Dailies: Back Talk, Donnie Darko Style


So here’s another post inspired by one of my readers out there: Liza Fernandez. She mentioned a favourite quote from the Richard Kelly film Donnie Darko (2001). But again, because I’m stubborn, I’ve diverged from this focus a little. (Though the film is, indeed, full of good dialogue.)

I like the Gyllenhaal siblings a lot.

Maggie plays an acerbic hipster left-wing baker in Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and a sharp-tongued hipster underground semaphore instrumentalist (what else can one call it?) in Frank (2014). In her interviews, her voice sounds soft and sweet; but don’t let that fool you: she’s very intimidating in both those film roles, and it’s all in how she holds that smile, sets that jaw. If you were standing before Maggie, you’d want her to break into a smile, but she wouldn’t: she’d stand there, looking down at you (she stands about 5’7”, but it seems more like 6’ or 6’2”)—judging, appraising. She commands. She’s a great actress.

Jake is about the same height, though somehow he manages to shrink in his roles—whether it’s because he’s beaten down by the weight of adolescence, as in his first major role, Donnie Darko (2001), or because he becomes a slithering, slimy, conniving worm, as in Nightcrawler (2014). He’s often quick to laughter, and there’s this thing he does with his mouth… he really perfected it in Donnie Darko: a slight nervous tucking of the lower lip, suggesting insecurity or nervousness. But like his sister, Jake has those eyes, which can sparkle with glee or mischief, or become hard and cruel with malice. In Nightcrawler, the eyes are downright creepy. He’s a ghoul in that film. And he’s also a great actor.

The siblings co-starred in Donnie Darko, written and directed by Richard Kelly. It’s an outstanding coming-of-age story that uses science-fictional elements to articulate the strangeness of adolescence and the cataclysmic outcome of individual choices. To be sure, we didn’t get to see the full spectrum of their acting talent here. Nevertheless, they play off each other well: big sister and little brother (in actual fact); cruel, appraising eyes, and the nervous twitch of the mouth, a tucking of the lips. (One wonders how easy this rivalry was to simulate.) It’s a film about growing up—and fascinating to watch, fourteen years later, with the Gyllenhaals each having only begun to show their acting potential. (I see many more good things coming from Jake and Maggie.)

Having lived through the 1980s, I found that the film (at least the first cut that I saw in 2001) perfectly captured the era through music: “The Killing Moon,” by Echo and the Bunnymen; “Head Over Heels,” by Tears for Fears; “Notorious,” by Duran Duran. And yet, because of the SF motif of time travel, composer Michael Andrews’s wonky, digitally synthesized set pieces that interlace the 80s music offers a neat futuristic counterpoint. And it makes us investigate our nostalgia all the more: why did we made the choices we did, why did our parents make the choices they did? Interestingly, the movie is set in October 1988, during the presidential campaign that eventually got George Bush, Sr. into office. Donnie’s parents are big fans of George, and not so much of Michael Dukakis.

I wonder how Maggie and Jake felt, portraying a period that was not really that remote for them. That’s what Maggie talked about in an interview from 2008: she mentioned that it was hard to play because the period was “still sort of blurry, and a part of the present.” She also added that she and Jake are each other’s “toughest critics.” For evidence, just watch their first scene together in the film. It seems like that criticism has paid dividends.



  1. “because I’m stubborn, I’ve diverged from this focus a little.” Haha.

    Cool analysis of their acting. I haven’t seen either of them in very many movies, although I do really like Jake because of this movie, and I really like how Maggie doesn’t seem to fit the usual “Hollywood starlet” image. She seems smart and talented in a deeper way than others, and I like that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, “Secretary” is the name, though I’ve yet to see it. Paired up with James Spader. Yeah, my sister’s a massive Jake G. fan, and I sort of get it: when the eyes aren’t “dreamy,” they’re creepy. So, he can do the rom-com thing and the thriller (and everything in between, apparently).

      Thanks for the comment.



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