One of my favorite indie flicks of the early 00s is Donnie Darko. Though it has been inflated beyond any acclaim in deserves in the years that followed I still believe its an interesting puzzle of a film, made by a director who truly does love movies. That said, Richard Kelly hasn’t directed anything worth a flip since (Southland Tales, The Box). Kelly infuses lots of film references into the flick, and they are worthy of a film festival:
It’s a Wonderful Life (1939, dir. Frank Capra)
This one is probably throwing you for a loop, right? Well Darko owes a lot to this film. Its concept of a man being allowed to experience a world without his presence is flipped as Donnie is allowed to be pulled from the moment of his death and experience how life would have continued if he had lived. In the same way things go downhill for the people in George Bailey’s life without him, Donnie’s survival seems to be a keystone in the downfall of many of the people around him. Yes, a depressing sentiment, but it makes the film that much more poignant.
Kelly confesses that the bicycle chase scene in the finale of E.T. inspired the bicycle ride on Halloween night in his film. And the director is an admitted fan of directors like Spielberg and Zemeckis, who defined 1980s sci-fi and fantasy on the big screen. An understanding of Donnie Darko would be incomplete without an understanding of the kid-targeted fantasy cinema of the 80s.
This was the picture that created a solidly defined picture of teen angst in a post-War America. In effect, all films to follow that focused on troubled adolescent protagonists owe a debt to this James Dean flick. Both Darko and Rebel use a decrepit old house as a key set piece for tragedy. I’d even say Donnie is an updated variation on Plato, the moody disturbed kid who is headed down a hopeless track.
Watership Down (1978, dir. Martin Rosen)
Donnie’s English teacher is reading this novel to him and there are some important themes in it that tie to what is going on in the indie film. An animated adaptation was made of Richard Adam’s novel in the late 70s and is definitely not kiddie fare. The story follows a group of rabbits in the English countryside whose land is being torn up for new developments. They escape and go on a harrowing journey that leads them to a land that appears to be unpopulated. However, a group of rabbits are already there and they don’t flinch at killing their new neighbors to keep their home.
This adaptation of the classic novel of Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, is referenced twice overtly in Kelly’s film and once in a sub-textual manner. Donnie waking up in the woods is paralleled by Christ waking up in the wilderness, hearing the voice of God. The second reference is when Donnie and Gretchen go to see the Evil Dead and this film is also playing. The more subtle reference is Donnie living out a life where he does not, which is the temptation in the title of Scorsese’s film. Christ is tempted by Satan while he hangs on the cross with a vision of living to old age, having a wife and children, but he also sees a world devoid of his message. In the end both Donnie and Christ chose to sacrifice themselves to save the world around them.