Many people today complain that movies have become boring and/or predictable. Most of the time, if you've seen the coming attractions, you've basically seen the film. Sure, there are always the oddities and exceptions: there are original voices working in the medium who attempt to reinvent genres or who try to take risks. Partly because of threatened industry strikes that failed to materialize in 2001, many films released that year hardly qualified as good. It certainly wasn't a banner year like 1939 for instance. Still, there were several films, from established veterans and newcomers, that offered glimmers of hope: Christopher Nolan's MEMENTO, Richard Linklater's WAKING LIFE, and David Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE, to name but three. One could add to that short list twentysomething Richard Kelly's DONNIE DARKO.
It's clear that Kelly was staking a claim to Lynch's territory with this astonishingly accomplished, thought-provoking and simply amazing debut. DONNIE DARKO resists being neatly summed up in one sentence. While some first-time directors attempt ambitious films, few have enjoyed the success that Kelly has with this movie that crosses multiple genres from fantasy to teenage coming-of-age to romance to satire.
Kelly has described his title character as "Holden Caulfield as resurrected by Philip K. Dick." That vivid statement provides some insight into this maddening, fascinating and incredibly well-made story of a 16-year-old high school (portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal). Although specifically set in October 1988, the dilemmas and issues (e.g., strained familial relationships, burgeoning sexuality, the meaning of life) with which the highly intelligent Donnie grapples are no different that those situations facing early 21st-century teens. Donnie's case, though, is colored by the fact he is in therapy and being medicated for emotional troubles.
The film's elegiac opening scene finds Donnie asleep in the middle of a deserted road with his bicycle nearby. When he awakens, he returns to his suburban Virginia home where his dysfunctional family lives. Dad (Holmes Osborne) is a staunch Republican, Mom (Mary McDonnell) is reserved and withholding, older sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake's real-life sibling) likes to push buttons, and younger sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase) lives only to dance. Donnie is the odd man out in psychiatric care, although he recently decided to stop taking his prescriptions.
Perhaps that accounts for his hallucinations of a six-foot rabbit named Frank (James Duval) who warns of the impending end of the world and exhorts Donnie to commit several acts of vandalism. Is Frank real, or a figment of Darko's overactive imagination, or a projection of Donnie's inner demons? The beauty of Kelly's multi-layered screenplay and surefooted direction is that the audience is left to determine those matters, at least until the very end of the film.
Donnie's life is altered one evening when he sleepwalks and awakens on a local golf course. Returning home, he discovers that there has been a freak accident: an engine from a 747 airplane has crashed into his house and destroyed his room. If he hadn't been somnambulant, he would have perished. Soon thereafter, Donnie begins to investigate the idea of time travel with the help of a kindly science teacher (Noah Wyle), a topic informed by the films of the 1980s. In fact, Donnie specifically references BACK TO THE FUTURE while Kelly clearly invokes genre classics like E.T., THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and THE ABYSS. Interestingly, Donnie Darko is clearly enrolled in a parochial school, although no overt mention of religion is made. Instead, the film explores philosophical and metaphysical issues without relying on pat answers. Indeed, DONNIE DARKO raises more questions than it answers. [NOTE: Some of those answers were found on the first DVD release of the film and the later theatrically released "Director's Cut," which incorporated some previously deleted sequences and was also later available on DVD. Yet, even with the additional footage, some ambiguity remains, a particularly refreshing quality lacking in most mainstream Hollywood films.]
Kelly shows a flair with actors, eliciting strong performances from an eclectic cast. Additionally, he demonstrates a firm grasp of camera work and an effective employment of music to propel the storyline. Utilizing many popular tunes of the period, the director underscores and comments on the action through the use of such songs as "Head Over Heels", "The Killing Notorious" and "Mad World." Kelly shares the same directorial impulses of contemporary directors like Wes Anderson (RUSHMORE) and Paul Thomas Anderson (BOOGIE NIGHTS) by deploying music for its full emotional impact.
The cast is almost universally on target. Anchoring the movie is Jake Gyllenhaal who is able to both project Donnie's innate intelligence as well as his social ineptitude. Not only does he make the audience believe in the conceit of Frank, he also shades the character's action in a manner that suggests that Donnie indeed may be mentally unbalanced. There are terrific performances from Jena Malone as a kindred spirit who becomes Donnie's girlfriend, Katherine Ross as Donnie's therapist, executive producer Drew Barrymore (who appears to be channeling Julianne Moore) as a sympathetic English teacher, and Mary McDonnell as Donnie's put-upon mother. A subplot involving a self-help guru (well played by Patrick Swayze) and a teacher (Beth Grant) who becomes his disciple only slightly mars the film. It's understandable why Kelly included it, but in some ways it feels shoehorned into a film already bursting with originality.
As with any film of this kind, multiple viewings are in order so that one can sort out the plot strands, admire the craftsmanship, and fully grasp what the writer-director's intentions were. When the film opened in the wake of the events of September 11th, it was perhaps too much of a downer. With its DVD release (and the eventual "Director's Cut"), one can completely savor the facets and nuances of the script and direction. Kelly clearly is a talented and potent new voice in American cinema. In my humble estimation, DONNIE DARKO ranked as one of the best films of 2001.
Theatrical release Rating: A- MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug use and violence Running time: 113 mins.
Director's Cut DVD Rating: A- MPAA Rating: R for language, some underage drug and alcohol use, and violence Running time: 133 mins.