D O N N I E    D A R K O  (2001)


The young Richard Kelly, director of this film, graduated from USC Film School in 1997. This was his first feature film. There was a rumor he was paid less than 10 grand to direct it. He has spun a dark multi-layered vision, part dramatic comedy, part science fiction, part fantasy and allegory. The movie almost needs to be classified as three genres stirred gently. He set the world of the film as autumn 1988. It is, in part, a story of adolescent teenage angst, the familiar turf of a John Hughes project, but it is more like John Huges meets David Lynch meets Steven Spielberg. Kelly has put several twists into the high school yarn. It is like a hip FERRIS BEULLER'S DAY OFF.

Jake Gyllenhaal, from MIDNIGHT MILE & OCTOBER SKY, played Donnie Darko brilliantly. He was a young man smarter than his teachers, his parents, and his friends. An intrepid curious lad who could ask the questions very few wanted to answer, or even attempt to answer. He is a kid who is being treated for mental illness, even though he may not have been clinically ill. He was outspoken, outrageous, and socially boorish, but then again so are most smart teenagers. Roger Ebert wrote," Donnie is appealingly smart yet sarcastic, more quixotic than eccentric, more curious than frightened."  All his friends, and the other teenagers portrayed in the film, were viewed freshly and accurately, avoiding the sitcom/teen film stereotypes. All save a bully of a kid, who harassed and bullied all around him. He seemed kind of one dimensional. As Donnie's posse gathered at ! their "meeting" place, some old furniture sitting out in a field, discussing the sex lives of Smurfs, it was reminescent of some of the best moments in STAND BY ME.

Donnie:  And as for the whole gang-bang scenario, it just couldn't happen. Smurfs are asexual. They don't even have reproductive organs under those little white pants. That's what is so illogical, you know, about being a Smurf. What's the point of living if you don't have a dick?

The film's prologue is bang-on target. A bright sunrise on dark foothills, suddenly interrupted by the insertion of a young man's head in black silhouette. Donnie Darko, there on the hard ground near his bicycle, far from home. After he cycles home, his arrival is treated as familiar behaviour; sleep sojourns, adventurous forays into the darkness of night. That very next night, we witness him roused from his slumber by someone calling his name. He slips outside, past his sleeping father in front of the TV, and we meet the presence that has beckoned him...a medium longshot of someone in a ratty rabbit suit...someone named Frank, But this rabbit, tall as HARVEY, is not a benign companion. Its face is twisted into a demonic death mask. With Darko away from the house, we see an accident happening to the house. Something has fallen out of the night sky, and crashed d! irectly into Donnie's bedroom. If he had still been there, when what we discover is a 707 engine came acallin', he would have died instantly. Later we hear Frank, the Rabbit, warn Donnie that it is only 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds until the world ends. Frank calls Donnie forth night after night, sending off to do devilish errands, like flooding the school, and burning down a house.

Donnie:  How can you do that?

Frank: I can do anything I want. And so can you.

Donnie:  Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?

Frank:  Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?

Nothing is linear or logical in Darko's dreamlike world. His parents are too understanding. His new girlfriend, Jena Malone, is really a bit too easy and convenient. Physical laws, like axes being stuck in bronze statues, are tweaked and violated. This film can only approach some level of cohesiveness if one is able to conjure up a premise, some kind of through-line. For me, most of the characters presented are probably actually a part of Donnie's "real" life, but as they were mostly presented in the bulk of the narrative, they were peopling his "dream" life. One possible explication for the whiplash lunges from drama to comedy to satire to social commentary to science fiction, was that most of the film's narrative occurred from the time Donnie was awakened in his bed, either by Frank's voice, or the sound of the 707 engine whistling and plummeting down toward h! is bedroom. Time was compressed, like in the INCIDENT AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE; and a sort of ALICE meets SPIELBERG dream was squeezed into those precious elongated seconds.

The cast was excellent. Patience Cleveland as Roberta Sparrow, aka Grandma Death, is the resurfacing motiff of the piece. She is a 100 year old zombie elder who wanders endlessly from her porch to her mailbox waiting for a letter that never comes. As a teacher, decades earlier, she wrote THE PHILOSOPHY OF TIME , a treatise on time travel and the nature of the known universe. Donnie seemed very interested in studying time travel, and dimensional shifts.

Roberta: Every creature on this earth dies alone.

Donnie: (in a letter) Dear Roberta Sparrow, I have reached the end of your book and there are many things that I need to ask you. Sometimes I am afraid of what you might tell me. Sometimes I'm afraid that you will tell me that this is not a work of fiction. I can only hope that the answers will come to me in my sleep. I hope that when this world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.

After he questioned his science teacher at school, Noah Wylie as professor Kenneth Mannitoff said," I am not going to be able to continue this conversation. I could lose my job."  Donnie was getting much too close to understanding some of the darker sides of man, some cosmic enlightenment; and in so doing, he is frightening all those around him. He already knows too much, and he is too curious for his own good.

Drew Barrymore, one of ten producers, helped to put this Indie package together. In addition she played a small role as the English teacher, Karen Pomeroy. Ironically, when the book she wanted to teach was "banned", she taught WATERSHIP DOWN, and showed the video in school, rife with images of "talking" rabbits. Her character appeared to be too smart, too hip for what appeared to be a kind of parochrial school, or psuedoparochrial, or at least for the ultra-conservative school board who fired her, and discouraged geniune learning. This was one of the many condundrums left for the audience to ponder.

Karen:  I don't think that you have a clue what's it's like to communicate with these kids. We are losing them to apathy...to this prescribed nonsense. They are slipping away.

Karen: It was as though this plan had been with him all his life, pondered through the seasons, now in his 15th year crystallized with the pain of puberty.

Mary McDonnell was very good as the mother, Rose Darko. She played just the right balance between matronly concern and loving acceptance and and for her "disturbed" son.

Donnie: How does it feel to have a whacko for a son?

Rose:  It feels...wonderful.

Holmes Osborne, as the father, Eddie Darko, was also good, although most of his scenes were played in the "dream" sequences. Mostly he came off as a bemused Elliott Gould type. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jakes' actual sister, was excellent as his fictional sister, Elizabeth.

Donnie: You are such a fuckass.

Elizabeth: Did you just call me a fuckass? You can go suck a fuck!

Donnie: Oh, please, tell me Elizabeth, how exactly does one suck a fuck?

 Jena Malone, as the girlfriend Gretchen Ross, did a fine job as well, both in the real and dream sequences.

Gretchen: You're weird.

Donnie: Sorry

Gretchen: No, that was a compliment.

Gretchen: If you could go back in time, and take all those hours of pain and darkness and replace them with something better...would you?

Beth Grant was very good as the uptight Kitty Farmer, part wicked witch of the North, and part John Waters heroine. She gave us a character to focus our bile upon.

Kitty:  Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions.

Kitty:  Okay...now girls. I want you to concentrate. Failure for Sparkle Motion is not an option. And Bethany...if you feel the need to vomit up ther...just swallow it.

Kitty;  I'll you what he said. He asked me to forcibly insert the Life Line exercise into my anus.

Patrick Swayze was slick and flakey as the motivational speaker, infomercial guru, Jim Cunningham, who may or may not have been a pedophile, or serving Ms. Farmer. Katherine Ross was likewise effective as Donnie's psychiatrist, Dr. Thurman. She was used like the conscience of the piece within the piece.

Donnie:  I made a new friend today.

Dr. Thurman: Real or imaginary?

Donnie: Imaginary. 

Dr. Thurman:  The search for God is absurd?

Donnie: It is if everyone dies alone.

Dr. Thurman:  If the sky were suddenly to open up, there would be no law, there would be no rule. There would only be you and your memories. And if this whole world were to end, there would be only you...and him..and no one else.

This film poses more questions than it offers answers. There are theories that we, as spiritual entities, can sustain more than one version of ourselves in parallel dimensions similtaneously. Somehow, Donnie called on his alternate "self" to swing through those last few brief moments, those few seconds that were stretched out into 30 days. Perhaps time is relative, and does not exist on the other side. I think this movie requires several viewings to begin to be fully appreciated. It is an original vision, bizarre yet familiar, and immediate with its punch of emotional appeal.

I gave this movie a rating of 4.

    Glenn Buttkus  2004