Donnie Darko (2001) / Fantasy-Sci-Fi
MPAA Rated: R for language, some drug use and violence
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Beth Grant
Director: Richard Kelly
Screenplay: Richard Kelly
Review published December 2, 2003
The experience of figuring out Donnie Darko is like buying a jigsaw puzzle at a garage sale, and trying to put it together realizing that you may not have enough pieces to make a complete picture, and what's worse, you may begin to suspect that pieces from other puzzles have been mixed in the bunch.
I'm not going to lie and tell you I understand everything about Donnie Darko, a darkly comic film with an esoteric plot. Is it about death? Is it about superheroes? Is it about alternate universes? Is it about time travel? Is it about the Reagan years? Is it about the Eighties? Is it about the educational system's demise? Is it about the need for self-expression in teenagers? Is it all a strange hallucination in the mind of a schizophrenic boy?
I suppose part of the reason why Donnie Darko is so intriguing is that, like the works of David Lynch, it has the formation of something deeper going on and as soon as we think we have it figured out, it becomes something else entirely, until the credits start rolling and we wonder what the hell was going on all along. Answers don't come very easily, and only writer/director Richard Kelly (Domino), who makes a very impressive debut here, will know for sure whether his film makes any sense. My gut feeling is that Donnie Darko set out to be a different sort of film in Kelly's mind, but as the camera started to roll, he shifted themes and the plot as new ideas sprang up, causing a plot as schizophrenic as the main character itself.
Having just recently seen the Hong Kong film, Second Time Around, a film with a plot involving alternate realities and the use of time travel to try to change the future, I guess I'm of a mind to think that's also what Donnie Darko's mostly constructed around. I have my doubts about this, so I gather it will merit a second viewing sometime soon, which is a testament to how good a film it is. Why invest time and energy trying to figure out a film that isn't worth it?
Here's the plot, or at least the best I can do without using spoilers. Jake Gyllenhaal (The Good Girl, Moonlight Mile) stars as Donnie Darko, a troubled teenage boy who sees a shrink and takes medication in an attempt to curb his schizophrenic mood swings. One night he goes to bed only to be visited by a man in a formidably disturbing bunny suit named Frank, who claims that the world is going to end in 28 days. Donnie awakens in a nearby golf course only to find his room has been destroyed by a large plane engine that surely would have killed him had he not sleepwalked. The other weird thing is that while sleepwalking, Donnie exhibits some destructive behavior, in one instance flooding the school by breaking a water pipe using strength that no mortal man might have mustered. With the deadline drawing near, Donnie feels obligated to find out the answer to time, space and all things in between. But is any of this really happening?
Credit Kelly for directing with a sense of style and humor that is stunning to find in someone in his first time at the helm. The film has a variety of themes, some complimenting each other, some completely independent to the film's main storyline. However, they are always interesting enough that we don't mind the diversions and indulgences Kelly is willing to take. And Kelly takes them quite often, and at times the film seems unintentionally to lose its focus now and then, and occasionally dallies lackadaisically in showcasing an oddly humorous character or funny observation. It's hard to slam the film for trying, but Darko's main flaw may be in trying to cram a little too many ideas into the confines of one story, and while they are fascinating, they are probably better off left for another film in Kelly's future altogether.
While I enjoyed Donnie Darko quite a bit, I don't recommend this film to everyone, and in fact, I would probably reserve such urgings to those who thoroughly enjoy the most bizarre of movies. If you like David Lynch, "The Twilight Zone," and offbeat comic book stories, Donnie Darko will probably hit a home run with you. Those that hate films that are strange and seemingly make no sense whatsoever probably would do better to skip this one, as even the most savvy of viewers will not understand the movie entirely the first go around.
As a trip to the Bizarro World, Donnie Darko is darkly disturbing fun. As unsettling and perplexing as they get these days, but if you're game, this film is ready to play.
©2003 Vince Leo