© 2001-2010 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.
Donnie Darko


      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.