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Director

Richard Kelly

Starring

  • Jake Gyllenhaal
  • Jena Malone
  • Mary McDonnell
  • Holmes Osborne
  • Katharine Ross
  • Beth Grant
  • Patrick Swayze
  • Drew Barrymore
  • Noah Wyle
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Seth Rogen

A genuine cult film that defies being boxed into a specific genre, Donnie Darko is a mind bending film, that’s layered with thematic material, a biting edge and eerie ambience galore.

Donnie Darko(Jake Gyllenhaal) is a suburban teenager in the 1988 who is prone to sleepwalking and disturbing thoughts. He’s a charismatic, smart but troubled young man who seems to delight in challenging authority whenever he can. His parents ( Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne) and sisters (one being Gyllenhaal’s real sister Maggie) are confused by him and don’t know how to react to him. On medication to combat his anti-social behaviour towards others and what is seen as paranoid schizophrenia , he one night starts hearing a voice telling him to come outside. Once he gets there, he discovers the voice comes from a frightening looking, six-foot tall rabbit named Frank. He is informed that in twenty-eight days, six hours, forty-two minutes and twelve seconds, the world will end. After waking up far from his house, once he returns he finds that a jet engine crashed into his bedroom. This further highlights the weirdness in Donnie’s life and functions as another indicator of potential doom for everyone. Donnie starts to attend a psychotherapist(Katharine Ross), who tries to fathom what’s going on in Donnie’s mind, but has extreme difficulty opening it up. Most adults seem to act unusually around Donnie, which aids his further alienation from life. Some however seem to understand like the rebellious English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), her boyfriend/ fellow professor of science Kenneth Monnitoff( Noah Wyle)and new girl Gretchen( Jena Malone). But then there is the over zealous and devout gym teacher Kitty Farmer(Beth Grant) who is buttoned and wants everyone to follow her lead and slimy motivational speaker Jim Cunningham( Patrick Swayze). As Donnie’s doomsday visions become more frequent and he is driven to commit violent acts by the spooky rabbit, Frank’s mention of time travel sends his mind reeling about what the visions represent. Picking up a book from his professor on the subject, Donnie dives into discovering how he fits into this apocalyptic vision. Is the world really going to end? And if so, what is Donnie supposed to do to stop it?

Richard Kelly made his debut with this film and though his output since has been mixed( though I did like the often maligned and misunderstood The Box), at least he can be remembered for creating this iconic and complex movie. Kelly transports us into the strange world of teenage years and what was going on in the 80’s, but amps it up with the theme of time travel and cause and effect. You just know from the question raising opening that you’re in store for something very unusual and far from conventional. The script, written by Kelly,  is unnerving, caustically funny and highly imaginative, which is a bonus for someone who enjoys all those things when done right . It fleshes out a mystery in the film and creates a fine character in the form of the title anti-hero. He’s disturbed there’s no doubt about it, but he speaks quite a lot of sense when others won’t. And at first we aren’t sure whether what he sees are hallucinations or not, but you definitely know they point to something extremely ominous in the future for everyone. Coming of age is a big theme here and one can view the film as an analogy of puberty and adolescence, as it’s often a time associated with change and something pulling us in a specific direction. And the countdown motif telling us how many days until Armageddon is a real nerve shaker.

Believe me, you’ll find yourself thinking about Donnie Darko a lot after viewing it. The enigmatic story which has a lot of layers and ideas on its mind engages the brain, but refuses to give cheap, easy answers. It’s too smart for that and instead functions as ambiguous and challenging. Whichever angle you want to view the film from, there is something here for everyone to sink their teeth into and think of their interpretation of it all. You can see it as a biting satire in suburbia and conformity, with the disturbed Donnie being the one who fights back against it, coupled with social drama. Or as a sci-fi flick about time travel and how events play out differently because of change. I’d say the film is both of these things and that’s partly why I love it so much. It plays by its own rules and doesn’t try to be like everything else, something which I applaud. I mean you know a film is challenging and complex when there are thousands of websites dedicated to deciphering the many meanings of it. From a visual standpoint, Donnie Darko is extremely atmospheric and immersive thanks to creative camerawork such as slow zooming shots and a gloomy yet strangely majestic colour in cinematography, occasionally punctuated by brightness. Music plays a key role in Donnie Darko; exemplified by the 80’s heavy soundtrack( filled with Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen and Joy Division) and unusual, distorted thumping of the score that keeps going with alarming intention. One of the best uses of music is the cover of ‘Mad World’ which is stripped back and haunting as it plays over panning shots of all the people impacted by Donnie in a masterful sequence.

In the role that really announced him as a major acting talent, Jake Gyllenhaal is simply put excellent as the main protagonist. He has to go through so many changing emotions, often very quickly and he does it all without missing a beat. The sly, sardonic smile that reveals his disdain for others, the intense stare of alienation and disillusionment and a certain nuance to the mercurial mood swings are all embodied to a strangely charismatic height by the greatness of Gyllenhaal. It is the definition of a star-making role that Gyllenhaal made the most of and clearly shows him as one of the best actors of his generation. Jena Malone boasts a haunting quality as his love interest, who wrestles with her own demons during the course of the movie. Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne both make impressions as Donnie’s parents who are bewildered and bemused by his behaviour, as does Katharine Ross as his psychotherapist. A major standout is the scene-stealing Beth Grant. Playing someone whose vicious, unapologetic antagonism is disguised as righteousness is both a hoot and something alarming. She scolds, lectures but never seems to be able to understand others thanks to her bigoted ways and watching her come apart, especially as a result of Donnie, is a sight to behold. And also really standing out is Patrick Swayze; filtering his natural charm offensive into something more charlatan and far from what it first appears. It’s one of the most interesting and different roles Swayze ever took and it shows off his considerable talent. Drew Barrymore has the right rebellious but dedicated attitude for her part of a teacher, persecuted for trying to engage with her students in a way that contrasts with the conservative approach of others. Ably supporting that feeling of challenging conformity is Noah Wyle, who opens Donnie up to the idea of time travel. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her present felt, with her sparring and jabs at her brother and especially in the later half in emotional fashion. Plus, look out for an early role from Seth Rogen.

A hypnotic, unusual and engaging story of creepy certainty and eerie atmosphere, twined with fine acting and ambiguity, Donnie Darko is simply a must see.