Donnie Darko (2001)
Written & Directed by Richard Kelly
Having recently watched it on DVD, first with the director's commentary and again without, I'm even more impressed. Donnie Darko is an unimaginably brilliant film, and an impossibly great first effort by what was then a 26-year-old film school graduate.
Yes, the story is about a teenage kid being visited by a giant bunny. But it's way beyond what a simple logline can offer. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled 16 year-old trying to navigate the cultural excesses of Our Year of 1988. He's got some emotional problems, at first only hinted at, that cause his family to wonder where he disappears to at night when he sleepwalks. And yeah, he starts getting visits from a truly horrific-looking giant rabbit named Frank that looks like a child's nightmare of a metallic space alien crossed with the Easter Bunny.
What soon evolves, following the mysterious crash of a jet engine through Donnie's bedroom while he's out following Frank's orders, is that Donnie has some very specific tasks to do casually and amusingly destructive, but also disturbing. And the question that continues to build through the film is, is Donnie descending into paranoid schizophrenia, or is he being ordered to do these things by forces outside of our realm, in order to stop the end of the world? As I too am often drawn inexplicably to eat a Fast Break bar.
Without giving away much, I will say that Donnie Darko is revelatory and disturbing and deep while maintaining a knowing sense of humor and expertly decimating everything from apathetic school principals to bullies to mascots to talent shows to pop psychology to faddish, conformist mindsets, with sideswipes at 80s politics, timeless bureaucracy, jogging suits and shoulder pads.
The film easily navigates what should be jarring shifts in tone, from horror and dread to hilarious near-slapstick comedy, sometimes literally within one well-paced montage. It's also brilliantly directed from the first frame, with a few jaw-droppingly memorable moments one in particular smoothly tracks nearly all of the film's characters around and through the local high school, in varying film speeds, set to a spot-on Tears for Fears song. The sequence is melancholy, humorous, ironic, scary, and foretelling.
It's a movie that demands repeat viewings, especially after listening to the co-commentary of director Kelly and Gyllenhaal. Though at first look, the movie feels well thought-out and scrupulously organized, Kelly reveals entirely new layers of detail that make the film, in the words of my 1988 self, totally tubular.
Almost nothing, as he explains (and I believe him), is in the film by accident. Even the sound of a car horn early in the movie has implications later in the film, and motivations that are never revealed, but intended by the filmmakers. Or during the aforementioned school sequence, Kelly explains how each character's seemingly-offhand introduction has deep meaning and foreshadows their role in the rest of the story. Or a character's costume that intentionally mimics Quilty's girlfriend in Kubrick's version of Lolita.
Overkill? Perhaps. But meticulous filmmaking is sadly rare, and obsessive details often lend subconscious texture to a movie like in Bad Boys when Will Smith says "You da man" to several people including the bad guy after he throws him out of the Goodyear Blimp.
The depth and breadth of Donnie Darko would be nothing without its performances, which are uniformly excellent and generally understated. Even Patrick Swayze is "rad" as an hysterically square self-help guru - he seems to get that his inclusion is a little at his own expense, as a former king of superficial 80s fadmaking (note to Mr. Swayze: I still have my Road House beer goggles).
Also notable is Jake Gyllenhall's actual sister Maggie, playing his sister. She's a great actress, as is her sibling, and they'll both be around at least until she becomes pregnant with his child.
For a movie as dead-accurate as Donnie Darko, and even after the commentary, I still come away scratching my head a bit. There's a sci-fi element to the film that raises a few questions, and though Kelly clearly had it worked out in his mind, my own mind has some trouble working it all out exactly.
But I take that as my own failing, not the film's, and I'll surely understand better on future viewings, which must happen.
And this is not a case of my own knee-jerk manipulability, as the time I walked tear-faced out of Chaplin, calling it the greatest movie ever made, past or future.
Donnie Darko truly is "scrawesome" (better than awesome) in any of several possible timelines.
Review by Crimedog