Look, that title is what it is because that’s what this is about to be. (Did I trip you up there? I’m sorry. I’m just excited.) This movie did things to my brain. Great, fantastic things, and every time I watch this movie, it reminds me of being young and afraid and realizing just how much I needed stories that were both scary and sad.
The first time I got my mitts on Donnie Darko, it was September of 2002, and then-boyfriend and I were hunting for a date night movie at Blockbuster. Remember those? It was an actual brick-and-mortar Blockbuster, and–get this–we rented a tape. Unbelievable, right? But that was what was available, and back then, sixteen year-old me was rather enamored with the cover, and the plot description looked intriguing. So we nabbed some popcorn and headed back to my house, and we were watching it in the living room, and everything was fine until that Infamous Kitchen Scene.
Anyone who’s seen this movie understands exactly why this was a problem for my mother. Then-boyfriend, now-husband and I had decided in that moment that this was the greatest thing we had ever seen, and we weren’t even ten minutes into the film. Mom told us to relocate with our terrible potty-mouthed film, so we did, and something magical happened.
We were so enthralled that we did not speak until the movie was finished.
Even then, it was just a brief acknowledgement that it was well past time for me to drive him home. So I did, thinking of the world’s scariest bunny costume while bad eighties music and brilliant cinematography ran rampant through my head.
And then I came home, watched it again, and wrote like I was possessed. Something had clicked in my brain, and I had this weird, instinctual realization of what mood and atmosphere really were. I was just a tiny, fledgling writer back then, stumbling through my assignments for Creative Writing I at the Fine Arts Center. But that night, I figured out what one of my first priorities was as a writer. It was something I’d never really had words for, or truly understood. I’d poked at it, made attempts at it, but was never entirely sure of what I was doing. I would fit in a piece here or there, but I could never really hack the full puzzle. It had escaped me for roughly sixteen years, but that night, I’d finally figured out what it was, because I knew what it sounded like.
Now, I was born in the eighties, but my memories of them are pretty fuzzy because I was really, really young. I can remember the poor fashion choices, the truly hideous color schemes, and the movies with some clarity, but the music? Absolutely crystal clear.
That’s the first thing Donnie Darko does right with establishing mood. Straight out of the gate, we’re hit with a killer score/soundtrack combo. The score starts out ethereal, almost a little ominous, but the follow with Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” is what really sets the mood. The first priority with Donnie Darko is setting up that access point via the soundtrack, and making the viewer feel like it’s actually October 2, 1988. Time is a very important theme in this movie, and transporting us back into the late eighties is one of the rare tricks Donnie Darko manages to pull off well. Even if you weren’t a teenager back then in a rigid, Catholic school in a rigid, small-town community, you get the sense that you know what it was like. The details are just that strong and consistent. They have to be, because when things start getting weird, we need those solid details to keep us grounded in the story. We can deal with eerie, spooky stuff so long as we still have the familiar details of upper middle class American life in the late eighties, and a familiar tune from Duran Duran thrown in at the perfect time.
That seemingly effortless dovetailing between the score and the soundtrack was a great lesson in atmosphere. Given, it’s not really something you can use with writing, but that feeling, that particular emotion generated by a scene set to a really great song–THAT can definitely be applied to writing. Slow it down a great scene. Watch it over and over. You will start to pick out the reasons why you love it so much, and what it does for you.
For sixteen year-old me, there was something about that opening scene to “The Killing Moon.” I was a wee batty goth thing, and I was already familiar with Echo & the Bunnymen, but this–this was a whole new spin on that song. There was something about that morning bike ride down a mountain road. Something about the quality of the light, and how the shots were framed. The lyrics didn’t make sense with the rest of the scene upon first watch, but on the second watch, I got it. I noticed how each character was introduced with some kind of personality, something to give us a sense of who was who in Donnie’s life. And then the scene ends perfectly with the whiteboard note asking “Where is Donnie?”
Bam. Setting, mood, time period, characters, and character relationships in less than five minutes. All scored to one perfect song. No dialog required.
This is why sixteen year-old me mentally sat up and thought, hey, I could learn something here.
Now, this is the part where I’m supposed to wax on about how this is an awesome Halloween watch. It is. I’m getting there. I’m sorry for all the rambling, but this is one of my top three, and there are many blog posts I could write on why. This essay could go on for a really long time about all the things I love about this movie, but the obviously tight writing and plotting are what made it stick in my brain.
I got a feeling from watching this movie, and that is what I chase after in my own writing. If I had to pick a handful of words to communicate that feeling, the very first I would choose is “October.” Here’s why.
This movie is supposed to take place in Middlesex, Virginia. Now, I’ve never been there, but the way the film is shot is vaguely reminiscent of October in the South. Down here, the trees don’t really change color until the very end of October. The quality of light is very bright during the day, golden in the afternoons, and when the sky is clear, it is a perfect azure blue.
Guess what things Donnie Darko had in common on that front?
Zing! Perfect October atmosphere (to me, at least). Add in the ominous countdown to Halloween, creepy bunny-man Frank’s doomsday message, and the movie starts veering into horror territory. There’s a great bait-and-switch with Donnie supposedly being psychotic and his repeated visions of Frank that’s both scary and incredibly sad.
I won’t spoil the plot for those of you who haven’t seen the film before, but that particular theme hit a sore chord with sixteen year-old me. We know up front that the people around Donnie think he isn’t right in the head, and we know from his behavior that something is indeed a little off kilter with him. So when Frank appears, it’s a little ambiguous.
Is Donnie crazy? Or is there something else going on here?
That tension between sane and insane, real and unreal is part of what makes the film work. The story balances on a knife’s edge between science fiction and psychological horror, and the beauty of the whole thing is that even at the end, you’re left with a sense of ambiguity.
(This is your warning: there are spoilers ahead.)
Was it really a loophole in time, knitting itself closed? Or was it all a dream in Donnie’s head?
The weirdness with Frank begins with a simple proclamation: Donnie has roughly 28 days before the world comes to an end. Within that time frame, he has to figure out who Frank is, how he got there, and what exactly he wants Donnie to do. It doesn’t initially make sense, but as Frank leads Donnie through one seemingly meaningless task after another, it becomes clear that there is indeed a purpose behind Frank’s actions. Donnie becomes convinced that Frank is telling him the truth about the end of the world, and as he struggles to figure out what it is Frank wants him to do, he confronts some hard questions.
At its heart, Donnie Darko is an existential film. Death, meaninglessness, freedom, and isolation are all challenged in various ways. Why is Donnie here? Are the things that happen to him complete random, or are they, like Frank, governed by some higher order? And if so, how much of a choice does Donnie really have in whether or not he prevents the end of the universe?
Well, according to Frank, it can only end one way.
The ending is what either makes or breaks the film for people. For me and then-boyfriend, now-Husband, we were absolutely slackjawed by the time the credits rolled. It was clear to both of us what had happened, and that’s why I had to immediately watch the film a second time. I’d watched all those pieces fall into place the entire time, but I hadn’t caught exactly what they meant. The second watch was an even deeper experience than the first because I knew what was coming, and it made each scene even more poignant. It’s very, very rare for a movie to do that to me, and at sixteen, it totally wrecked me. Here was this raw, genuine character without a future, and for me, that was the movie I needed to see at that particular time. It wasn’t just that it had a good story, or that it made me want to create something so intricately plotted and tragically written it would smash someone’s heart to smithereens. What sixteen year-old me took away from that first and second watch was that every life has a meaning, and even if you’re trapped with a crappy destiny, your choices still matter because they define who you are.
I’m not sure how I would have felt about this movie if I’d seen it at any other time in my life. Things changed quite a bit between September of 2002 to September of 2003, and when I declared at our 2003 New Year’s Eve party that we were going to watch “the most awesome thing ever made” (AKA this film), I was a much different person.
When you stumble upon something destined to become your favorite thing, you bring all your life experiences and emotions with it. Who you are at that point in time shapes what that favorite thing will become, and for me, it was a pretty big deal. My critique partners are probably cackling right now, because that big, terrible, heartbreaking, intricate thing? Yes…now you understand what made me do it.
Thanks, Donnie Darko.
And now…if you haven’t seen it, go watch it. I promise you’ll enjoy it at least a little bit, if only for the hilarious dialog.
On that note, I’ll close with another playlist. This one has more than a couple late-80s tunes, and it’s filled with what I consider to be perfect October songs.
See you guys later this week! I’ll have another movie write-up for you soon. Thanks for stopping by.