The opening of Donnie Darko is a great example of a montage beginning. Not very many films explore this style of opening anymore, but I think Richard Kelly got this one right. First he beings us to a vague, yet beautiful, on look of a cliffside view.
Here, we round the corner with the camera to see that we are, in fact, on a hillside road and there is someone lying in the street. We can safely assume that the person in the street is the title character, Donnie Darko, portrayed by a young Jake Gyllenhaal. This push in to Donnie relays to the audience that perhaps his personality is far fetched and unattainable, but we are going to smoothly dive into him and understand him from a voyeuristic and personal perspective.
Here, we see Donnie begin to sit up. This motif of his character coming into consciousness will be present throughout the film, reiterated by the Frank character telling Donnie to "wake up." We are essentially learning about Donnie's experiences the way that he is; we must wake up, unaware of our surroundings, and piece together what has happened and what this story is actually about.
Kelly takes a long time to come around to our title character's face. This pull around suggests that at first glance, Donnie's personality is off putting or hard to grasp. The next thing we see is what Donnie sees. What would normally be a beautiful view is bogged down by the fact that we are seeing it from a newly conscious perspective from the middle of the road, where we've clearly crashed on a bike the night before. Donnie rises into the frame, taking control of the situation, whereas before, he was in the lower third of the frame and sitting on the ground. He then smiles, further confusing the situation of the viewer because we now understand this is a normal occurrence and he is not bothered by his predicament.
After titling the film with a transparent title card, the montage moves into a new phase where Donnie gets back on his bike and begins riding down this road. The winding road early in the morning foreshadows the long and confusing journey Donnie is just starting.
Donnie takes quite a while to get home, but there are not many shot changes in the sequence. We get to follow Donnie in long sweeping shots, signifying that we are going to stay with him for the entirety of the film, even had the title been something else that was not just the main character's name.
Then our last shot before Donnie gets back to the town is a POV of Donnie riding on his bike down a winding hill and turning a corner. I think this plays out the downward spiral Donnie is going to experience and the corner he turns to come to a greater understanding of time and people's greater paths.
When we finally get to the town, first of all the town is called Middlesex. This may be a reach, but Donnie is the middle child and going through a time in his life where sex is a main concern for him. He loses his virginity, he admits to his therapist that he thinks about sex frequently, and then he comes very close to masturbating in his sleep in front if her. Also, the story is set around Halloween, giving the excuse to make the font on the sign creepy and foreboding for what would normally be a fun and child friendly advertisement for a carnival. Furthermore, there is a strange side plot of the sexualization of pre-pubescent girls and a righteous man running a child pornography business.
It doesn't take very long for Donnie to turn the corner and take over the frame, leading us away from the sign as his story takes over other enticing stories of the town dealing with sex and deviancy.
Next we get a panning shot of houses in the town. They all look very well to do. Two older and seemingly well-to-do women are jogging, which is a normal middle class American sight, subverted by a pan to Donnie who is riding his bike home in his pajamas.
The next series of images pulls in closer to the town to focus on one family, which we learn is Donnie's family. The father is blowing leaves and, in what may seem sexually inappropriate in slow motion, blows up the sweater of his daughter.
The camera brings us back to Donnie, who haphazardly leaves his bike in the yard. This shot is filmed from a very low angle, pointing upwards at Donnie. This brings us back into Donnie's authority as the main character after doing some profiling of the town and his family. He rushes inside.
The camera does a tilt down to reveal a younger girl jumping on a trampoline. This does more to solidify suburbia, the age difference between this girl and most of the other characters, and furthermore serves to point out that this is a very small window of the world that we are exploring.
We then pull out to reveal Donnie's mother reading Stephen King. She pays no attention to her daughter and only gives a passing glance to her son who has been missing all night. We pull out from her even more to follow Donnie, again solidifying that the story is about his journey and the other characters only make up the world around him.
The last frame of this scene is a profile of Donnie opening his fridge revealing the dry erase message, presumably written by his mother, "Where is Donnie?"
The fridge also covers him entirely during this last frame, signifying that he is going to go away again and it will be permanent.
Thanks for reading, and give Kelly's film a few watches. You see something new every time!