“I think the greatest thing I learned from Terry [Gilliam] is that every frame is worthy of attention to detail. Every frame is worthy of being frozen in time and then thrown on a wall like an oil painting, and if you work hard on every frame, the meaning of your film becomes deeper, more enhanced” Richard Kelly (2011)
The above quote from the director Richard Kelly perfectly captures the ‘introduction to school’ sequence of his debut feature. The themes of Donnie Darko (Kelly, 2001) are time travel, spirituality and existentialism, Kelly frequently has bodies moving in slow motion then fast, time travel through the medium of film. Nostalgia for 1988 is at every turn in the film. The first shot we see is tilted sideways of the back door of a school bus where ‘mongrels rule’ is written on the window, we hear church bells, the start of a morning. Before the door is fully opens a body floats across the frame. Then in perfect harmony of Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) jumping to the ground, we hear the opening bars of Tears for Fears ‘Head over Heels’, the camera tilts upright as Donnie approaches the school steps in slow-motion and the camera pans back. According to the DVD commentary Kelly said that the sequence was written and choreographed specifically with the song in mind. The sound of the door as it opens is surreal like the sounds in later scenes with Frank the Rabbit or sounds in the films of of David Lynch. It is descent into not quite hell, more a place of social awkwardness. The actors are brilliant in this sequence as each facial gesture embodies character. Donnie gives fearful look as he sees Seth (Alex Greenwald), he responds by giving Donnie a sarcastic grin indicating his intimidation and menace that we will see from him later in the film. Seth then gestures another sarcastic grin at Ms. Farmer (Beth Grant), she looks at him stone-faced, a perfect introduction to her values explored later in the film. Farmer and Principal Cole’s (David Moreland) walks in the hallway become fast motion then slow again. Cole is obvious to Seth ingesting cocaine five feet away from him. A sign on a locker reads ‘what would Satan do?’. The camera swerves quickly through this sequence to indicate the presence of another character.
When we see Gretchen (Jena Malone) we hear the lyrics ‘I wanted to be with you alone to talk about the weather’ foretelling Donnie’s later feelings for her. Her locker closing echoes on the soundtrack, the camera rotates through the space to show her looking off camera towards Seth. The whole sequence has a pop video sensibility, the bright fade to the back school yard is a sharp contrast to the night time scenes in Donnie Darko, a story of angels and demons, with its use of slow-motion. Nearly every frame in this sequence is ‘frozen in time’ as Kelly says. We see the sensitive Cherita (Jolene Chen) momentarily free from bullies. The camera floats as Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) is introduced to Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) and Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), their bodies float into the frame too, this is in perfect harmony with the belted line “something happens and I’m head over heels” as Karen almost scowls as she recognises Jim. Kenneth is holding back laughter, with the simple gesture of his arm on Karen and the way he can been seen to say ‘bye’ is a clear indication of their courtship. Karen then turns her disgust towards a group of dancing girls after which we see her throwing a drink in the bin almost tearfully. A friend of mine rightly said “You get the feel that Karen knows things that other characters don’t”. The sequence began with the opening of the bus door and ends with the closing of the classroom door. ‘Head over Heels’ blasts through the soundtrack of this sequence, leaving only the sound of the bells, the bus door, the locker and the classroom door to be otherwise heard.
These bodies in space represent the school dynamic of a supposedly ordinary day (2nd October 1988) if it were not a day in the life of Donnie Darko. Donnie’s eyes are dazed and confused, he is beyond normal reckoning. Dr. Thurman (Katharine Ross) tells Donnie; “If the sky were to suddenly open up, there would be no law, there would be no rule. There would only be you and your memories”. This two and a half minute sequence is a series of seven awkward encounters in which there are you only four cuts. Kelly’s decision to minimise the sound makes us look at the facial gestures closely on first time viewing. The camera is constantly moving even when Kenneth and Karen shake Jim’s hand it moves each time. It is time travel in slow-motion as bodies float in space whilst momentarily, they freeze.