Donnie Darko (2001) dir. Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell
“Donnie Darko” had the misfortune of being released less than a month after 9/11. Having a plane crash and some domestic terrorism prevalent in the story and its general nihilist anti-establishment attitude effectively buried any chance of box office success. On DVD, the film became a word of mouth hit, and deservedly so. It’s an ambitious, sprawling and beguiling personal vision of teenage despair.
Richard Kelly puts us in the mind of a suburban teenager Donnie Darko, who, in the opening scene wakes up from unconsciousness in the middle of a desolate road with no memory how he got there. Donnie appears to suffer from a form of emotional distress for which he takes drugs and regularly sees a therapist. We get the feeling there something deeper than a mere psychosis – a deep rooted out-of-body experience, which has him imagining a grotesque monster bunny proselytizing the end of the world.
Donnie meets and falls in love with the new girl in school Gretchen (Jena Malone) who is attracted to his aloof loathing of the establishment – a love affair which seems inexorably linked to the looming doomsday and the connection with the grotesque bunny.
“Donnie Darko’s” trippy time-looping paradoxes certainly teeters on incomprehension, but there’s something invigorating about not knowing every last mechanical detail. Perhaps its by design, perhaps not, but its the same feeling we got from the mysteries in TV's "Lost". Arguably, the systematic connecting of the dots we see now in that show tarnishes some of its enigmatic luster. The medium of cinema allows for those mysteries to remain without explanation and Richard Kelly relishes this right.
“Darko” is driven not by plot or character but by a tonal throughline of disorder and chaos – perfectly capturing the cynicism of teenage youth. Kelly’s pop music choices are precise and pitch perfect. The despair of British new wavers The Smiths, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnyman represent the rebellion against Reagan/Thatcher-era conservatism and false Cold War paranoia of the 80's..
For a first film, Richard Kelly has remarkable control of pace and tone, twisting the high school genre with David Lynch-like surrealism and wit – a true auteur debut if there ever was one. Kelly would go on to prove his chops as ‘writer-for-hire’ on Tony Scott’s “Domino.” Both these fine pieces of work only made his sophomore debacle “Southland Tales” that much more disappointing. In that film his ambition outreached his grasp. Kelly's new film "The Box", based on a Richard Matheson "Twilight Zone" episode comes out later this year.
“Donnie Darko” is now available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.