Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a bright but delusional teenager with a vivid imagination, who lives in suburbia with his caring parents (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne). One night while sleepwalking, his bedroom is destroyed when a huge airline engine falls out of the sky. After this, he is visited by his imaginary friend Frank, a grotesque six foot rabbit, who prophesises the end of the world. In the meantime Donnie befriends new girl Gretchen (Jena Malone), whose family is in a witness protection program. And at school, when the English teacher’s (Drew Barrymore) reading list is criticised, self-help guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) is employed to raise the students’ self-esteem. But strange things start to happen.
Review by Louise Keller:
An engrossing and stimulating exploration of reality, Donnie Darko is a dark and mesmerising fantasy trip in the neverland between fear and love. It’s a perplexing film in many ways, yet it intrigues for its entirety with its see-saw of gloom and doom, as we count down to the expected world’s end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. The ingredients are simply fascinating. What about Donnie’s imaginary friend – the giant deformed rabbit? Then there’s the mysterious recluse Grandma Death who is waiting for a letter; the liquid snake-like spears that negotiate their way from protrusions of the chest; the intrigues of time travel with its portals and wormholes; the high profile guru who leaves his television platform… Donnie is a super bright teen who doesn’t really fit in at school or at home. Is it because he isn’t taking his medication that his schizophrenia is isolating him? Is he drawn to the new girl Gretchen or is it her family’s troubled past that allows him past the superficial threshold? When he tells her his name and she says ‘What kind of name is that; it sounds like a superhero!’ He replies: ‘What makes you think that I’m not?’ It’s an accomplished achievement for a first-time director and Richard Kelly’s intelligent script and direction keeps this low-budget independent film beautifully on track with its themes of life and death. We first meet Donnie as he is lying asleep in the middle of a deserted road at the break of day. The sky is pale blue and a pink haze borders the horizon beyond the dove grey mountain peaks. As he returns to his ‘life’, we too become caught up in Donnie’s world: people are rushing but we hear no sound. This is where Michael Andrews’ soundtrack comes in, with its eclectic phrases and ethereal passages. It’s a nebulous journey, but as we walk the tight rope between light and dark, it is easy to be seduced. Jake Gyllenhaal captures every complex nuance as the disturbed protagonist whose ultimate fear is to be alone. The role is not unlike that in The Good Girl, and is equally satisfying. Drew Barrymore’s primary involvement is as executive producer; her role as teacher is somewhat insignificant. But Mary McDonnell (Dances With Wolves) makes her mark as the concerned parent. The journey is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, when you don’t know what the picture should look like and nothing will prepare you for the devastating climax. It’s an enthralling film, and like Donnie Darko himself, you can let your imagination soar.
Review by David Edwards:
Forget everything you’ve ever thought about teen movies. In Donnie Darko, director Richard Kelly has created a rich, complex and incredibly moving film about family, love, loss and time travel. Although the whole thing sounds rather unlikely, the result is completely successful and entirely engrossing. The screenplay, penned by Kelly but based on Graham Greene’s story, The Destructors, is a masterpiece of elliptical logic and intense characterisation. Its darkly mysterious (almost foreboding) atmosphere is enhanced by Steven B Poster’s fine cinematography and Michael Andrew’s score. Building gradually, the film comes together in one of the most stunningly original conclusions you’re likely to see in a film. Jake Gyllenhaal is a revelation in the title role. He manages to make Donnie this amazing amalgam of cool, ennui, geekiness and scariness that’s unexpected, but works to a tee. Jena Malone as Gretchen, the one person who really understands Donnie, is in a sense his female doppelganger, but without his more extreme traits. Drew Barrymore makes a cameo appearance as Donnie’s sympathetic (and unconventional) English teacher; while Patrick Swayze is wonderful as a self-help guru who seems to be out only to help himself. His performance makes an interesting comparison with Tom Cruise’s fine turn in Magnolia, even though their characters aren’t all that different. Poetic, intelligent, challenging and constantly surprising, Donnie Darko is one of the best and most original films of the year. This is the kind of film that reaffirms your faith in filmmaking. Don’t miss it on any account.
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DONNIE DARKO (M)
CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Patrick Swayze, Jena Malone, Noah Wyle
PRODUCER: Adam Fields, Sean McKittrick
DIRECTOR: Richard Kelly
SCRIPT: Richard Kelly (Graham Greene story The Destructors)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Steven B. Poster
EDITOR: Sam Bauer, Eric Strand
MUSIC: Michael Andrews
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Alec Hammond
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Imagine Entertainment
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Melbourne: October 10, 2002; Sydney/Brisbane/Perth: October 17, 2002
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Imagine
VIDEO RELEASE: January 29, 2003