Donnie Darko

on October 26, 2001 by Annlee Ellingson
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Among the most original pictures at Sundance this year, "Donnie Darko" was met with mixed reactions of the love-it-or-hate-it variety and in fact wasn't picked up for distribution despite its considerable pre-fest buzz. Difficult to categorize, it's alternately sci-fi, teen romance, suburban angst and satire, exploring such topics as mental health, time travel, New Agey self-help gurus, censorship, post-Reaganism (set during the 1988 election campaign) and fate. Like many first-time filmmakers, writer-director Richard Kelly seems to have crammed every creative thought he's ever had into this script and filmed it using every camera trick in the book--as if he won't have a chance to make another--but the result is his singular voice and a stimulating example of indie filmmaking.

In therapy and on medication since setting an abandoned house on fire, brilliant but delusional teenager Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) tends to sleepwalk, waking up one morning on the local golf course. Upon his return home, he discovers that an airplane engine has fallen out of the sky overnight and landed in his bedroom--he has dodged a bullet, so to speak.

DONNIE DARKO Meanwhile, he begins a tenuous relationship with the new girl in school; his hipper teachers challenge his untapped genius by encouraging his interest in time travel while his crustier ones appeal to him to just do his assignments; and the voices in his head begin to take the form of a six-foot evil bunnyrabbit named Frank that instructs him to commit vandalous acts like breaking the high school's main water line.

All of this culminates on Halloween, when, Frank says, the world will come to an end. Instead, only the world as Donnie has known it comes to an end, and all that was upset by his not sleeping in his own bed that fateful night is resolved in a narrative arc that is as unpredictable as it is riveting.

In a role that's a far cry from his wide-eyed sweetheart in "October Sky," Gyllenhall here carries the film confidently on his brooding shoulders, but he's joined by a solid supporting cast that includes Patrick Swayze as a sleazy motivational speaker, Mary McDonnell as his down-to-earth mother and Jolene Purdy as the silent yet emotional Sherita Chen.

Whereas Kelly's use of slow and fast motion adds visual interest in the beginning of the film, techniques such as a rotating camera and reverse time lapse later illustrate Donnie's inner life and a correction in the time-space continuum, and first-rate special effects create the fluid wormhole-like appendages that Donnie sometimes sees extending from his body and others'.

But it's ultimately Kelly's inventive storytelling and the myriad of complex themes he explores that capture one's imagination and, in this reviewer's case, re-ignite one's passion for the medium. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle and Mary McDonnell. Directed and written by Richard Kelly. Produced by Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen and Adam Fields. No distributor set. Sci-fi drama. Rated R for language, some underage drug and alcohol use, and violence. Running time: 120 min

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