Sonic Youth: How Sound Informs Donnie Darko

By  · Published on December 20th, 2016

What you see is only half the story.

The way a film sounds is every bit as important as how it looks in regards to telling its story. Sound impacts our senses the say way images do our eyes: they conjure emotions, they forge connections, they inform us of danger clear and present or impending, they establish character or the tone of a setting, and they guide us along the path of a film’s plot like a map whispered into our subconscious. Remove the sound from a film and you remove a necessary element that in turn makes the film, its story, and its players incomplete and unresolved.

Some films, however, make greater, more imperative use of their sound, to the point if it is absent you don’t just have an incomplete film, you have one you can’t even understand. Richard Kelly’s brain-melting debut Donnie Darko is one such film, and in the following fascinating analysis from Victor Garcia and Jose Angel Toro the magnitude of sound’s contribution to the film is the focus.

Here the sound is a translator, in a sense, it makes clear to us in the audience the mounting mental illness driving Donnie and it reveals how he comes to interpret and understand the things happening to him. For example the soft, gentle, reverberating and lulling tone to Frank’s voice when he speaks to Donnie, a Siren’s song to insanity, or the haunting, elegiac music that accompanies Frank’s every appearance. The combined effect of this is to convey to us a sense of capture, an understanding of Frank as this foreign being who wants to possess Donnie in every way, thus heightening our sense of paranoid foreboding. If you don’t believe something so minor could have such a massive effect, check out how you feel when the essayists replace Frank’s theme with a jaunty selection from the Jackson 5’s catalog; all of a sudden you’ve got a different kind of guy-in-a-bunny-suit movie.

There are just a couple of the subtle, or perhaps insidious, methods by which Kelly used sound to bolster the mystery he had on the page and the imagery it conjured on-screen. Check out the rest below.

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Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist