Hypothetical Film Festival #4 – Deconstructing Darko

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.

E.T. (1982, dir. Steven Spielberg)

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.

Rebel Without A Cause (1955, dir. Nicholas Ray)

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.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, dir. Martin Scorsese)

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.

Film 2009 #185 – The Box

The Box (2009, dir. Richard Kelly)
Starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella

It was October 2001 and had become intrigued with a film trailer I came across online. The film was Donnie Darko and the picture looked to have a quirky, creepy vibe that brought up memories of David Lynch for me. The film opened at the Belcourt, I convinced some friends to go to the opening night showing and was duly impressed. I saw it a few more times in the theater and bought it on DVD and listened through the director’s commentary multiple times. It was a film that was enigmatic but seemed to have an answer to its own puzzle if you paid close enough attention. This was the first and last time Richard Kelly would impress me.

The Box is based on the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button”, which was adapted for the various incarnations of The Twilight Zone and has one of those plots that seems very archetypal. It’s 1976 and Norma and Arthur Lewis (Diaz and Mardsen, respectively) live in Richmond, Virgina. Norma works as an English teacher for a private school and Arthur as an engineer for NASA. Their lives change one day when a mysterious box ends up on their doorstep. The box contains a large red button set in a finished wood casing and covered with a locked glass dome. Inside the box also contains a note letting them know a gentlemen will be by to explain that evening. Cue Mr. Arlington Steward (Langella). Steward explains that if the couple presses the button they will receive a million dollars and someone in the world, whom they don’t know will die. Steward gives them a day to decide.

You don’t have to have read the short story to know where this is going and it wouldn’t make for an interesting film if our characters chose honorably. And it is at this point that the movie goes completely off the tracks, but damn its beautiful as it does! Kelly is no slouch when it comes to cinematography, he knows exactly how to frame a shot and give us gorgeous images. With this feature, he’s evoking lots of classic Kubrickian techniques (i.e. tightly framed shot with action coming in and out of them, cold imagery). There’s the Twilight Zone vibe, that’s to be expected and interesting nod to Hitchcock, particularly in the musical score.

Kelly’s weakness lies in his inability to shape a tightly written, comprehensible plot. With Darko, he could cheat a bit and the film still stands as a nice piece of cinema. He displayed a considerable lack of restraint with his follow up, Southland Tales, a film I am fairly certain even the actors couldn’t have understood. Part of me admires Kelly for attempting such large, cosmic and transcendental themes in his work, yet I can’t give him a standing ovation till he shows he has the ability to pull it off semi-successfully. The Box ends up getting bogged down in, what are becoming, Kelly’s signatures (water imagery, portals, scenes intentionally left out). From an atmospheric point of view Kelly is a genius, but as an overall film this fails from a mixture of way too out there and a sort of adolescent allegory that clunks you on the head in the finale. A wonderful experiment, but a disaster in the end.