Viking Night: Donnie Darko
By Bruce Hall
April 12, 2011
Most consumers have no problem loving a huge budget blockbuster. Movies that are meant to appeal to the widest possible audience usually do just that. But some films have a narrower vision, or simply contain more complex meaning than meets the eye. They aren't always art, and they aren't always even very successful. But for a devoted and eccentric few, they're the best entertainment money can buy. Once, beginning with Erik the Viking, a group of dedicated irregulars gathered weekly in a dingy dorm room to watch these films and discuss how what pleases the few might also appeal to the many. Time has separated the others in those discussions so that I alone remain to ponder the wider significance of cult cinema. But while the room is cleaner and I no longer have to skip class to do it, I still think of my far off friends whenever I hold Viking Night.
I was in fifth grade, and the teacher was trying to teach her class something about idiom using the “glass half full, glass half empty” thing. After explaining what it meant she began to go around the class, asking each child whether they were a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” person. To this day I have trouble understanding people who think something as complex as the human emotional palette can be reduced to a slogan. So when the question on the table came around to me, I gave the very practical answer that I preferred to consider things on a case by case basis, and that whether the glass was half full or empty depended on whether you were filling it or drinking out of it.
Responses like this were the reason for me spending more than several hours a week in detention that year. For me, it was an early exposure to the concept of blind conformity and how you react to those kinds of lessons goes a long way in determining how well you fit in with other people.
Yes, I’m sort of a grumbling misfit. Always have been. This probably explains why I can’t stand American Idol but I really do love Donnie Darko. It plays like half John Hughes spoof, half psychological thriller and half Doctor Who episode.
If that seems like too many halves, it’s because the film is overly ambitious and digs more holes in two hours than it can fill. Yet it’s impossible to look away from and even if you’ve never taken antidepressants or been friends with an evil giant rabbit, you’ve probably been a teenager before. So despite its incomprehensible plot and dreary tone, it also has an emotional sub context that should be uplifting to the disaffected high school kid in us all. When your movie can wander across so much thematic ground and still manage to convey something so universal, that’s a good thing.
It’s also a good thing Jake Gyllenhaal was in it, because it earns him a pass from me on that unfortunate Jerry Bruckheimer collaboration last year. As Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal captures the character’s volatile complexity perfectly and he bears the entire weight of the film on his shoulders. Donnie is a bright but conflicted 16-year-old who is tormented by violent mood swings, hallucinations and fits of sleepwalking. In fact, the movie starts with Donnie asleep in the middle of the road with his bicycle next to him. When he returns home, it looks like the rest of his family is used to this behavior as he strolls right past them without a word. They seem to exist in separate worlds and without Donnie around, the Darko family seems much like any other.