2002, R, 118 min. Directed by Richard Kelly. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Noah Wyle, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Katharine Ross, Mary McDonnell, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Feb. 22, 2002
A frail, shock-haired old woman, nicknamed the macabre Grandma Death, whispers into Donnie Darko's ear: “Every living creature on Earth dies alone.” It's an idea the film superficially proves true, but spends its entire two hours refuting. And it comes for Donnie (Gyllenhaal), a cocky, confused 16-year-old kid living in 1989 suburbia, at a time in his life -- high school -- when that idea (existentialism, really, though teenagers don't always know to call it that just yet) is dealing its first crippling blows. The usual teenager torments are all there -- idiot authority figures, bullies with switchblades, an exploding sex drive made all the more volcanic by the new girl in town, Gretchen (Malone). But Donnie's got other problems, too -- namely, the 6-foot-tall, fanged rabbit named Frank who visits Donnie in night haunts and delivers the news that the world is coming to an end. He even supplies an exact date: Donnie has a month to sort out whether Frank is serious, or if Donnie is in serious need of upping his meds. It's maybe a little of both -- and the stupefying conclusion doesn't necessarily weigh in either way -- but in-between, the film tackles everything from time travel and portals to book-banning, the cult of personality, revenge, and redemption. Donnie Darko is an unnerving, electrifying debut film from 26-year-old writer/director Kelly, one that elucidates the universal traumas of growing up, but does so with a startling uncommonness. So much here is equally baffling and beguiling; I caught myself leaning in toward the screen repeatedly, trying to somehow get closer to the gorgeous impenetrability of the story, of the boy.The film makes a case that Donnie is a superhero (punctuated by an exchange in which Donnie asks Frank: “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?” Frank flips back: “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”), but Donnie is fully of this earth. Gyllenhaal nails the itchy irritability of that age, the helplessness and the heartbreak of being 16, and Kelly nails the distinct milieu of Donnie's world. The film wears its era well, but not winkingly, in the graceful details of Ocean Pacific T-shirts and Star Search and a Tears for Fears song. (The most lyrical moments come during several musical montages, using period songs from the likes of Echo and the Bunnymen and Joy Division, in which the audience gets a welcome respite from all the head-exploding theories and instead gets to nestle in the hands of Kelly's expert choreography.) The supporting cast is filled somewhat distractingly with stars, most of whom acquit themselves nicely -- especially McDonnell, as Donnie's mother; not especially Swayze, in an inspirational-guru role that's also Kelly's only truly uninspired move. Still, some of the secondary parts have the feel of existing solely to provide clues in order to make sense of the end. Well, to almost make sense. I've been chewing on the conclusion for days now and still haven't gotten it all to work out. And it's frustrating that the film, a favorite at Sundance 2001, didn't get a larger release; it's deserving of the kind of pick-it-apart-and-put-it-back-together discussion that other puzzlers, like Memento and Mulholland Drive, have received. In the end, I don't think it matters. I left the theatre rattled to the bone, stuck in one of those eerie quiets of desolation mixed with elation -- a state of contradiction right in step with the film. Donnie Darko defies categorization, incorporating sci-fi, coming of age, dark comedy, satire, first love, but what I think it boils down to is something deeply religious. Hints are scattered throughout -- the coming apocalypse, a double bill that concludes with The Last Temptation of Christ, the sacrificial lamb motif. Donnie Darko isn't a convert film or a pulpit for Christianity; in fact, religion is only peripherally touched upon. And yet, spirituality is the very crux of the film. It's about finding God -- whatever that may mean -- about the search for confirmation of an existence, of a plan, of a connection, of a possibility of solace. It's about proving Grandma Death wrong. That's the elation. The desolation comes from not knowing if the film has succeeded.