The titular character of Richard Kelly's feature debut Donnie Darko is a fascinating enigma-a troubled suburban teen with dark eyes and a morbid sense of humor who may or may not be schizophrenic. Haunted by strange visions of a man in a rabbit suit with a twisted metallic face and obsessed with questions about time travel and the ability to see one's future, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is definitely not your average high school student.
"Donnie Darko? What the hell kind of name is that? It's like, some kind of superhero or something," says Gretchen (Jena Malone), the new girl in town who will eventually become Donnie's girlfriend because, on some level, they understand each other (he has emotional problems, and she and her mother have had to change their names because her step-father stabbed her mother in the chest four times). Donnie does turn out to be a superhero of sorts; that is, by the end of the film, he will be faced with an enormous decision that will have life-and-death ramifications for many of those around him, as well as himself. In its own way, Donnie Darko is an existentialist parable wrapped up in a darkly humorous teen fantasy and suburban satire.
The story is set in October 1988. The temporal setting aligns the film with the John Hughes cycle of late-'80s teen dramas (Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful), of which Donnie Darko is a happily perverse version (what if one of Hughes's brooding male leads was truly psychotic?). There are references to the Bush-Dukakis election and Star Search '88, and the soundtrack is replete with '80s tunes, including songs by INXS, Echo & the Bunnymen, and Tears for Fears.
The physical setting is the picture-perfect Hughes-like suburban world of Middlesex, California, where all the houses are large, the lawns are well manicured, and the housewives powerwalk each morning (Kelly gives everything a slightly ominous, unnatural appearance with slow and sped-up motion, shooting with the camera close to the ground, and canted angles). All the kids go to an expensive private school, the kind where hysterical parents complain with righteous anger when a young English teacher (Drew Barrymore) dares to teach Graham Greene's The Destructors. At the same time, they applaud the saccharine proclamations of the local self-help guru, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who "motivates" by attributing everything in the world to the two ends of the "lifeline," fear and love. When Donnie dares to challenge such simplistic, dichotomist thinking, he naturally gets into trouble.
Interestingly, despite the overtly satiric tone Kelly takes with the community and especially the school, he is gentle in his view of Donnie's family. His mother (Mary McDonnell) and father (Holmes Osbourne) are by no means perfect, but they're decent, caring people who truly want the best for their troubled son. Donnie fights with his older sister, Elizabeth (Jake's real-life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal), but you get the sense that there is no deep-seated animosity between them. Kelly is wise to ground the film here in this vision of the Darkos-they're not sitcom caricatures, but rather a realistic family coping as best they can.
Donnie regularly attends therapy sessions with a $200-an-hour psychologist (Katherine Ross) who tries to help him through his issues, but Donnie's problems may be deeper than she can fathom. "I made a new friend," Donnie tells her at one point, to which she replies without hesitation, "Real or imaginary?" He has to think before answering that question, because the "new friend" is the demonic rabbit named Frank, who tells Donnie to commit acts of vandalism and also alludes explicitly to an imminent doom lurking at the end of the month. Donnie sees Frank at night when he sleepwalks, but as the film progresses, Frank begins to invade Donnie's consciousness more and more, at one point appearing next to him and Gretchen at a movie theater (whose marquee advertises a delightful double bill of The Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ).
There are further plot complications, including an old woman who Donnie refers to as "Grandma Death" because of her penchant for walking out in front of cars and a mysterious book titled The Philosophy of Time Travel. Because of all this, for most of its running time, it is difficult to tell where Donnie Darko is headed. We know that Donnie is on a straight trajectory toward his fate, and the film underscores this with title cards giving us the specific date and how much time is left until that fate is met. Of course, we have no idea what his fate will be, and on first viewing the film, you may not entirely understand the implications of what finally happens (the subsequent director's cut, which runs about 20 minutes longer and was theatrically released in 2004, does much to clear up some of the confusion). Donnie Darko turns out to be a puzzle film, one that rewards a second and third viewing because many early scenes contain crucial information that is understandable only when you know how it ends. It is a strange prism of a film, refracting back on itself and full of sudden and seemingly inexplicable events, such as when the jet engine of a 747 falls of the sky and crashes through the Darkos' house.
Jake Gyllenhaal, who was then best known for his earnest performance in October Sky (1999) and his utterly whacked performance in Bubble Boy (2001), is impressive in the lead role-he broods as well as any teen actor I have seen, and he is able to project a vulnerability and a frightening sense of repressed power at the same time. It was also amusing to see '80s matinee idol Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing, Road House) playing the despicably pretentious motivational guru, especially once his true interests are startlingly revealed.
In the end, though, it is writer/director Richard Kelly, who was all of 26 years old at the time, who garners the most attention. For a feature debut, Donnie Darko is impressively assured, even if its strange atmospheric brew of satirical '80s nostalgia and paranoid horror-movie conventions are ultimately more effective than the sum of its parts. It is not surprising that Donnie Darko fizzled at the box office, but quickly became a cult sensation on home video, where enthusiasts were free to view and re-view it in part and in whole, parsing its secrets and developing their own theories. That late surge of cultish popularity helped fuel Kelly's sophomore film, the much-maligned Southland Tales (2006), an even stranger and denser amalgam of political satire, science fiction, and postmodern comedy on which Kelly bet his burgeoning career and lost, which is a shame because his unique brand of daring is something of which the American cinema is desperately in need.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Arrow Video
Overall Rating: (3)
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