Donnie Darko is a writer-director's debut that takes on schizophrenia, time travel, teenage angst, dysfunctional suburban family life, societal farce, and hallucinations of an evil bunny in a gorgeously filmed two-hour package deserves serious props. But Richard Kelly's fascinating film is seriously flawed in that it never brings all these disparate elements together in the end. Not to mention that it bears the worst title of the year.
Set in 1988, Donnie Darko is a John Hughes teen movie tinged with David Lynch-ian gloom and perversity. It begins innocently enough around the Darko's dining room table, where we find out the older sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is rebelliously voting for Dukakis and Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal, Bubble Boy) is off his meds. From here, the film churns forward at a hypnotic pace, revealing facts about its disturbed but endearing title character.
On the surface, Donnie is very typical -- he has friends and even is (awkwardly) able to net a girlfriend (Jena Malone), but he's also "intimidatingly" smart, which gets him in trouble for thinking too much and speaking his mind. But Donnie also has a troubled past of setting fires (thus the meds). And at night, he's prone to bouts of sleepwalking, lured from bed by a fabulously sinister, six-foot demonic rabbit named Frank (a kind of Harvey possessed) that inspires him to acts of mischief -- like flooding his high school or torching the house of a creepy self-righteous motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze).
Interestingly, all of Donnie's nocturnal activities seem to have a purpose. His first encounter with Frank gets him out of the house to avoid being killed by an airplane engine that falls through his bedroom ceiling. The house fire reveals that the motivational speaker has a dirty little secret. Plus, Frank shows Donnie that he can see into the future, and even perhaps travel there - a lesson that comes in handy later in the film.
Learning about the Heathers-esque grotesque-below-the-surface surburban town and its inhabitants through Donnie's eyes and getting an inside view of Donnie's troubled mental landscape are absolutely engrossing for the first hour or so. But all these varied points never link together for a big payoff, leaving the audience unsettled. Fortunately, Donnie Darko -- through all its twists and turns -- will keep you guessing, and talking about what it could all mean well after you leave the theater. You'll just have to fill in most of the answers on your own.
For all of Kelly's storytelling troubles, he has no problem with creating the film's gorgeously ominous atmosphere. Even during the bright of day, Donnie's world is overcast with the impending doom preached by Frank. Plus, Kelly's lucky to have the skills of great performers like Gyllenhaal who manages to give Donnie a 16-year-old's innocence, a degree of aged wisdom, and a wild-eyed psychosis.
Perhaps these last pluses along with its incredible ambition were enough to earn Donnie Darko a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. And all those traits certainly make it one of the more striking and unusual films likely to come out this year. Just try to ignore the title.
The Donnie Darko DVD is a real connoisseur's disc, with so many extras I hardly know where to start enumerating them. For starters, there are twenty deleted/extended scenes, all with optional commentary, a few of which truly expand your understanding of the story. Of course, two commentary tracks -- one from Gyllenhaal and Kelly and one from the rest of the cast and crew -- are available, as well as the entire "Cunning Visions" infomercials -- with or without a fictional commentary track! But better still is the DVD presentation of the film itself, which has one of the best audio transfers I've ever heard outside of a pure action film. Incredible, and highly recommended.
Sorry, no pets allowed.