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Dustin Putman

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Donnie Darko (2001)
4 Stars

Directed by Richard Kelly
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Beth Grant, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wyle, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Katharine Ross, Daveigh Chase, James Duval, Alex Greenwald
2001 – 122 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for profanity and violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 28, 2001.

See Also: Review of 2004's Director's Cut.

As fascinatingly complex and brazenly original as any movie released this year, "Donnie Darko" marks the bravura debut feature of 26-year-old writer-director Richard Kelly. Like a more humane David Lynch, the plot-twisting "Donnie Darko" has been Kelly's dream project for over five years, and his stunning screenplay helped him get his foot in the door of Hollywood and attract the interest of Drew Barrymore (2001's "Riding in Cars with Boys"), who not only costars and executive produces, but also agreed to release it on her own label, Flower Films.

For a relatively independent film, there are also a fair share of mind-bending special effects. The difference between "Donnie Darko" and a big-budget extravaganza, however, is that the effects here serve a definite purpose that aid in furthering the story along, rather than to just be about flashiness.

Ultimately, "Donnie Darko" is so multilayered, thought-provoking, and rich with ideas and meaning that it defies a clear-cut definition. Part teen-angst drama, part darkly funny satire, and part science-fiction epic, Kelly has created an unforgettably woven tapestry that covers some pretty heavy topics, including the value of life, the mysteries of death, and the possibility of changing one's past and future, without striking a single false note.

Keenly set in October 1988 during the Bush-Dukakis presidential debates, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a far from ordinary teenage boy living in Middlesex, Virginia. He is adored by his loving parents (Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne) and has close relationships with his two sisters (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daveigh Chase), but gets in trouble often at school for speaking his mind to the largely clueless administration and sees a psychologist (Katharine Ross) on a regular basis.

Lured out of his house in the middle of the night while in a sleepwalking state, he is visited by Frank (James Duval), a human-sized rabbit with an insect mask, who informs him that the world is going to end in 28 days on Halloween Eve. Returning home the next morning after waking up on a golf course, he finds out that a plane engine fell from the sky the night before and landed in his bedroom. The strange thing is, there are no reports of a plane crash nearby, nor any report of an aircraft losing its engine.

As Donnie's supposed hallucinations become more prominent and vivid, he starts questioning the feasibility of time travel and the possibility that he may have a gift of seeing into the future. Meanwhile, he is given further tasks by Frank that are getting progressively more hostile, and finds a girlfriend in new-kid-in-town Gretchen (Jena Malone), who thinks Donnie's weirdness is one of his major attributes. Everything seems to be leading to the fateful morning of October 30 (the suspected end of the world), when Donnie is sure to find out, once and for all, whether he is a sane person or a mentally ill young man.

A breakthrough masterpiece that, along with David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," has reaffirmed why I love the art of movies and filmmaking so much, "Donnie Darko" is a devastating motion picture that is as beautiful and innovative as it is structurally offbeat. Twisting back and forth throughout the month of October, the film is told out of chronological order, uncovering the different shades of the characters, relationships, and motifs in a way that brings surprising added depth to all said departments. The ending is appropriately ambiguous, for any neat and tidy resolution would be a cheat to a movie that offers up a great deal to ponder, yet wholly encourages free thinking.

As the title character, Jake Gyllenhaal (1999's "October Sky," 2001's "Bubble Boy") gives an exceptionally honest performance that proves what a tight grasp he has on understanding the role. He is surrounded by an enormous ensemble of well-known and lesser-known faces, all of which blend seamlessly together and make memorable impressions.

Jena Malone (2001's "Life as a House") nicely plays Gretchen as a conflicted, smart girl who is attracted, rather than turned off, by the eccentricities of Donnie. Mary McDonnell (1999's "Mumford") and Holmes Osborne (2000's "Bring It On") are warm and touching as Donnie's mother and father, whose understanding attitude toward their son refreshingly goes against the grain of typical movie parents and takes on a palpable realism. Drew Barrymore gets a wonderful supporting role as Donnie's English teacher, Ms. Pomeroy, who is grappling with the narrow-minded school board over her teachings of Graham Greene's "The Destructors," while Noah Wyle (1997's "The Myth of Fingerprints") is strong as his chemistry teacher, Mr. Monnitoff, whom he confides in about the validity of time travel. Maggie Gyllenhaal (2001's "Riding in Cars with Boys") is superb as Donnie's loving older sister, and Patrick Swayze (1998's "Black Dog") is just as good as a smarmy self-help guru whose artificial teachings have taken the town's high school by storm.

Special note should be paid to an overwhelmingly gorgeous, elongated sequence done in just two shots and played to the Tears for Fears song, "Head Over Heels." Using slow-motion, sped-up film, and a swirling camera as it follows nearly the whole cast inside and outside the high school, director Kelly creates a flurry of naturalistic activities that act as an unshakably insightful glimpse into the various lives on display. It is three minutes of unadulterated, dizzying brilliance, surrounded by another two hours that is just as extraordinary.

The picture culminates in a pre-Halloween party thrown by Donnie and his sister while their parents are away, the night before what just may be the end of civilization as they all know it. The morning after, in which everything is concurrently answered and left open to interpretation, makes for a finale that will undoubtedly blow most viewers away and make way for some fairly complicated discussions.

A story that, at its core, is about a group of people whose fates hang in the balance by the restrictions of time, "Donnie Darko" is a groundbreaking motion picture that not only deserves multiple viewings, but a whole book dedicated to the intricacies of its timely, ruminative themes. This could very well be the best film I've seen since 1999's "American Beauty."

©2001 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman