Disaster Movies

The four brilliant 9/11 films that get overlooked.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone in Donnie Darko 

From the fall of Troy to the bombing of Hiroshima, the response of artists to tragedy and cataclysm has been wide and varied. In the years since 9/11, we’ve seen everyone from Bruce Springsteen (The Rising) to Don DeLillo (Falling Man) try to make sense of the senseless in one way or another. As the 10th anniversary looms, the New York Times has published an almost comically long list of 9/11-related arts events. I can’t help wondering: Have these last 10 years helped us understand the tragedy any better?

One of my former colleagues at NPR, Renee Montagne, explored the idea that we’re expecting too much too soon in an interview with Kurt Vonnegut on an earlier 9/11 anniversary. One of Vonnegut’s most searching works, Slaughterhouse-Five, was inspired by events nearly a quarter of a century earlier, when he’d witnessed Britain’s firebombing of Dresden, a horrific extinguishing of innocent life as well as the physical obliteration of a gem of a city. Vonnegut, stymied by the cognitive dissonance between the bravado of so many books and movies about the war on the one hand and the moral hellscape he’d seen, found he couldn’t write about it at the time. It took an offhand remark from a fellow soldier’s wife decades later to focus his thinking. “His wife was listening to us, and she blew her top,” Vonnegut recalled in the interview. “She said, You were nothing but babies then! That was the key. War is in fact fought by children, not Frank Sinatra and Duke Wayne. I started over again.” That aperçu focused his response to the event. (It also gave him the subtitle of his book: “The Children’s Crusade.”)

In this way, the artistic responses we’re looking for may just not be here yet; they may be hidden or suppressed. But there’s another way artists responds to such events, too, which I think about in regard to four movies. None is a “9/11 movie” in a literal sense. Only one features a plot point that in any way could be construed as a reference. (That’s an airplane engine falling, concussively, into a suburban home.) But they all capture something essential about that day, something that I think will be recognized by anyone who was sentient at the time. Now, they don’t reflect the totality of the experience—just a part. But they resonate still.

These four films were released around the same time. What unites them is how they embody one of the tragedy’s most unshakable effects: The feeling of discombobulation, when the heightened sense of reality in which we were living was suddenly punctured.

The iconoclastic filmmaker Richard Linklater is known for raucous comedies like Dazed and Confused and School of Rock, but he also did a less-noticed animated film called Waking Life. In it, he used a distinctive style of animation called rotoscoping, which takes regular filmed content and turns it into a trippy, dreamy cartoon, but also allows an individual artist to put his or her own cast onto the result.

In the film, an unnamed young boy, played by Wiley Wiggins, arrives in Austin and embarks on an odyssey through the town, visiting bars and restaurants and having provocative conversations with students, professors, street philosophizers, and the like. Each scene is made subtly distinct by the different artists Linklater worked with on the rotoscoping. As the day progresses, the conversations Wiggins has become more abstract and difficult, and a sense of detachment overtakes him. He starts to notice something’s wrong. We start feeling that way, too.

Right around the same time came a film called Donnie Darko, written and directed by a twentysomething filmmaker Richard Kelly. Despite some known actors, Jake Gyllenhaal (who plays the title character) and Drew Barrymore (in a terrible hairstyle) among them, the film made almost no money on its first release, but it has since become a cult hit. This odd tale concerns another disconnected hero, a suburban teenage boy with some psychological problems. Donnie knows an apocalypse is coming, having been told this by a malevolent giant rabbit. One night a jet engine falls from the sky into his family’s bosky house, and that’s just the beginning of the end. The film’s appeal lies in an eerie patina of hyperreality, the mordant school scenes, and the troubled Donnie’s matter-of-fact reaction to the end of the world when it comes.

Next, there’s Mulholland Dr., David Lynch’s vivid and disturbing evocation of the movie industry’s underbelly. Here, an unfailingly chipper young aspiring actress named Betty befriends a voluptuous woman with amnesia. The pair embark on a Nancy Drew-like quest through Hollywood and, seemingly, entire decades of Hollywood history to uncover the woman’s background, even as Betty doughtily pursues her career in the movies. But Betty’s mien is a little too bright, a little too fragile; it’s jarringly at odds with the sadistic machinations we see going on behind the scenes. When reality reasserts itself, horror follows. Mulholland Dr. didn’t do much at the box office either, but the film’s power was plain to critics, and Lynch was nominated for best director at that year’s Oscars.

Those three films came out in a bunch; a few months earlier had come Memento, Christopher Nolan’s second film. Memento has the same dislocation trope as the other three films I’ve mentioned, but in a much more tactile way. We understand that our hero, a guy named Leonard, has suffered some sort of trauma; he perpetually loses his short-term memory and has developed perverse ways of coping as he tries to find the man he thinks murdered his wife. Nolan’s conceptual coup is to tell Leonard’s story backward, in 10-minute bursts, in a metaphorical attempt to approximate for the audience the disconnectedness the man is suffering from. Memento, like all of these films, repays close study; those who have analyzed the film have discovered that its structure is much more complex than I have described, and that these underlying unstable narratives correspondingly make unreliable the plot I’ve described as well. Why Leonard is the way he is, what the exact parameters of his sickness are, whether he’s doing the right thing based on the right information at any given time … these are all imponderables, for Leonard and for us.

These four films do not, stylistically or narratively, have too much else in common. Mulholland Dr. is a nightmare, Waking Life—as the Shakespearian overtones in its title suggests—is a dream, of sorts. Memento is an epistemological puzzle and Donnie Darko a look into the abyss. But they are each, in their own way, a virtuoso work. Their auteurs followed ominous but irresistible muses down weird alleyways of conception and meaning. All were made on austere budgets, all were Quixotic conceptions, all had tangled paths to completion and release, and all represent personal filmmaking in the very best sense of that term. In other words, it’s plain that the movies, their themes and stories, all meant something to their creators.

And the thematic similarities are too great to ignore. A central character separates, in one way or another, from life, from the reality of being. Each film evocatively creates a heightened sense of reality for its characters that we the audience inhale as well. Each features a shock, a wrenching sideways, whether from that plane engine falling on a suburban house to the revelation that something is very, very wrong with poor Betty. The tragedy that hangs over each story is another similarity: In each case, the dread of loss touches the audience in some fundamental way. That’s a key point: None of these four directors is cynical or nihilistic. (An aesthetic position Lynch, for example, is not a stranger to.) In each of these signal works, a sense of humanity, of the great worth of every life—and a shuddering appreciation of the apocalypse that accompanies every individual death—is palpable.

These films speak to me of 9/11. Reality was heightened in the years before it. It’s hard to believe we spent months, years, talking about Monica Lewinsky and Survivor. During the dot-com era in San Francisco, we gathered for swanky parties on rooftops and talked about (I was once at a lunch sitting next to the site’s “ferrets editor.”) Ten years after the fall of the Soviet Empire, the United States was without a substantive enemy we could conceive of. And yet 3,000 Americans got up that morning and went about their business, not even realizing that, like more than one of the characters in the movies I’ve been talking about, they were already dead.

These movies haunt my own personal and inadequate understanding of the events of that day. Our understanding of the movies, too, is inadequate too; we can’t know whether each of these filmmakers, making movies that explicitly don’t reference 9/11, intended them as a response to the tragedy. But in this case, we can know. They don’t, and can’t, because they were all made before 9/11 happened. Waking Life, Mulholland Dr., and Donnie Darko all came out in a cluster just weeks after the attacks. Memento came out earlier that year; it took some months for its reputation to spread across the country, and it was still playing in many cities in early September.

There are two explanations for this disconnect. The first and simplest is coincidence—that I’m forcing meaning into movies that don’t have it, at least in regard to an event that happened after their creation. Accept that one if you wish, and you may be right. But I think it’s something different. I think that the sources of inspiration are hard to pin down. It can take almost 25 years, as it did for Kurt Vonnegut, to come to understand an event that happened literally right in front of you. For others, artistic antennae vibrate to other sensations. In what we accepted as a calm and gay time they found something overbright, hyperreal, and ultimately ominous. They couldn’t tell us they were making 9/11 movies because they didn’t know what they were doing. They remind us that inspiration is a mystery—and that not every response to a cataclysm comes with a press release.