(Flower Films) If you've listened to Mark Kermode, film critic for the BBC's Radio 5 Live – and you should listen to him, because he's fantastically funny, knowledgeable, and smart – then you've probably heard the words “kill the author.” This apparently violent turn of phrase actually implies something far less barbaric but perhaps equally controversial: the idea that some works of art, in order to be successful, need to be divorced from their creator's intent. The concept usually comes up in discussion of fictional works that are hotly debated among their fan base. Essentially – the argument goes – a film, book, album, etc. no longer belongs to its creator once it's released into the world; rather, it belongs to the fans who love it and defend it. If ever there were a film to which this idea could be applied, it's Donnie Darko.
A lot has been said about Donnie Darko since its release in 2001, but there's always more to say. That's because it's an immensely complicated and layered film that resonates on multiple levels and in multiple genres. On the surface, it's the story of Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), a confused teenager who may or may not be losing his mind, and who may or may not become involved in a mysterious temporal event that threatens his universe.
Further explication of the plot would be both unnecessary and unfair to everyone involved. If you have any interest in film as a storytelling medium, you need to watch this film. It's right up there with Blade Runner, Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brazil, and A Scanner Darkly in terms of classic mind-bending philosophical sci-fi – a category which often bleeds into the horror genre as well.
What is worth discussing at length is the emotional side of the film. Deciding whether or not it's actually sci-fi depends entirely on your interpretation of the plot: is Donnie actually experiencing some sort of bizarre time travel, or is he dealing with the onset of madness? Since there's no definitive answer to this, we can basically throw genre out the window and focus on the characters, who are highly compelling.
Jake Gyllenhaal gives an amazing performance as Donnie, especially considering he was only 21 when the film came out. His sister Elizabeth is played by his real-life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal, and their sibling relationship is completely convincing. In fact, the Darko family is one of the most believably portrayed families in memory, thanks to some great writing by writer / director Richard Kelly and excellent performances from Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, and Daveigh Chase as Donnie's parents and youngest sister.
Now, here's where “kill the author” comes into our discussion. Since the film is so vague about the details of its metaphysical plot, it met with much speculation and debate. A lot of people loved the film, and consequently wanted to understand why they loved it. They demanded answers from Kelly, which may have prompted him to release his director's cut of the film in 2004 – a version which made the sci-fi elements of the plot much more prominent.
Wha somet fans missed about Donnie Darko was that the very vagueness which irked them was what made the film work so brilliantly. The director's cut is inferior, because it mostly removes the speculation about Donnie's mental decline. This is problematic, because Kelly wrote the original film, and therefore must have known what he was going for all along, right? Well, no, not necessarily. There are a million little decisions made during the creative process, each of which affect the final product, and a good artist never knows for absolute certain where his vision will end up, because he or she is feeling his or her way in the dark to some extent.
In that sense, we can view the original version of the film as the result of the collective efforts of everyone involved, including – and this is the crucial point – the viewers who watched and loved it. In the final analysis, doesn't matter that Kelly retconned the story somewhat in his later version, just as it doesn't matter that a poorly-received sequel was later made without his involvement. What matters is the feeling we got when we saw Donnie Darko for the first time: that feeling of confusion, desperation, fear, and insane majesty that perfectly captured the experience of being an adolescent in the latter half of the Twentieth Century.
Donnie's crush Gretchen (Jena Malone) says when she meets him, “Donnie Darko? What the hell kind of name is that? It's like some sort of superhero or something.” Donnie replies, “What makes you think I'm not?” That's the crux of the film: Donnie, like every kid growing up in these patently insane times in which we are constantly threatened by mass destruction and death, must see himself as a kind of crazy superhero in order to survive the despair that chews at his mind. It's a state that “healthy” people grow out of, forcing our anxiety below the surface and hiding in denial and compulsive rituals – but it's one that lingers in the shadows of our dreams, perhaps driving us slowly mad over the course of years, until the world no longer resembles anything acceptable to a sane mind.
True art is one third intent, one third technique, and one third public perception. That's the magic of it – that we are all partial participants in the creative process for every great work. Intentionally or otherwise, Donnie Darko will always be a masterpiece, and, more importantly, it will always be our masterpiece.
Why We Like It: plot that can be interpreted several ways, great topic for debates with film geeks, powerful portrait of adolescence in current Western culture.