Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Scott Tobias: The New Cult Canon -- Donnie Darko (2001)

Donnie Darko
by Scott Tobias
The New Cult Canon (The A.V. Club)

In embarking on the mammoth, open-ended project that is The New Cult Canon, I face the scary and exhilarating prospect of a journey with no set course and no planned destination, but there was never a question that I'd be leaving port with Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko. To my mind, Donnie Darko is the quintessential cult movie of the last 20 years: Here was a much-hyped washout at Sundance that fell to a second-tier distributor (Newmarket), which released the film to middling reviews and feeble arthouse box-office (barely half a million when all was said and done). The film was left for dead until, miraculously, word of mouth started to swell and an audience steadily grew and rallied around it. The Pioneer Theater in New York ran it as a midnight movie for two years—this at a time when the midnight movie itself had long been left for dead. And DVD sales were so robust that Newmarket attempted to re-release the "Director's Cut" theatrically. (It tanked a second time, too.) The movie has inspired a level of obsession that separates cult phenomena from the everyday hits that wither past opening weekend.

I saw Donnie Darko three times in the theater: Once at the press screening, where I was apoplectic to find many of my fellow critics shrugging their shoulders; a second time during its two-week run here in Chicago, where I saw it with maybe five or six other people in the theater; and a third time at the Gene Siskel Film Center, where it kept coming back month after month to packed houses, including the near-soldout showing I attended. (And on a weeknight, no less!)

Why did I and so many others keep shuffling, zombie-like, to see this movie again and again in the theater? It certainly isn't perfect—films this crazily ambitious, from a first-time director no less, are rarely flawless—but Donnie Darko accomplishes perhaps the one thing I value most in cinema: It creates a world to get lost in, so particular and full of life that other concerns (in this case, an overstuffed mind-bender of a plot that has never quite cohered for me) fall by the wayside. And though I'll probably be defining cult movies a million different ways in this column, that's likely the common denominator, because once you have the ins and outs of the story figured out, what's the point of seeing a movie a second or third or hundredth time? The world of the film is paramount.

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