I’m working through some ideas about what I find to be one of the more striking films of the last couple of years, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. It’s a visually compelling film, beautifully filmed, with great performances. Kelly also uses music very effectively, evoking the John Hughes films of the 1980s with songs by The Thompson Twins, Joy Division, and a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.” This post may be a little disjointed as I’m still thinking through the film.
While thinking about Donnie Darko this morning, I had the chance to look at the film’s official website. The site opens with the film’s haunting score while Donnie’s police dossier appears on screen in an archaic font that recalls 1980s computer technology; then we are carried into a collection of obituaries for characters who have died since the 80s setting of the film. Finally we are given the chance to read sections of Roberta “Grandma Death” Sparrow’s book, The Philosophy of Time Travel. This material provides an interesting supplement to the film, working out the science-fiction premise of tanget universes in further detail. The site also requires some patience, asking the viewer to learn how to naviagte it, and this “learning” reinforces the contemplative tone of the film.
I’ve become more intrigued by Darko with each viewing, especially its use of time travel to unsettle the stability of the middle-class community in which Donnie lives. I’m still trying to sort through how the film fits within some of the categories I’ve established. The 1988 election provides one of the film’s prominent motifs. In fact, the opening line of the film is Donnie’s sister’s announcement that she is “voting for Dukakis.” In this sense, the film seems interested in working through some version of time travel’s “utopian” logic. In other words, it uses time travel to “undo” the problems (the emptiness of suburban life, for example) of Donnie’s late 1980s existence. Steven Shaviro identifies this logic at work in the film:
Everything comes together around the theme of time travel, as a way of both undoing the pain of the present, and averting the apocalyptic catastrophe that continually seems to Donnie to be just around the corner.
Usually I am critical of time-travel films for providing what generally appears to be an artificial closure, but in Darko, I read the “tangent universe” as a disquieting solution. I need to think more about this topic, though.
I am also interested in the sequences in which Donnie sees what Shaviro calls “gelatinous emanations that emerge out of people’s bodies.” The people follow the paths established by the emanations, and the implication is a deterministic universe in which everything is alreay scripted, a perception that Donnie desperately tries to resist. The effects remind me of the tuning sequences in Dark City, in which material objects are manipulated by acts of will. I haven’t fully worked out this connection, but the fact that we are aware of these effects as effects seems significant. I’d like to know if others have seen the film and what they make of the time-travel plot device and the use of special effects.