Director: Richard Kelly
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Mary McDonnell
MPAA Rating: (for language, some drug use and violence)
Running Time: 2:02
Release Date: 10/26/01
Review by Mark Dujsik
There seems to be an influx of films that toy with narrative, structure, convention, and genre recently, but writer/director Richard Kelly’s debut Donnie Darko may be the strangest creature of the bunch. The film is exploding with ideas and tricks. To call it wildly ambitious would be to use an understatement. The film is a testament to the human imagination in the way that Kelly takes his material and expands upon it to the border that separates the coherent and the incoherent. There’s a joyous sense of freedom and, accompanying it, a terrible fear that somehow everything will fall apart under the weight of its own wild abandon. This freedom is both a great virtue and fault, but even when Kelly does throw in an extraneous scene or idea, we admire the chutzpah it takes to simply present it in the first place. The film is complicated, but its complexities never interfere with the emotional impact. Somehow through all the idiosyncrasies, Kelly has created an honest, humorous, bittersweet, disturbing look at the confusion of adolescence.
The film opens on a country highway where Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up next to his bike. Donnie lives in Middlesex, an upper-class suburb where, in 1988, voting for Dukakis is the worst thing you could do. Donnie has had a troubled past. He used to be a bit of a delinquent, but now he goes to therapy and should be taking medication. After a fight at the dinner table, Donnie decides to start taking his medication again. That same night, a voice calls him outside where he sees a human-sized rabbit named "Frank." "Frank" tells him that the world will end in twenty-five days. The next morning he wakes up on the local golf course and has the time left until the end of the world imprinted on his arm. An odd but lucky event because while he was away, a plane engine fell from the sky and crashed in his bedroom. As the days go on, Donnie continues to see "Frank" who now starts to give him visions and instructions.
Also fitting into the story are a new student named Gretchen (Jena Malone) who begins dating Donnie, an old woman (Patience Cleveland) who travels back and forth to her mailbox everyday, a self-help guru named Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) whose tapes provide the school’s gym curriculum, an English teacher (Drew Barrymore) who comes under attack for teaching Graham Greene, and a science teacher (Noah Wyle) who knows more about time travel than he’s allowed to let on. Each of these characters has an important role to play in the twisted life of Donnie, and the film indulges in letting their purposes slowly find their way into the puzzle. Two tones carry two seemingly separate intentions of the film. One is a satirical look at Donnie’s surroundings. It’s essentially a conservative society at work here. The gym teacher preaches that there are only two elements that play into people’s actions—fear and love. Greene’s works are the subject of a book-banning discussion. On the other hand, we’re presented with the psychological study of an intelligent boy who was raised in and is being held back by this culture.
Once "Frank" is introduced, the film begins dabbling with more fantastical elements. For a large majority of the film, we’re left questioning whether "Frank" is the result of a series of psychotic episodes or if it stems from more paranormal roots. Does Donnie actually act out the visions "Frank" shows him or are they just that—visions? Eventually even time travel is elevated to a key part to understanding everything that is happening in Donnie’s world. Even if the development of some of these concepts seems a little weak, they are easily overlooked because the film is centered more or less in reality or at least the reality of adolescence. Oddly enough, one of the genres being played with here is the coming-of-age movie. Donnie is, to a certain extent, the typical teenager. As the story progresses, Donnie begins to grapple with sex, cynicism, fate, philosophy, and even his own mortality. There’s a naked honesty to the scenes of Donnie’s struggles, so that even when the strangest, most cryptic revelation is made, it stays within the context of this honesty and is that much more effective.
This honesty bleeds into the characters as well, who start off as broad stereotypes and grow more fleshed out as the film touches on more humanistic themes. Take, for example, Donnie’s mother Rose (Mary McDonnell), who starts as a passive aggressive authority figure but grows into a compassionate and caring mother. By a certain point, we begin to understand all of these characters. The performances work at getting this point across. The satire is highly amusing because of the broad way in which they are played, but like all good satire, truth is the key to the humor. Jake Gyllenhaal is a standout as Donnie. He nails the dry, sardonic apathy just as well as he handles the emotional and psychotic outbursts.
The film’s conclusion offers a few surprising revelations as well as a twist the puts the entire film into a new perspective. I think I understand what happened, although I know I have no clue as to how it went about. More importantly, though, I do understand why it happened; the motivation is perfectly clear. The ultimate resolution is surprisingly poignant. That’s what’s usually missing from a lot of films that delve into the bizarre; they know how to confuse but don’t always have a purpose or method to it. Donnie Darko has a few missteps, but this is most definitely not one of them. It has its cake and eats it too.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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