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Donnie Darko (2001)

by on 2011/09/05

“So we’re not supposed to tell anyone what nobody knows?”

* * * * *

In part because of its release date — shortly after September 11, 2001 — few caught Donnie Darko in theatres. I was told about it by a cinephile friend. He suspected I’d really enjoy it, and I happily proved him correct.

Then-26-year-old writer/director Richard Kelly’s first feature sets a John Hughes teenage dramedy in David Lynch’s secret suburbia. As soon as I saw it, I was hooked. Again and again I returned to it, then declaring it my favourite film ever. It became the litmus test for prospective relationships.

Located in Middlesex, Iowa, in October 1988, the movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain) as teenager Donnie Darko. Despite an “intimidating” intelligence, he has a history of issues with poor behaviour and arson. He sees a therapist (The Graduate and Butch Cassidy’s Katharine Ross) and is medicated, but is nonetheless visited by hallucinations. With twisted shades of Harvey, a giant rabbit named Frank wakes him at night, prompts him to sleepwalk, supplies him with a sequence of cryptic numbers, and enables him to commit various crimes.

Is Donnie mentally ill, a paranoid schizophrenic? Is he a prophet, a saviour, or a danger to his world? Are the odd goings-on caused by — or in spite of — his treatment? Is he dreaming, hallucinating, hypnotized, or supernatural? He does things that are harmless, harmful, helpful, and impossible. He’s Neo and Josh Waitzkin rolled into one.

I have my own ever-evolving theories, as do others who enjoy the experience. In the end, I suspect there is no “correct” answer. The clues suggest answers which are never confirmed. To fill out the ambiguities would probably lead to a paradox. Speculation lends it all mystique and energy.

It should be a jumbled mess. Elements of science fiction and fantasy blend in a surreal-yet-successful alchemy which something like Weird Science couldn’t pull off. Goth and geek collide in a world of angst and humour, apocalypse and paradise, even fear and love.

Similarly remarkable is the retro vibe it evokes, fifteen years after the fact. It’s not just set in the Eighties, or about the Eighties, it seems like a product of the time, as if it were actually made then. It takes a different route than flicks like The Wedding Singer or Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. It doesn’t simply add leg warmers, tease hair, and trowel on makeup. We’re exposed to the modes of speech, political debates, and faux motivational fads.

Nearly as subtle, but more pervasive, Kelly infuses his creation with a rich sonic tapestry. Avoiding the biggest cliched hits may have been a financial move, yet the tactic of adding lesser-known songs to the soundtrack works well for verisimilitude.

Composer Michael Andrews delivers a subtle, creepy waltz of a score, punctuated with music by Echo and the Bunnymen, Til Tuesday, Duran Duran, Joy Division, and The Church. The most prominent montages feature Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” and a cover of their “Mad World” by Andrews and singer Gary Jules.

Also, I’d be remiss not to mention the exceptional ensemble. Jake’s real-life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary) plays Donnie’s older sibling. Drew Barrymore (Music and Lyrics) and Noah Wyle (Pirates of Silicon Valley) play his teachers. The late Patrick Swayze (Point Break) turns in a courageously against-type performance as motivational speaker Jim Cunningham. The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s Seth Rogen appears in his big-screen debut in the part of a bullying classmate.

And the always-excellent Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica, Dances with Wolves, Independence Day, and Sneakers) deserved at least an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Donnie’s mother, Rose Darko.

Those viewers without a taste for the puzzle have these and other rewards in store. In no way does this production feel like a newbie floundering. Its foundation is modest, but solid in the ways that matter most. It boasts a convincing reality, thematic depth, rich dialogue, an incredible cast, and probably the best use of music I’ve ever heard. Director’s cut notwithstanding, Donnie Darko remains Richard Kelly’s first, best hope for cinematic substance.

* * * * *

Please note: This article is an update of an earlier “stub” review.

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

113 minutes (original theatrical version)

  1. Definitely one of my all-time favorite movies. The dark, anti-establishment and prophetic main character, Donnie Darko, resonates true even more so today with all that is happening in our collapsing world. Modern mainstream society has been shown to be just as fraudulent and corrupt as Darko had felt it was — an economic system run by crony capitalists, a political system run by self-serving, corporate sockpuppet politicians, a morally bankrupt society consumed by material things and gadgets, and a media matrix which spins and covers up the truth to keep the entire charade intact. Donnie Darko knew that we were killing ourselves and that the only way out is to let the whole thing collapse in on itself.

    “When the world ends, I will breath a sigh of relief, for there will be so much to look forward to.”
    ~ Donnie Darko.

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