Donnie Darko

Directed by Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Katharine Ross, Mary McDonnell, Alex Greenwald, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug use and violence.

Review by Evelyn Gildrie-Voyles <evy@filmhead.com>
November 6, 2001

In order to see Donnie Darko, I had to go up six steep escalators in the tallest movie theatre I have ever been in. I'm not sure if the tension I felt and the difficulty I had breathing were due to the slow build of this movie toward the inevitable unhappy ending or altitude sickness. Donnie Darko is sometimes excruciatingly slow, but I was completely mesmerized, nearly breathless and scared even as I noticed the slow passage of time. I did not want the film to end. I wanted it to stretch on with its beautiful dark scenes and dead-on commentary about the hell that is adolescence (especially for a 15-year-old drugged schizophrenic) without ever reaching the tragedy that I knew was coming.

If you think I have given anything away by saying that the ending won't be happy, don't see the film. If you can look at the poster and not know that everything will be far from okay at the end of this film, you are too optimistic a person to enjoy this movie. Enjoyment of this movie depends on a dark but not cynical mindset. You have to believe, or at least accept for the moment, that most people genuinely mean well and try to do good, but the world is just hopelessly fucked up.

26-year-old first-time writer and director Richard Kelly has created an original movie from a bunch of 1980s references and the remnants of classic movies. The Internet Movie Database describes Donnie Darko as a fantasy, mystery, drama, romance, sci-fi film. I would describe it as a demonic Harvey meets a reverse It's a Wonderful Life.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a deeply disturbed teen who lives in Middlesex, Virginia, and attends an exclusive private school. The film follows the 28 days after Donnie escapes a bizarre accident and starts seeing Frank, a huge bunny who tells him the world is ending in 28 days, 6 hours, and 12 seconds. The bunny also leads him to acts of destruction as he tries to get on with his life as a teenager, which involves therapy, conversations with Mom (Mary McDonnell), English and physics classes with the only cool teachers (Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle), and a sweet awkward romance with the new girl in school, Gretchen (Jena Malone).

The film style is dark and muted but always visually arresting. The original score by Michael Andrews is gorgeous and the popular music from the 80s is used in creepy and perfect moments. The film does drag a little and the "science" in the film demands great leaps of logic, but if those leaps are made, the film rewards you with a stirring story.

The dialogue and acting in this film overrides all its flaws. Jake Gyllenhaal can change from awkward to super-confident to terrifying in seconds, and must to fulfill the marathon acting demands of playing Donnie Darko. Mary McDonnell as Donnie's mother and Katherine Ross as his psychiatrist give controlled performances as the adults who just aren't helping but are trying so hard. The only weak link in the cast is Patrick Swayze as Jim McDonald, the self-help guru, but the role is so wonderfully written and Swayze is such an amusing choice for the role that I really didn't mind his non-stellar performance.

Donnie Darko is so well acted, well filmed and handles its myriad cultural references so well that it is a breathtaking achievement, despite its very small flaws, and is therefore worthy of a perfect score even if it isn't a completely perfect film.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Donnie Darko (2001)

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Donnie Darko (2001) -- VHS
Donnie Darko (2001) -- DVD


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