September 30, 2003
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Holmes Osborne, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daveigh Chase, Mary McDonnell, James Duval, Arthur Taxier, Patrick Swayze, Mark Hoffman, David St. James, Tom Tangen, Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore, ,
A hit at Sundance last year, Donnie Darko arrives here with a highly deserved buzz of anticipation but bafflingly limited cinema release.
On paper the setup sounds cheesy – Messed up teen sees giant bunny rabbit who predicts end of the world – but director Richard Kelly has pulled a Sam Mendes and created one of the most original directorial debuts in recent years.
We meet Donnie lying asleep on top of a mountain road, miles from home with no idea how or why he got there. From the very first shot we know this isn’t going to be another Slap Her, She’s French. Donnie has psychological problems; he lashes out at his family, and is on medication for depression. “Our son just called me a bitch,” says Mum. “You’re not a bitch,” replies Dad. “You’re bitchin’…But you’re not a bitch.”
We meet his psychiatrist (Ross), who tries to coax Donnie into revealing his inner problems. As if that wasn’t troubling enough, Donnie arrives home one morning to find his bedroom destroyed by a falling Jet engine.
Then we meet Frank.
It would be all too easy to have a sleep-walking sequence where the main character meets a giant bunny turn into unintentional hilarity, yet such is Kelly’s skill that when Frank reveals the end of the world is coming in twenty-eight days, you’re filled with the same disquiet as Donnie. Is Frank there to help or hinder? Is Donnie going mad or is there some strange purpose to the odd things he’s made to do in the middle of the night?
Things are only further complicated when new girl Gretchen arrives at school (Malone, the little girl from Contact) and strikes up an odd friendship with Donnie. To say any more would be to spoil the fun of discovering the magic of Donnie Darko for the first time, but needless to say, things don’t go to plan. Twenty-seven year old Kelly’s inspiration seems to be part David Lynch, part John Hughes and part…well, Richard Kelly.
Nearly every scene is layered with ironic comedy or subtle social satire, or an unsettling surrealism that grabs you by the cerebral cortex and hangs on like a python. And the characters are three dimensional (an admirable trait for a teen movie) – they have feelings and they have flaws. DD doesn’t just suggest return viewings…it demands it.
There are flaws: Barrymore has little more than a cameo, despite being Executive Producer, and if you don’t follow closely you might leave the cinema with your head spinning (people who get up mid-movie to use the bathroom, you have been warned). And every time-travel movie is doomed to have at least one major plot flaw. But these are small inconsistencies when the overall effect is so successful.
So, already achieving cult status, and having made Indie stars of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, it remains to be seen if any of the people involved with DD will ever better such an auspicious debut. Director Kelly has reportedly signed on to write a movie for Tony Scott, and such a bizarre choice of follow-up will no doubt go under the intense scrutiny of journalists and fans alike. But then Sam Mendes did follow American Beauty with Road To Perdition, so perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel.
To conclude; Donnie Darko is a breath of fresh air that reminds you why you just paid £4.50 to walk in the cold to sit in a cinema with a bunch of strangers. In this reviewer’s opinion you cannot claim to be a true film fan until you have seen it. Packed with memorable scenes, an early Danny Elfman-like score from Michael Andrews, and an iconic 80’s soundtrack, this is one movie that deserves it’s acclaim and then some. As Gretchen aptly points out to Donnie at one point in the film: “You’re weird.”
“No, that was a compliment.”