, all of which she negotiates with supreme skill. Given the story, Amazing Rosamund Pikea lesser actress could’ve given a performance with fewer notes and the film still would’ve functioned; or they would have struggled to contain the numerous sides to Amy’s personality in the form of a plausible human being. Pike does that, and more. She goes on my list of “people who were robbed of an Oscar because it was someone else’s ‘time’” (alongside Paul Greengrass’ United 93 snub in favour of The Departed).

Ultimately, Gone Girl works as a twist-laden dramatic thriller, with reveals and developments that are best discovered unspoiled for the full rollercoaster experience. Underpinning that, however, is the kind of observation and deconstruction of our modern world that has elevated several of Fincher’s best films. Even if Gone Girl isn’t quite among the films in that very top tier, I think it can stand proudly beside them.

5 out of 5

Gone Girl debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 9pm and 1am.

Southland Tales (2006)

2008 #63
Richard Kelly | 139 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Southland Tales

– confusing mess? or profound experience?

I won’t go into my full “how I discovered Donnie Darko” spiel [save that for whenever I finally watch the Director’s Cut!], but ever since I saw Richard Kelly’s first writing/directing effort way back on its original UK release I’ve been waiting eagerly for his second film. It’s a testament to the negativity of the reviews it received — and, perhaps, the influence of reviews in general — that I skipped Southland Tales at the cinema, left it five months after release before getting it on DVD… and even then it was only a rental.

At some point, Kelly split his story into six parts and, in a Star Wars-like move, the film was to be Parts 4-6, while the first three would be told in accompanying graphic novels. “The film will work fine without reading them,” he said (I paraphrase here), “but reading them will lead to a deeper experience.” Southland Tales: The Movie begins with a long recap of events from these books, going so far as to include images from their art. “Oops”?

You have to wonder, if you switched “Directed by Richard Kelly” for, say, “Directed by David Lynch”, would the critics’ reviews have suddenly jumped up a star or two? [some of it is certainly very Lynchian in feel — not a normal film with bemusing aspects, like Donnie Darko, but an all-out muddled weird-fest]

  • David Lynch fans may find this more entertaining than most. Or they may hate it for trying to be Lynchian but failing, or perhaps like it as an example of why Lynch is so good and others fail when they attempt similar feats. I don’t know how they’d use it like that, but I expect they would know.
  • the clear IV, V and VI presented at the start of each chapter — as well as showing I, II and III blatantly on screen during the recap, and having the narration have to recap bits of them — seems to hammer home that this is really for people who are prepared to invest in the whole thing, not people who just watch the film

** raises the question, should you ever have to go further (e.g. reading companion books, comics, websites, etc) to understand a film? Yes and no. If it’s consciously part of a wider ‘experience’, labelled and marketed as such, then why not? But if it’s sold as a film in its own right — or, at least, potentially in its own right (as this was) — then it should really work that way too.

  • narration: tries to explain everything, though does very little to help (difference between Kelly and someone like Lynch, who just leaves it all up to the viewer?) — at times almost uncomfortably over-explaining — you wish it could’ve been done properly, rather than with narration
  • Kelly spent months re-editing, following the critical panning it got at Cannes, trimming the length and restructuring it. And it seems to show, as it feels like a failed attempt to construct something legible out of a mess of half-thought-through scenes and subplots
  • one feels a good director’s commentary and/or the original cut might shed more light on things — this is the sort of film that could benefit from a decent DVD edition, that it probably won’t get due to its lack of popularity… unless it gains surprise critical acceptance years down the line, which isn’t unheard of… though I wouldn’t bank on it here. Perhaps, one day, when we’re all watching Data Crystals, Kelly will have gained enough reputation that a 20th anniversary release will finally explain the damned thing
  • seems to become clearer toward end — there are some answers, at least — but ultimately a lot is left out
  • too many of the ‘underlying ideas’ in the climax feel like a Donnie Darko rehash; odd musical numbers and long takes add to this feeling — almost like Kelly’s taken what he did in Darko and tried to expand it into some ensemble epic kinda thing

i thought, with respect to the film’s crazy half-constructed mess of half-ideas, i’d copy&paste my notes rather than a normal review. so at least that’s one answer at the end for you.

when it was originally conceived, it was set a couple of years in the future; now, it’s just set ‘now’; and soon, of course, it will be set in a fictional past — the copyright year on the film is 2005; it’s credited as 2006 on IMDb (which is when it turned up at Cannes); it was finally released in 2007; and it’s set in 2008

I really wanted to like Southland Tales, in spite of the critical mauling it received, and because I loved Donnie Darko and actually enjoyed Domino too (which Kelly wrote). Maybe — maybe — with time to invest in reading the prequel graphic novels, and exploring whatever official sites or crazy fan theories may be out there on the web, I could get more from this film. Personally, I don’t have that kind of time to invest right now, but I might give it a shot sometime. Until then, it will just remain a largely disappointing mess.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0405336/faq

this is the way the review ends, not with a bang but with a whimper

2 out of 5

Southland Tales featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2008, which can be read in full here.