Donnie Darko
review by Gianni Truzzi, 26 October 2001

The creepiest thing about Donnie Darko isn't his nighttime rendezvous with a skull-faced bunny rabbit, or Donnie's wicked smile as he slings the axe over his shoulder. It's the gnawing certainty that we've seen these trappings before: the upper-middle class teens in a tony private school, the boys prowling like wolf packs, the girls sensing their adolescent power, the misfits chafing at convention, obsessions with sex and kids living secret lives their parents hardly guess at. This staple formula is familiar, but hard to recognize among the dark, brooding wierdness. What twenty-six-year-old writer-director Richard Kelly has made is a John Hughes film (Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink), turned inside-out, with its entrails hanging.

The year is 1988, about a month before the presidential election, and the blare of Echo and the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon" as Donnie bicycles in his pajamas through the well-groomed, automatically watered lawns of Middlesex bespeaks the chafing of Reagan-era complacency. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal, of October Sky) is not your average troubled movie teen, but a recovering juvenile arsonist, whose life is full of therapy and medications. And now he makes nocturnal jaunts in a state of half-sleep when summoned by a spirit in a grotesque rabbit suit -- a sort of anti-Harvey -- named Frank. It's on one of these occasions, a night when Frank informs him there are twenty-eight days until the end of the world, that a jet engine of mysterious origin plummets from the sky into Donnie's now empty bedroom.

After saving Donnie's life,  Frank beckons him to perform destructive acts, with which the confused youth complies ("I have to obey him, or I'll be left all alone," he confides to his shrink, Katherine Ross), but to uncertain end as the clock ticks down to the supposed apocalypse. To understand what's happening to him, Donnie plunges into time travel mysticism and wormhole theory with the aid of sympathetic teachers played by Noah Wylie and Drew Barrymore (who also executive produced this daring film).

It seems almost inevitable that Donnie will connect with the equally troubled new girl at school (Stepmom's Jenna Malone). He is as alienated from his insular environment as The Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield, or Benjamin in The Graduate, and in Kelly's savage suburban world of cocaine-snorting bullies and aimless teen cruelty, Donnie's apparent schizophrenia seems like twisted reason. His intelligence (his scolding principal admits his test scores are "intimidating"), is his weakness, making him smart enough to recognize the hypocrisy around him, and what emerges, gradually but indisputably from its sprawling threads, is a broad condemnation of the 1980s.

Some of Kelly's contrivances, woven amidst the synth-rock soundtrack of Tears for Fears, The Church and Duran Duran, are overkill even as they amuse. Patrick Swayze's turn as a self-help guru who distills all human reactions to love or fear (wasn't Fear an eighties band, too?) is a grand performance, but it stretches credulity to believe that the town would be so in thrall to him that they would allow the fundamentalist gym teacher (Beth Grant) to use his instructional videos as her curriculum. It hardly seems necessary to manufacture such a bizarre cause for commonplace teen resentment.

There is a note of payback for high school slights in this young director's first feature, from the caricatures of the right-wing townspeople to the snottiness of classmates, but is that so wrong? William Goldman, the Olympian god of screenwriting, famously contends that all writers are driven by "I'll show you" revenge. In this context, Kelly's potshots take on the sheen of a riff on the Hughesian universe of affluent self-absorption.

With an ending that frustrates meaningful interpretation, Donnie Darko is not a comforting film, yet I take a great deal of comfort from it. It's encouraging that a young man whose consciousness was forged in the vacuity of the eighties, its celebration of the synthetic and the crucible of reactionary politics, could resist its toxic embrace and compose such a lashing indictment of his time. Kelly has made an imperfect but audacious movie with a powerful visual style.  This is a film worth getting out to see, and I will be watching for his next one, too.

Written and
Directed by:

Richard Kelly

Starring:
Drew Barrymore
Noah Wyle
Jake Gyllenhaal
Jena Malone
Katharine Ross
Mary McDonnell
Alex Greenwald
Holmes Osborne
Stuart Stone
Daveigh Chase
Patrick Swayze
Arthur Taxier

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
accompanying parent
or adult guardian.

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