Best of the Decade Derby: Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)

First of all, a slap of my own face with the unforgiving hand of hindsight:

Paranoid schizophrenic teenager starts hallucinating that the end of the world is nigh, with a menacing bunny rabbit giving him instruction. Like other young directorial efforts, it manages to be highly derivative and highly original all at once, approximating the generic suburban criticism of AMERICAN BEAUTY, the surreal nostalgic imagery of Fellini, the lame dialogue of afterschool soap operas, and the hazy, insular look and feel of 80s cinema, and somehow emerging with a sensibility that is as strong-voiced as it is confused, possibly because the former feeds off the latter. Ultimately it crashes and burns in a mess of half-assed salvation cliche, leading one to dread that Kelly's future will go the way of empty stylists like Darren Aronofsky. But there's a lot of delight to be had in the interim. As an aside, Jake Gyllenhaal looks like he'd make a more intriguing Spiderman than Tobey Maguire.

I think I was largely jealous when I wrote this seven years ago, feeling vaguely threatened that someone could display such tremendous visionary gifts his first time out, and needing to find easy ways to dismiss it. What you see above is dismissive, knee-jerk criticism at its worst, the kind that actively refuses to perceive or acknowledge what is wonderfully strange and wholly original in a work like this.  It also helps to have 7 years of increasingly commercial and formulaic indie cinema to make one cherish what used to emerge from Sundance.

Unfortunately I lack the time (and possibly the brains) to detail the many wonders of this work. So much the better if anyone else wants to chime in.  What I will remember most is the sound design, something easily overlooked amidst the searing imagery and brilliantly choreographed camera sequences, but which I think easily provides at least half of the film's unforgettably unhinged texture.

A distinct difference with me in 7 years separating my screening of this film is that I'm now more into how it feels than what it means.  As a depiction of a teenage kid's confused vision of America circa 1988 it does as much as it needs to to convey that experience.  Ironically, it's when the film tries to offer moral unequivocation that it falters. Really, the only thing that still bugs me about this film is the gleeful baiting of conservatives and self-help gurus that dominates the middle stretch of the film. It feels like fish-in-a-barrel puerility compared to the more lyrical evocations of 80s social mores in the first half hour, and the sheer apocalyptic bravado of the finale.  I'm of the opinion that if it weren't for this misstep, we'd have a film that exceeds Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, if only because its cinematic fecundity exceeds either of David Lynch's last two features. But I'm prepared to even remove that qualifier, pending reviewings of those films.