When film historians look back on the early years of the new millennium, they may see a curious convergence of themes.
Popular movies that play gingerly with narrative technique, as in the backwards story of Memento (2001) or the multiple plot threads of Magnolia (1999), blend with others that peddle an ersatz mysticism, like those of M. Night Shyamalan.
At heart, all these diverse movies feed off a fantasy of escape. Characters burst out of the limits of their prescribed destinies either through some supernatural contortion or the more mundane twists of everyday life, such as chance encounters.
At the centre of these fantasies is an experience of meltdown, either rendered banally (mid-life crisis, suburban rut) or traumatically (near-death experience, hallucinatory vision of global apocalypse). This dark, still point of being or nothingness is usually revealed only at the end of the tale, thus explaining all preceding commotion.
These are paradoxical stories. Their troubled heroes may dream furiously of transcendence or metamorphosis, but they invariably end up alone, gazing at the truth of their place in the broader scheme of things. This is as true of surrealist puzzles like Lost Highway (1997) as of elevated soap operas like Lantana (2001).
All this is potentially rich ground for cinematic drama, as The Rapture (1991) and The Blackout (1997), among others, have proved. But too often the films riding this vogue opt for aesthetic naïveté (so what if a life story can be imagined with several different endings?) and political conservatism – thus generating tortuous, labyrinthine apologias for the status quo.
In this context, Donnie Darko goes straight into the too-easy basket. There can be no doubt that the film exposes a precocious talent in writer-director Richard Kelly. (High on his supply, he has since masterminded a significantly expanded Director's Cut on DVD.) Equally, there's no denying the slick entertainment quotient of a teen movie package that mixes an '80s soundtrack, a cool cameo from Drew Barrymore, clever allusions to everything from Harvey (1950) to Star Trek, and a well worked-out, reality-twisting plot.
Donnie Darko proudly defies synopsis. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a depressed lad who suffers strange visions. In particular, he sees and hears a creature named Frank who incites him to acts of vandalism and informs him of the world's imminent demise.
Just about everything in this movie has a second-hand feeling. A mysterious old lady who holds arcane theories concerning time travel could have stepped right out of Twin Peaks. Patrick Swayze's one-dimensional role as a sinister, motivational speaker recalls Tom Cruise's shrill turn in Magnolia. The ironic pulverising of familiar elements from a hundred high school movies brings back the memory of Heathers (1989).
It is the misfortune of Donnie Darko to come at the tired end of a cycle of pop films posing undergraduate riddles of time and existential identity. It tries hard to be like Mulholland Drive (2001) but ends up recycling the banalities of American Beauty (1999). It falls for the facile idea that a Twilight Zone-style conjuring of parallel universes or a perspective from beyond the grave instantly confers seriousness and high artistic integrity.
Despite all its tricks and flashiness, Donnie Darko has precious little on its mind. Where Bob Balaban's little known gem Parents (1989) used youthful paranoia and the clichés of pop culture to open up scary political issues, Kelly merely indulges a superficial angst. He never gets beyond the self-dramatising, victim mentality of his sullen hero. A Magnolia-like climax set to the maudlin strains of the pop song "Mad World" sums up both the film's lofty ambitions and its severe limitations.
Like most meltdown movies for the new millennium, it pretends to criticise The System, but only glorifies special, privileged individuals.
© Adrian Martin October 2002