Written and directed by Richard Kelly, starring Jake Gyllenhall, Mary McDonnell, Maggie Gyllenhall, Jena Malone, Patrick Swayze. For years, people whose opinions I value have recommended the 2001 film Donnie Darko highly. Last weekend we finally sat down and watched it, so now I understand why. This is one of those movies that defies convention: Is it sci-fi? Is it psychological thriller? Teen drama? You can tell the studio was having a tough time pinning Donnie Darko down as well – the trailers and on the DVD were just awkwardly awful. (Note the dueling themes of the promo materials below.)
The movie starts with young Donnie (Gyllenhall) waking up on the side of the road beside his bike. He smiles to himself and pedals for town, and your immediately asking yourself what’s going on with this kid. Writer/director Kelly quickly proves adept at holding back certain details of character and plot points until just the right moment, which adds to the mystery and suspense. It turns out, Donnie has been taking psych meds to deal with his emotional and mental problems as well as seeing a shrink. The Darko family is otherwise a fairly standard suburban crew. Older sister Liz (M. Gyllenhall) is taking a year off before going to college, younger sister Samantha seems a decent kid, and Mom and Pop are supportive and perfectly normal.
So when Donnie gets into an argument with Liz, curses at the dinner table, and acts like a total dick to his mom, you have a tough time reading him. Is he a spoiled kid or does he really have issues? Turns out, it’s the issues. That night a voice rouses him to a trance-like state and entices him from his room, telling him he needs to get out of the house. Donnie follows, sees the source of the voice in the distance (a mysterious yet sinister figure in a bunny-suit), who tells him the end is nigh, about three weeks from now. Donnie wanders off and ends up sleeping at the golf course.
And then something falls on the Darko’s house – something big. Turns out, out it’s a jet engine. Turns out, it landed right on Donnie’s room. When Donnie wanders back home, to find firetrucks, police, and black-suited FAA officials throwing up blockades, his parents are overjoyed with his sleepwalking for once.
This bit of incredible coincidence sets the stage for the rest of film. We learn about Donnie’s school life (bored, isolated, lonely) through a host of other supporting characters. We learn about his psychiatry sessions, which reveal that the bunny-suited stranger is called Frank. Frank starts to dole out more orders to Donnie in these dreams, and Donnie starts to see him during waking episodes as well. He begins to theorize about time travel. A girl with a clouded past moves in from out-of-town and seems interested. Stuff happens, and Donnie still can’t reconcile with what Frank is telling him about the end (which happens to be the day before Halloween). He still has the kinds of questions many of us had in high school, some of which we can never quite answer.
It’s a strange, strange story, but meticulously – almost ruthlessly – crafted, and Richard Kelly never once backs away from the moment. Because of that, and because of the strong performances by the actors, the film seems more genuine than many conventional drama. Maybe it’s the frank and realistic portrayal of teen-aged disillusionment and isolation. Maybe it’s the awesome score and soundtrack. Maybe it’s the strength of the overall narrative and the range of emotions from scene to scene. Whatever the case, Donnie Darko is a damned fine film.
It’s no surprise this movie has developed into a cult classic. Like many such films, it wasn’t particularly successful financially – likely because it defies the standard categorie and the studio had no idea how to market it. Donnie Dark gets extra points from us for its excellent score and soundtrack – including the haunting remake of the Tears for Fears song, ‘Mad World’. The movie’s set in 1988, which scores additional points, and while there’s plenty of 80’s reference, it’s not overwhelming or distracting. Finally there are visual references to John Hughes’ teen movies and a small homage to and footage from to the immortal Evil Dead, which we always appreciate in Beemsville. So if you haven’t seen this movie, never heard of it, or just haven’t watched it some time, there’s no time like the present. October is the perfect month for a Donnie Darko viewing.