Like the universe itself, film is a fragile medium that can produce monumental changes with just the slightest tweaks, twists, or turns. In life, a decision to stop off for a loaf of bread and a six-pack of beer on the way home from work can mean the difference between a lonely weekend and meeting the love of your life. Likewise in film, a change of genre can result in a vast improvement over a weaker effort or a new creation of wonder and excitement equivalent to its original source. Such is the case in this week’s Reel Rumbles as two modern classics go head-to-head, each taking a previous film comedy and twisting the concepts into different genres for fresh, exciting, and provocative filmmaking. Taking its cue from the less than stellar Dana Carvey comedy Clean Slate (1994), Memento revitalizes the film noir genre with a mystery told in reverse, while a touch of teenage angst and ominous foreshadowing makes a classic like Harvey (1950) into a dark and supernatural tale of apocalyptic proportions. So question your identity, follow the clues, and leap through the time travel continuum, it’s time for Donnie Darko vs. Memento.
How is this for a murder mystery? A man looking for revenge for the rape and murder of his wife splatters the perp’s brains against a wall in the first five minutes. He must then spend the remainder of the film remembering clues and memories to discover if, in fact, he has killed the right man. See, Leonard (Guy Pearce) suffers from a head trauma that he believes he received at the time of the incident. He knows who he is and what he’s after, but he has no sense of short-term memory regarding anything that happened to him before the debilitating blow. Luckily, he’s aware of his condition and has been leaving himself notes about clues and discoveries he’s found along the way: sometimes in the form of Polaroid pictures with messages written on the back, sometimes through body tattoos that tell the story of where he’s been and whom he is after. In every scene, there is a revelation that only raises more questions: is he being set up to kill the wrong man? If so, who’s behind it, and what really happened back in that bathroom where his wife was murdered? Memento is classic crime noir complete with a femme fatale, shady characters, rousing suspicions, and jaw-dropping reversals, the best of which is saved for last.
In the opposing corner, Donnie Darko tells the story of its title character (Jake Gyllenhaal), a troubled teen who sleepwalks at night and sees strange visions of a demonic-looking rabbit warning him that in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds, the world will end. Since the film was conceived, crafted, and released after the date in question, we immediately doubt the relevancy of the prediction as well as Darko’s own sanity. There has to be something else lurking beneath the surface, and to find out exactly what that is, we must follow Donnie on an uncomfortable journey of self-discovery that takes him through basic teenage rites of passage. He deals with bullies, finds his first love, and struggles to connect with the world around him. Meanwhile, he lives with a building fear that the weight of the world rests on his shoulders. How do you bare the knowledge of ultimate destruction when you aren’t even sure what you believe? Donnie Darko is a horrific and creepy allegory for the trials of youth. Profoundly disturbing in places, it takes you on a journey you may not be prepared for, but one from which you cannot walk away.
Both are very dark films doing a spectacular job in creating empathy for the plights of their characters, but Memento balances that empathy with safe distance between story and viewer. Frankly, Darko’s strength is also its weakness. It raises questions and thoughts that make me uncomfortable because they hit so closely to home – too closely. Though some may favor it, it’s a touch that pushes this judge towards the competition.
Scorecard: Memento, 10-9.
Donnie Darko’s director Richard Kelly pulls double duty as screenwriter, handling both tasks with the skill of a long-time veteran despite this being his feature debut. It seems like an intensely personal film, the kind with such confusion and jumbled emotion that it becomes hard to get everything out on paper the way you want to say it. However, Kelly does a fine job of keeping the characters clear, the events coherent, and the scenes visually entertaining. Particularly striking is his sense of humor. This is a serious film, but hidden in its heavy philosophies are a number of funny moments. The slice-of-Tarantino discussion on Smurfette’s sex life; Donnie’s lusty eye for Christina Applegate and Married with Children; and the ongoing torments of haughty Mrs. Farmer, are a few that come to mind. Memento’s comparatively mild sense of humor takes a back seat to a more hard-boiled dialog track, where Leonard is either talking tough or sharing the facts of the case as he has come to understand them. It is in this area that I feel Darko holds the advantage because the script focuses much more on character interaction than does the plot-heavy Memento.
Both are deep films, but the characters in Donnie Darko ring truer to life, giving it a 10-9 advantage going in to:
Both films are expertly cast. For Memento, Guy Pearce takes control and carries the film over what few weak spots it has. He is dangerous and sympathetic simultaneously. He pulls off a perfect anti-hero, which is just what the film needs. Ultimately, this is a guy unafraid of putting a bullet in someone’s head, but concurrently, he’s driven out of love and devotion to the wife that “deserves vengeance,” even if he can’t remember getting it for her. Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss add support as Teddy and Natalie, respectively. Each one seems to be helping Leonard seek out his revenge, but they are also able to elicit a sense of hidden agendas and selfishness that gives viewers – and Leonard – pause in trusting them. This is a credit to both actors.
But despite the efficient performances of Memento’s lead cast, the slight nod here goes to Donnie Darko for how it is able to explore so many different character types. There is the perverted self-help guru Jim Cunningham (the late Patrick Swayze); the self-righteous Mrs. Farmer (a slightly over-the-top Beth Grant); the spunky free-thinking English teacher (Drew Barrymore); and Donnie’s girlfriend Gretchen (a teenage Jena Malone), who exhibits both faithful old-fashioned qualities and a burgeoning sense of strength and independence. Jake Gyllenhaal shows early chops as a leading man in the title role, and while Maggie (playing Donnie’s sister Elizabeth) doesn’t share a fraction of the screen time with her real-life brother, she shows what she can do with limited material, emitting a vivacious screen presence that leaves its mark. And keep your eyes peeled for Seth Rogen in his film debut!
Scorecard: Donnie Darko, 10-9.
British director Christopher Nolan first showed audiences his mastery over film noir with a $6,000 70-minute feature film entitled Following (1998) that achieved both critical and commercial success. Despite its meager budget, it went on to gross seven times the cost of its production and set Nolan in the director’s chair for the more polished Memento. With a better cast, a bigger budget, and a creative structural framework, Nolan’s second film is an achievement that few quality directors are able to attain in their entire careers. Much of Nolan’s success comes from his use of repetition to create scene-to-scene transitions that are both creative and captivating. Films such as Vantage Point (2008) fail to do this technique justice because they do not understand what Memento grasps so clearly: repetition is a puzzle piece already in place, and should not be used as a time-filler, but as a useful set-up for the meat of the story. Amazingly, Nolan is able to turn a film which could grow quite cumbersome and convoluted into a coherent and revealing look at one man’s journey backward from confusion to awareness.
In similar fashion, Richard Kelly walks the tightrope between his main character’s slipping sanity, and the audience’s ability to keep up with that journey. An especially telling mark in favor of the director is his authentic fondness for and portrayal of setting. Set against the backdrop of election season 1988, Kelly’s world is as much a trip through time as Darko’s struggle is with his unusual gifts and visions. Every detail from the soundtrack, the fashions, and the hairstyles, to the social and political portrayals snaps into place with brilliant scope and vision. With that said, Nolan’s film succeeds because of its one-of-a-kind telling. That is to say the director continually moves the story forward even though each scene takes us backward – an admirable feat, especially when it’s only your second film.
Scorecard: Memento, 10-9.
Choosing a winner between these two films is the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make in my tenure at Flickchart. It is also a classic example of what makes this site so popular. Some choices are very easy while others are almost impossible. When the credits roll on this great pairing, you simply must ask yourself: if I couldn’t have access to any other film besides these two, which one would most often win the battle for my time and my DVD player? For me, it’s a matter of accessibility. Both films excel at what they do, but as time moves forward, I relate better to the way I remember things rather than any sense of my own importance in the world. Therefore, it is with an uncertain and somewhat heavy heart that I make my final choice:
Memento – SPLIT DECISION