MARY SUE AND THE MAGIC RABBIT


Donnie Darko (2002)
written and directed by Richard Kelly

Donnie Darko flopped at the box office, but has since gained a reputation as a "cult classic", largely due to its Internet popularity. I saw it for the first time a short while ago, and never have all my worst opinions of Internet nerds been so thoroughly confirmed. Granted, the scary rabbit is cool, and the camerawork and sound editing are possibly okay, but as a piece of storytelling, as a piece of writing, Donnie Darko is simply incompetent. It's full of the traits of amateurism and immaturity; it's painful viewing, like watching My First Script in Technicolor. Like innumerable fanfic cloggers, Kelly is a born bad writer. Writing Donnie Darko, he was not honest enough, not self-critical enough, too much in the thrall of self-love, to produce much more than a pool of jizz; and now, showered with fanwank from an early age, he's not likely to get much better.

The most typical blight of bad fanfic, which is to say, fanfic, is the "Mary Sue". A Mary Sue is a self-insertion character, a wish-fulfillment stand-in for the author, flawless but misunderstood, whose true beauty is appreciated only by the few. And Donnie Darko, the titular character, is a straight-up, glaring Mary Sue, plain and simple, no argument about it. He's as clear and uncontroversial a Mary Sue as one could fear to see. He's a textbook Mary Sue; in fact, he should be the textbook Mary Sue, the archetypal example of bad characterisation that all aspiring screenwriters should be shown and told to avoid.

Don't believe he's a Mary Sue? Then let's tick off the telltale signs:

Another hallmark of bad writing among young male writers is the Perfect Female, who appears here as Donnie's girlfriend. She quickly establishes herself as the kind of character who doesn't exist outside of a locked bathroom: wise, all-knowing, understanding, will go out with you immediately but won't fuck you until the most artistically opportune moment. She has an unhappy past you can comfort her about; she gives you plenty of opportunity to be a big shoulder to cry on. Her thoughts merge seamlessly with yours: talking to her is like talking to a sentient mirror. She advises you and knows what's best for you, but appears to have no independent life of her own; she is merely a kind of superego made flesh, a walking conscience with tits.

The other characters barely register, being either adoring reflections of Donnie, or cartoonish villains. It's rather too easy to distinguish the good from the evil: the school bullies are constantly vile, the PE teacher is a constantly ignorant harpy, and the motivational speaker (played by Patrick Swayze) is bad enough without also being an evil closet paedophile. The film is set in the late 80s, for no obvious reason other than that the writer grew up in the late 80s, but the sense of period is extremely poor. A few mentions of Michael Dukakis is not sufficient to establish the year as 1988, especially when you make some obvious lapses. Swayze's character shows us some 20-year-old promotional material, including shots of his mullet from the actual 80s, in his Road House days. The problem is, for the character, such material should be from the 60s or 70s. The effect is to create a weird and unintended flattening of time.

Or maybe the time-flattening effect is entirely intentional: I read somewhere that the plot of Donnie Darko is something to do with time travel. The story as presented is quite incomprehensible, but apparently there is a detailed Doctor Who-style backstory printed on the DVD liner, in which everything is worked out. It's completely impossible to derive from the final cut of the movie, of course, but having read and immediately forgotten a brief three-paragraph summary, I'm glad that we are neither shown nor told it on screen. What we see is already bad enough.


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