Movie Review – Donnie Darko

Hilarious comedy that will appeal to audiences of all ages. Actually, it’s not, but then, it’s the kind of film that will confuse a lot of people. So if you say it’s a comedy, people might watch it anyway. A directorial tour-de-force, with some magnificent performances topped off by a plot twist that bends your brain inside out.


– Summary –

Director : Richard Kelly
Cast :
Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, Patrick Swayze
Year of Release :
Length : 113 Minutes (theatrical edition)
A disturbed teenager begins to hallucinate the appearance of a man in a rabbit suit, as the portent of doom is revealed to him, about the end of the world. And when he begins to see the future of people around him, he starts to question his grip on reality.

Review : Hilarious comedy that will appeal to audiences of all ages. Actually, it’s not, but then, it’s the kind of film that will confuse a lot of people. So if you say it’s a comedy, people might watch it anyway. A directorial tour-de-force, with some magnificent performances topped off by a plot twist that bends your brain inside out. Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?


Donnie Darko remains, to this day, one of the most profound and moving cinematic experiences you’re likely to go through. And I don’t say that lightly. A brain busting plot, some great performances by a young, relatively inexperienced cast, and a directorial complexity that defies description, Donnie Darko is the kind of film that will leave you thinking about it for hours, days, weeks afterwards. And not in a depressing Requiem For A Dream kind of way, either, but in a Sixth Sense way, wondering how on earth you were supposed to figure it all out.

Jake Gyllenhall plays Donnie, a troubled young teen.
Jake Gyllenhall plays Donnie, a troubled young teen.

And since Donnie Darko is pretty much the feature debut for Kelly, the film takes on an even more profound symbolism. Donnie, played by a wonderfully mellow Jake Gyllenhaal (in what was essentially his breakout performance), a troubled teen with some pretty strange dreams. Or are they dreams? His visions of an imaginary friend Frank, a man in a rabbit suit, who tells him that the world will end soon, are enough to tip his tenuous hold on sanity over the edge. With his parents and siblings increasingly isolated about his problems, Donnie befriends a young girl at his school, Gretchen (Jena Malone) and they form a bond that will eventually lead to tragedy. Donnie suffers from what his psychologist believes is paranoid schizophrenia, for he keeps waking up each morning in a different part of town, with no recollection of how he came to be there. One morning, the golf course, the next, a road leading into town, his bicycle on the side of the verge.

Frank, the imaginary giant rabbit.
Frank, the imaginary giant rabbit.

As the story progresses, we are introduced to various people in Donnie’s life, outside of his immediate family. His teachers all find him a little weird, and his insolent attitude only gives them more reason to think that. However, Donnie is a bright kid, and his science teacher (Noah Wyle) engages in a dialogue with him when Donnie approaches asking about time travel. You see, Donnie thinks that he can see the future, or, at least, the path that people are going to take in the future, which leads him to the normal, understandable, questions about fate, choice, and the existence of God.

Jena Malone is Gretchen, Donnie's romantic interest...
Jena Malone is Gretchen, Donnie’s romantic interest…

Donnie, working under the impression that the world will soon end, slowly begins to understand his position in life, and he approaches the “end of the world” scenario with an increasing sense of fatalistic calm. It’s just a pity it all began with a jet engine crashing into his bedroom. Yes, you read that right. One night, with the family all in separate parts of the house, and Donnie not there at all, a jet engine crashes through the roof of the family home and into Donnie’s bedroom. Were Donnie to be at home, he would almost certainly have been killed. And it’s here that the amazing time traveling, brain bending conundrum that circulates through this magnificent film really kicks in.

Director Richard Kelly has crafted a film of immense thought, drama and philosophy, the least of which answers our questions on the sexual habits of Smurfs (really!). In a similar vein to The Matrix, which presented all kinds of philosophical and theological thematics within its narrative, so to Donnie Darko unleashes questions about ourselves that we have perhaps been reticent to ask. Science and philosophy rarely coexist, in today’s modern world, yet Kelly manages to thread these interspersed with some fine acting and dialogue throughout. Time travel, a traditionally scientific domain, at least in the literal sense, mashes with the question of Gods resistance, the fact that our lives are predetermined (are they?) and what both these subjects have to do with Donnie being able to tell what a person is going to do next. The questions are not answered, as near as I can tell, although merely asking them is perhaps enough in this instance.

Donnie sees into the future, and it's not pretty.
Donnie sees into the future, and it’s not pretty.

Narrative and themes aside, Kelly has (thanks, perhaps, to producer and co-star Drew Barrymore) managed to cobble together a world standard cast for this film. The Gyllenhaal siblings aside, Jena Malone (herself no stranger to sci-fi with a feature film debut as a young Jodie Foster in Contact), James Duval (who played Randy Quaid’s unappreciative son in Independence Day), Beth Grant (who most of you will remember as the woman who went under the wheel of the bus in Speed, when she tried to get off the bus), Mary McDonnell (who also appeared in ID4 as Bill Pullmans wife), and even a young Seth Rogen (the guy you saw in Knocked Up!) in a small cameo, all make up this eclectic, wonderful cast who do not put a foot wrong in getting this film’s heartbeat going. The teen angst and rebellious attitudes of the kids at school, the frustrated, and frustrating teachers and adults of the small town in which Donnie lives, are all perfectly captured by Kellys lens, smeared in the 80’s sheen that permeates our cultural DNA today. His angles, style and skill with the camera, and giving us a film that needs to be watched with attention, not just half-heartedly, is astounding to behold.

Donnie & Gretchen catch up on the school gossip.
Donnie & Gretchen catch up on the school gossip.

The soundtrack itself is provoking, indelible part of this film’s appeal, with a heady mix of 80’s b-sides and covers, including the much lauded version of Mad, Mad World performed by Gary Jules. Tracks by INXS, Tears For Fears, Duran Duran, and The Church, as well as a sonorous, menacing score by composer Michael Andrews all add to the film’s retro appeal. The music in Donnie Darko is so perfectly attuned to the film’s narrative qualities you almost don’t hear it…. it’s not obsequious or obnoxiously thrown into the soundtrack by a director with little skill, no, the score for this  film is one of the most perfect examples of the marriage of sound and picture ever devised. It’s like the film moves in perfect harmony to the soundtrack, which is alternatively groovy and maddeningly obscure. Still, for a better score to a movie, you’d have to check out a John Williams or a Ennio Morricone for a more appropriate soundtrack.

Dream state. You hope.
Dream state. You hope.

Donnie Darko is not a film you can relax through. It’s got plenty to say, and for those willing to dig a little deeper thematically, there’s a veritable gold mine to be found. In fact, the film is one of those that, by the end, when you pick your jaw up off the floor in shock, you will feel the need to watch it again, to see what you missed the first time. You may think you “get” the film on the first go, but after a couple of viewings, I am still getting things out of it I didn’t notice before. Commendation to a superb script by Kelly, and the bravery of all involved to put a film like this on the screen. It could almost be seen as somewhat antisocial, as the behavior of some of the people in this film is deplorable, and you may not want young, impressionable kids watching this without supervision… the adults and kids alike behave so badly at times, you don’t want the young-un’s getting the wrong idea. With that in mind, I still regard this brain busting film as one of the finest genre films to come out of Hollywood for a long time. There’s not too many brave directors, or producers, for that matter, who are game to tackle material that’s a little deeper, textured than the norm peddled around Hollywood, and for Barrymore and Kelly to produce and direct a film like this, must have been an odyssey to get on screen. They deserve to be thanked, for Donnie Darko is a remarkable film, and one that most certainly stands up for repeated viewings. It’s essential viewing for lovers of fine cinema.






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