Donnie Darko (2001), the first feature by 26-year-old writer-director Richard Kelly, is a wondrous, moodily self-involved piece of work that employs X-Files magic realism to galvanize what might have been a routine tale of suburban teen angst—OK, borderline schizophrenia. Part comic book, part case study, this is certainly the most original and venturesome American indie I’ve seen this year.
Kelly begins fiddling with normality from the opening scene, the evening of the 1988 presidential debate, wherein a sitcom family—tense mom, supercilious dad, two smirking teens, and an annoying little sister—gathers in the dining room to partake of a delivered pizza. “I’m voting for Dukakis,” the oldest Darko sister announces, mainly to cause her father to choke on his slice. A discussion regarding the candidates’ respective economic policies quickly degenerates into vulgar abortion jokes and the revelation that middle child Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is off his medication and receiving messages from outer space.
Clearly we are dealing with an advanced life form. The mysterious forces of the universe demonstrate their power most vividly in the snoozy aftermath of the Bush-Dukakis dustup, when Donnie is summoned from his bedroom out into the night. Waking the next morning somewhere in the middle of the local golf course, he returns home to discover that a plane engine has inexplicably fallen from the sky and crashed through his bedroom ceiling. Convinced that the world will end in 28 days, Donnie continues to experience alien visitations in the form of a monstrous toothy rabbit named Frank.
Signs of a parallel universe abound. An unhappy fat girl roams through Donnie’s high school, an institution fronted by a bronze statue of a squatting mastiff. His gym class impassively watches a videotape on “fear management.” A beatnik English teacher assigns her students to read The Destructors, Graham Greene’s jaundiced story of teenage nihilism. Smiling and mumbling to himself, socially maladroit Donnie manages to hook up with a new girl (Jena Malone) who has the Grimm name of Gretchen and a lurid family story to match. “You’re weird,” she tells him. “That was a compliment.” Meanwhile the town suffers a few curious plagues: the school is flooded, a home burns down. Donnie’s shrink ups his meds and embarks on a regimen of hypnosis. (The first session comes to an abrupt end when the spellbound patient begins fondling his crotch.)
With Drew Barrymore as Donnie’s English teacher, Patrick Swayze as a demonic motivational speaker, and Katharine Ross as Donnie’s therapist, the movie’s casting is both showy and inspired. Holmes Osborne is a sympathetically smooth and spineless Darko paterfamilias; Mary McDonnell, his wife, full of false cheer, carries hilarious intimations of early 1991 and the Gulf War, through her status as Dances With Wolves’s righteous mate, Stands With a Fist. But the movie rests on the hunched shoulders of its spaced-out protagonist. Jake Gyllenhaal refuses to make direct contact with the camera. At once goofy and poignant, frozen and shambolic, he convincingly portrays Donnie’s eccentric genius—riffing on the sex life of the Smurfs, arguing with his science teacher on the nature of time travel. Gyllenhaal’s sidelong performance allows him to take spectacular delusion in stride—he tries to kill Frank when he appears in his malleable bathroom mirror and hallucinates ectoplasm extravagantly emanating from his father’s chest.
Although the big influence on Kelly would seem to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s wildly ambitious and similarly apocalyptic Magnolia, Donnie Darko is steeped in ’80s pop culture. The movie’s metaphysics are largely derived from Back to the Future, there’s a particularly strange and funny allusion to E.T., and in one of the most haunting scenes, Donnie and Gretchen watch Evil Dead in an empty theater. The sub-Toni Basil routine performed by Donnie’s kid sister and her dance group, Sparkle Motion, has been as lovingly choreographed as the soundtrack has been assembled.
Shown last January at Sundance, Donnie Darko received a mixed response. Amy Taubin praised it in the Voice as her favorite film of the festival. Others appeared to resent its ostentation (big stars and special effects) or complained about its hubristic shifts in register. No less than Donnie, the movie has its awkward moments. Kelly makes too much of Beth Grant’s uptight New Age gym teacher, and there are more than enough sinister cloud formations racing across the sky. But the writer-director has a surefooted sense of his own narrative, skillfully guiding the movie through its climactic Walpurgisnacht—or, should we say, carnival of souls.
The events of September 11 have rendered most movies inconsequential; the heartbreaking Donnie Darko, by contrast, feels weirdly consoling. Period piece though it is, Kelly’s high-school gothic seems perfectly attuned to the present moment. This would be a splendid debut under any circumstances; released for Halloween 2001, it has uncanny gravitas.
Review courtesy of The Village Voice