Donnie Darko, a science fiction drama directed by Richard Kelly and released October 26, 2001, recounts the bizarre tale of its eponymous protagonist, a teenager plagued by troubling visions of the world ending and constant sleepwalking. Confronted by a mysterious man costumed as a rabbit named Frank, Donnie discovers uncomfortable truths about the nature of the universe and the deplorable stipulations of his existence. Condemned to die, Donnie inadvertently subverts his own death by sleepwalking away from his room in the middle of the night before a jet engine falls through the roof of his home. This stroke of luck creates a tangent universe wherein Donnie is compelled to commit strange acts of vandalism that, guided by a mysterious force beyond his comprehension, culminates in the apocalypse. Above all, Donnie’s story is one of choice and acceptance—perhaps most accurately it is one of having conviction. Kelly employs several elements with which he conveys the mood of Donnie’s journey through his final 28 days with, most significantly, his use of camera and light.
Being that the narrative takes place almost entirely within a universe that is not meant to exist, time is seemingly less important. This is especially true considering Donnie Darko’s inclusion of time travel. The audience is generally only shown what they need to see—Donnie’s actions and how they piece together the necessities of his existence in the tangent universe. It is inevitable that everything he does will lead to his death, such is the nature of the tangent universe and thereby the requirement of the narrative. The audience will only see the forces which ultimately lead Donnie to his end.
Light is used to provoke the audience’s curiosity when Donnie further discovers his unique ability, or they are provided with a glimpse into his therapy sessions. Seeing the limits of how disturbed Donnie’s thinking and behavior may suddenly become, it is most clearly evident in the film’s introduction. Donnie’s face often bears a gloomy expression. When the audience is first introduced to Donnie, they see him sleeping in the middle of a road going through the mountains. A soft light colors the entire scene, as if the sunrise is its only source—the dimness may be implicative of the tone of the film: dark, yet not incessantly so.
Kelly’s use of the camera emphasizes Donnie’s centrality to the film by frequently tracking him. Everything hinges on Donnie’s actions, so it is appropriate for the focus to be on him. After Donnie’s introduction, the audience sees him shuffle in his front steps for seemingly unknowable reasons. Suddenly switching from the long shot of Donnie to an out-of-focus close-up, the audience is left in suspense that is exacerbated by the tense background music. They are intended to wait, as the image of Donnie himself grows crisper, staring into his eyes and attempt to discern what might happen next—until they realize that Donnie is not staring into the camera but beyond it. Then, the audience is given Donnie’s point of view as he gazes into the sinister and distorted rabbit costume. In this same scene, the audience also notices that the pair is in the middle of a golf course which only contributes to the sense of strangeness that Kelly evokes through the film. The mise-en-scène is strangely asymmetrical, with the right side of the shot containing a flagstick and a sandpit, and all of which is cast in a dim light, while the left is almost entirely empty. Notably, Frank’s face is deliberately the most reflective—drawing the audience’s attention to the disfigured and insect-like face by obfuscating its features.
The usage of light and camera in Donnie Darko bespeaks the tone of the film near effortlessly—essential considering the mélange of genre tropes employed in the movie. It is a psychological thriller in the manner because it keeps the audience apprehensive with its utilization of suspenseful music and obscured scenery while certainly holding true to its science-fiction roots by the possibilities represented by time travel and tangential universes in accordance with lore specific to the film.
Donnie Darko. Dir. Richard Kelly. Perf. Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone. Twentieth Century Fox, 2001.