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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Donnie + 14

The owner of this web site enforces certain strict rules on me.

For instance, once I write and post a review of a movie, I am not allowed to alter it. Sure, I can fix typos or note a factual error that was subsequently pointed out to me. But I am forbidden from going back and changing my opinions and judgments and initial reactions to films that I viewed. The owner has always been quite clear that he wanted this web site to be a log of first impressions of movies—no matter how embarrassing those early opinions might prove to be later.

Okay, let’s be real here. The owner of this web site is me. I could change this policy at any time. But I think it is important to be true and constant to the original vision of this film blog. Besides, going back and rewriting reviews would be work and, frankly, I’m too lazy.

Don’t get me wrong. There have definitely been times when I have been tempted to go back and change what I wrote. Sometimes a movie that impressed me initially turns out to be one I cannot even remember a few weeks later, and I feel silly for having praised it. Or one that I was kind of “meh” about turns out to be one that I just cannot get out of my head and stays with me for years—and I feel bad that I didn’t give it a higher rating.

Or something else that happens is, years later, I re-watch a movie and have a totally different reaction to it. Either it is not nearly as good as I remembered it or it is way better than I remembered.

A case in point is Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, which I saw at the 2002 Cork Film Festival, 21 months after its premiere at Sundance. By then it had played at film festivals all over the world and had had a theatrical run in the U.S. and some other countries. On rereading my review—written among 29 others that I penned the same week (I had more stamina then)—I am struck by how skeptical I was of the film. I seemed to have the impression that Kelly, then in his mid-20s, had just slapped a bunch of cool-sounding ideas together to tell his story of a teenager with apparent mental health issues. But the movie stuck with me, so much so that I definitely meant to re-watch it and see if I could make more sense of it. It took me nearly 13 years to get around to that re-viewing.

Now the words from my original review that haunt me the most are these ones: “In the end, the movie doesn’t bear too much analysis.” In fact, the movie begs and needs to be analyzed—at length. (The other line I kind of regret is: “And Patrick Swayze is on hand, mainly, I guess, to let us know that he is still around” since a scant seven years later Swayze was not around anymore.)

The fact is that Kelly’s film was extremely well thought out and carefully plotted. Yes, there were elements of David Lynch and Terry Gilliam in it (the structure is quite similar to Twelve Monkeys and, by extension, Chris Marker’s La Jetée), but history has since shown Kelly to be ahead of his time since Donnie Darko is better appreciated and understood after having watched such subsequent television shows as Lost and Fringe and the rebooted Doctor Who. He nearly had to wait until complicated time-travel narratives that turn inside out on top of themselves became mainstream.

What makes the movie particularly satisfying, though, is how well it lends itself to varying interpretations. One on hand, we can choose to view it purely as a story of mental illness. On the other hand, we can choose to totally buy into all of its science fiction mythology. And the story works equally as well either way. It’s one of those movies that could so easily fall apart by the end but somehow manages to finish strongly with an ending that, while sad, feels right and inevitable. The fact that the movie, which involves the mysterious crash of an airliner that may be tied to the fate of the whole world, first appeared mere weeks after 9/11 only added to its weirdness.

With such a story, casting was crucial and twentyish Jake Gyllenhaal—going through his own issues at the time, according to subsequent interviews—had the necessary darkness tinged with likeability to successfully inhabit the troubled character. That early role clearly set the tone for an actor whose very interesting career would include, between the occasional blockbuster, such films as Moonlight Mile, Brokeback Mountain, Source Code, Prisoners and Nightcrawler.

Was Kelly a one-hit wonder? His subsequent films, Southland Tales and The Box, did not have anywhere near the same impact as his sophomore effort. (His first feature was an oddity called Visceral Matter.) His fifth feature, reported to be in pre-production, is called Soulmates. We shall see if the spark behind Donnie Darko lights up in that one.

-S.L., 10 September 2015

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