The other day, I was speaking to a friend and fellow movie enthusiast. He told me that he thought American Beauty and Donnie Darko were perfect companion pieces, though he wasn't quite sure why. I asked him if he would let me take his idea and run with it, and here are the results.
(note: Big spoiler warning over the whole article. It's impossible to tackle this subject intelligently without writing about the endings.)
American Beauty and Donnie Darko are startlingly similar pieces, both superficially (as concerning location, subject, etc.) and thematically. One key difference, however, sets these films travelling in tangential directions and makes them such fascinating mirror images of each other. That one key element is the possibility of hope.
It's easy to begin to draw parallels between the two films. Both take place in the suburbs; American Beauty in a suburb of Chicago, Donnie Darko in a suburb of Virginia Beach. Both follow stereotypically normal and reasonably well-off families. Because of the similarity of the environments the films portray, they can't help but touch on the thematic bases inherent in any suburbia film: lack of meaningful connection, the shallow wastefulness of a capitalist-motivated culture, etc. Another similarity, however, is that neither film makes suburban disillusionment the main subject (for an example of films wholly concerned with suburban disillusionment, see the lesser achievements of The Chumscrubber and Ordinary People).
No, the driving element of both films is the main character: a man who begins the film in a form of mental death (be it complacency or overmedication), finds a catalyst for change, acts on it, and dies in a physical sense because of his commitment to following through on his actions. Admittedly, the catalyst in American Beauty is a little more realistic than Donnie Darko (strangely, there's less time travel in American Beauty), but less noble. Lester Burnham sees an attractive girl and rearranges his life as a way to attract the girl (though I think we can all agree that the film isn't so much about an older man courting a younger woman as it is about the attempts to regain lost youth and vitality). Donnie Darko, on the other hand, sees a six foot tall talking rabbit that tells him the world is going to end, and sets him on the path to stopping it.
Interesting tangent: Angela Hayes and Frank the Rabbit are quite similar in their characterizations, purpose, and effect on the film. Both pop up intermittently to remind the main character of his quest, and both set the hero on the path to death, but aren't directly responsible for the death itself. Angela only inspires Lester to change his life which leads to his association with Ricky Fitz, which leads to, of course, his murder. Frank broaches the subject of time travel with Donnie, but it's Roberta Sparrow's book that leads him to make the conclusions he does about his role in saving the world. Also, both Angela and Frank are responsible for killing the main character's hopes at new love; admittedly, Angela less literally so. She tells Lester she's a virgin, Frank runs over Donnie's girlfriend. Maybe not the same ballpark of a scenario, but thematically similar.
So, it's ultimately the catalyst for change that kills both Lester and Donnie. Here's where it gets interesting. Here's where the films diverge and become entirely different creatures. As Donnie Darko's Jim Cunningham might say, American Beauty and Donnie Darko are on different sides of the Lifeline: one is fear, and the other is love. Here's what I mean: only one film allows the possibility for hope.
Both Lester and Donnie experience moral, emotional, and/or theological awakenings of some kind. Lester's path is different, however, in that his awakening allows him to see the world with optimistic new eyes, to find beauty in everything around him. Donnie's awakening helps him to see the underlying evil and shallowness of the world around him. Lester's awakening leads him back to happiness and contentment, while Donnie's awakening leads him deeper down the rabbit hole of emotional despair.
Here's the kicker, though: consider how each character dies, and what their death accomplishes. By now the films are complete inverse images. When Lester dies, his death throws everyone else's lives into chaos: his wife, emotionally broken in the closet, his child, looking at her father's body, her plans of running away to New York with her boyfriend dashed, her boyfriend, his chance at a happy escape ruined, Mr. Fitz, adding more things in his life to submerge, hide, and feel guilty over, and so on and so forth. So, the world around him is thrown off its axis, but Lester is content, and the film ends on a tentatively hopeful note. Now consider Donnie Darko. In his death, Donnie restores the order of the world, saving his girlfriend from vehicular homicide, saving his teacher's job, saving Jim Cunningham's reputation, though not his soul, saving his mother from the unspeakable horror of accompanying Sparkle Motion to California, etc. So Donnie saves everyone with his sacrifice, but the movie is one hell of a downer. So, one character throws his universe into chaos for the sake of his own happiness and the film ends optimistically, and one character saves his universe from chaos at the sake of his own life, and the film ends on a depressing note.
What does this say about the two films thematically? Is American Beauty a predominantly selfish film? Does it opine that individual happiness is more important than the good of the collective, and that the chance for Lester to die with dignity, having regained his soul, is more important than the harmony of the lives around him? What is Donnie Darko saying? That the death of one person is still a tragedy, regardless of the good that comes of it? That a world of rights can't change one wrong? Consider both films: both use violence and death as a way to create change. Or, perhaps, violence and death occur because of the attempt to create change. Could the films be suggesting that any change to the world must be paid for in blood? That altering one's circumstances creates an alternate reality in which the sin of change must be atoned for with human sacrifice?
Honestly, I don't have the answers for any of these questions, but I'm going to try to address them anyway. If you've got different opinions, I'd love to hear them.
Yes, American Beauty is inherently selfish. But so is human nature, and creating a film that deals so intelligently and accurately with human nature without portraying selfishness is impossible. Every person, when attempting to break out of their routine, does so with less regard for the people around them than for the eventual consequences that their thrashing about will bring. And yes: Donnie Darko does think that one death is a tragedy, regardless of the good that comes of it. That's one of the underlying themes of the film: that any amount of good can't eradicate the presence of something bad. It can offset it, or alleviate its effect, but it can't get rid of it. And yes: both films regard change as something dangerous. Not negative, mind you, but dangerous. They warn that for every reaction, there is an equal and opposing reaction. Lester and Donnie find themselves on the shit end of their opposing reactions.
Here's where hope comes in, however. Why does American Beauty end on an optimistic note? Hope. Yes, Lester dies. Yes, everyone else's lives get irrevocably screwed up. But during the process, they find moments of beauty. They realize the world for the place it is ('big, beautiful, and ultimately too exhausting to live in'), and are happier for it. Lester's last monologue (so much beauty in the world, he's grateful for every minute of his life, and so forth) balances the tragedy of his death by unearthing ways to see hope and beauty in any circumstance. Indeed, American Beauty hardly realizes something tragic happens at the end of it: it's too distracted by all the beauty in the world.
Donnie Darko lacks this capacity for hope. The theme that I addressed in the last paragraph (no amount of rights can right a wrong) is too strong to be denied, and quickly subdues the idea of an optimistic ending. Donnie Darko sees no beauty in the world: the beauty it finds, however rare and fleeting, comes from legitimate human connection, which it strives to introduce into its characters' lives. It sees death as the end of any possibility for real connection, and thus, for Donnie, beauty and hope are rendered irrelevant. There's nothing poetic or acceptable about his death, even if he saved his loved ones in the process. He's still dead, and he won't be around to see the good things that his actions wrought.
So there it is: hope. One movie has it, the other doesn't. I love these two films as companion pieces because they essentially address the only two ways to approach life: with hope, or without it. You see beauty, or you don't. You're afraid of death, or you aren't. You allow the good in your live to overshadow the bad, or you allow the bad in your life to usurp the power of good. Man is born crying: when he has cried enough, does he begin to see the world, or does he just die? I'll let you answer these questions for yourself.
Alright. Your turn. My philosophical monologue isn't nearly as interesting as a dialogue would be. Pipe up!
(I have to credit Michael Cunningham's Flesh and Blood for the quote about the world being 'big, beautiful, and ultimately too exhausting to live in,' as well as Akira Kurosawa's Ran for telling me that 'man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies.')