Cert: 15 Runtime: 113 minsDirector: Richard Kelly Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Duval, Patrick Swayze, Jena Malone and Arthur Taxier
28 days… 6 hours… 42 minutes… 12 seconds. That… is when the world… will end
Donnie Darko is one of those films don’t really talk about, which I do find a shame as it may be possibly one of the best Thrillers/Sci-Fi this millenium. It’s of those films that you need to give your full attention to, so the plot simply is, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) doesn’t get along too well with his family, his teachers and his classmates; but he does manage to find a sympathetic friend in Gretchen (Jena Malone) , who agrees to date him. He has a compassionate psychiatrist, who discovers hypnosis is the means to unlock hidden secrets. His other companion may not be a true ally. Donnie has a friend named Frank (James Duval) – a large bunny which only Donnie can see. When an engine falls off a plane and destroys his bedroom, Donnie is not there. Both the event, and Donnie’s escape, seem to have been caused by supernatural events. Donnie’s mental illness, if such it is, may never allow him to find out for sure. That’s all I can say without ruining the whole thing for you.
In recent years, Hollywood has specialised in churning out mainstream trash; generic trash not even fit for the cutting room floor. Yet despite these movies’ shortcomings, they continue to enjoy success at the box office. Sequel upon sequel, photo fit remake upon photo fit remake, frequently taking the box office by storm whilst simultaneously relegating smaller independent projects to the now relatively unheard-of arthouse cinemas. The tragedy is that the independent filmmakers are often those with the most talent; the most creativity; the most flair. One such filmmaker is director Richard Kelly, who saw the release of his scifi-drama-horror-tragedy-comedy-romance-thriller Donnie Darko released in 2001. After reading a few rave reviews for the movie, I decided to check it out to find out what all the fuss was about.Without giving too much away, I can safely say that Donnie Darko is a mind-blowing experience. And I use the word `experience’ in its truest sense. From the opening shots of Donnie’s suburban hometown, through to the satirical take on Middle American high schools, the movie is incredibly involving on many levels. In fact, each frame speaks to us on more profound terms than the majority of arthouse films would claim to do. This is, in part, due to the impeccable performances by each and every member of the cast. Jake Gyllenhaal, a relative unknown, delivers a subtle yet emotionally charged performance as Donnie himself – the scene in which he tells his psychologist of his various childhood traumas is made both funny and moving by the haunting way in which Jake delivers each line, contrasted with the almost childish qualities of his movements on the couch. Most incredible of all, however, is his terrifying screen presence as he trudges slowly through a deserted corridor or along a dark street, head tilted slightly forward, face fixed in a confused, bewildered expression. Drew Barrymore is also superb as the liberal high school teacher rejected and scorned in a Conservative education system, while Patrick Swayze is excellent in his extended cameo, a smartly observed satire of a self-help guru with a few skeletons in the closet.
Where the movie comes into its own, however, is in its ability to incorporate and deal with a variety of genres. Every movie genre seems to make an appearance, so much so that to categorise the movie as simply a `psychological horror’ or a `supernatural thriller’ would be an unforgivable insult. Even the movie’s portrayal of a high school, whilst unique and original, even bears a slight resemblance to the teen movies of yesteryear, what with school bullies, the new kid in town and an annoying gym teacher. Yet, Kelly never lets his movie sink to the depths of clichéd teen drama. Instead, he paints a startlingly realistic portrait of suburban America, interspersed with flashes of sci-fi surreality. The movie never descends into total Lynchian weirdness, yet nothing ever seems quite real.Donnie Darko may conjure up images of oversized bunnies and watery projections protruding from people’s midriffs, yet on an emotional level it is very much human. Donnie Darko is as much a drama as it is a thriller, and a superb character study at that. We are often led to question whether Donnie’s visions and actions are the consequence of a paranoid, twisted, drug-polluted mind, or whether he really is experiencing such things. His gradual disillusionment as he realises that there is no hope and that he may have to go through eternity alone is beautifully portrayed, while the sense of peace and inner fulfilment he ultimately achieves is a truly inspirational message.
Without meaning to sound overtly soppy and without meaning to spoil the ending for anyone unfortunate enough not to have seen the movie, Donnie Darko concludes in one of the most mind bending, emotionally affecting ways possible. On a scientific level it will fuel debates for years to come (I have already read numerous different interpretations of the ending on the internet) but emotionally it transcends the conventions of modern movie making. In fact, it soars. The last few minutes, where Tears For Fears’ Mad World is played over shots of various characters breaking into fits of hyper-emotion or contemplating their actions, are tremendously moving, while the lyrics (`I find it kinda funny/I find it kinda sad/the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had’) perfectly summarise Donnie’s state of mind. Furthermore, the last few lines of the movie, without telling you what they are, are meaningful on so many levels, and mark the end to a film steeped in emotion, surrealism and subtle beauty.
I implore you to watch this movie. It most certainly is not for everyone, and will probably be cast off by a lot of the movie going public as pretentious, artsy nonsense. Donnie Darko only saw a very short, unsuccessful US run and was accompanied with very little hype. Hilarious, heart-rendingly sad, terrifying, profound, intellectually stimulating, emotionally absorbing and thematically relevant, this is by far the best movie of 2001. 8.5/10