I’ve stated before that Donnie Darko owes a debt to The Last Temptation of Christ. I won’t say it is an allegory of that particular Christ story but it is applicable. Donnie is saved from death from a creature and gets to see what life would be like if he didn’t die (that is the temptation of Christ – not sex). Then finally he has to make a choice. I don’t think I’m making a stretch with this comparison for why would that movie be playing at the same movie theater for Halloween as three horror films?
Donnie is a savior figure. He saves the children (like he says in his poem) from the hands of the righteous adults. He sees and always speaks the truth. He refuses to listen to the bullshit from others. His decision to die doesn’t save everyone (Swayze’s character gets to continue being a sleaze if Donnie never gets to burn down his house, but Jesus never got rid of evil either, now did he?)
However, what makes this film great is not the story (which is applicable to many things; the Christ/savior story is what works for me). It is the family unit. This is one of the sweetest, honest families ever in the movies. The best scenes in the movie don’t deal with time travel (which is nothing more than dues ex machina), or Frank, or Ruth, but are the quiet family scenes. The argument at the dinner table was true and honest (it helps that Jake and Maggie probably have had 100’s of these arguments) but the parents reactions are great too. The scene where the mom and dad talk about Donnie escaping his fate in the hotel room is touching and moving – a parent showing genuine concern for their child. The other parent alone scene at the restaurant (“Telling a female teacher to forcefully insert a book into her anus is something that should not go without consequences” “I think we should buy him a moped”) again shows that they show not only concern for Donnie but they are actually on his side. Very few pieces of fiction pull this off as well as this. And the best scenes of the movie are the last ones in which Donnie has with his parents are as good as any in any movie. Holmes Osborne’s advice (“You know what ya tell’em: Fuck you!) is priceless and true. How many movies can make you that proud of a dad without manipulating you? This is exactly what Donnie’s dad should say (but at the same time he shouldn’t) and Osborne just delivers it perfectly. The other perfect scene is when Donnie asks his mom “How does it feel to have a wacko for a son?” Mary McDonnell wonderfully replies with such sincerity that it breaks your heart, “It feels wonderful.”
Not only do Jake Gyllenhaal, Osborne, and McDonnell give wonderful performances, but Richard Kelly does make the minor characters lives mean something by giving the actors some room to breathe. Patrick Swayze gives one of his bravest and most effecting performances by playing up the Swayze sleaze. Katharine Ross is not only Donnie’s doctor but his third parent. Beth Grant makes a wonderful Pharisee supporting her false idol instead of her child while at the same time criticizing other’s parenting skill. And Jenna Malone is well Jenna Malone (which means great).
Donnie Darko has become a cult phenomenon that you either hate or love. It’s not a film for everyone. It challenges you to pay attention (“Pay attention. You might miss something”). I’m for one waiting eagerly for Richard Kelly's next film.
Only if for just his taste in music.