Reviewed by Lee Broughton
The cryptic reviews that were generated by Donnie Darko's theatrical release, and
the bizarre publicity shots featuring the bunny-suited Frank, seemed to suggest that this
film was some kind of over-the-top, flashily mind-bending slice of cut and paste, comic
strip-styled, cinematic madness. Well, it's actually nothing like that. This independent
feature's assured cinematography is controlled and reasonably 'mainstream' in its
presentation while the film itself plays like a well observed, highly original and
emotionally charged 'coming of age' teen drama tinged with some novel Horror and
Sci-Fi elements. As such, it possesses the power to appeal to a fairly broad spectrum of film fans.
On the 2nd of October 1988, a mentally disturbed teenager, Donnie Darko
(Jake Gyllenhaal), is summoned from his bed and led into the night by Frank (James Duval),
a spectral hallucination who looks like a demonic rabbit. When a jet engine from an
untraceable plane subsequently smashes into Donnie's empty bedroom, Frank's timely
intervention appears to have saved Donnie's life. However, Frank is soon filling Donnie's
head with ideas about time travel and claims that the world will end in twenty eight days,
six hours, forty two minutes and twelve seconds. More disturbingly, rather than trying to
prevent the end of the world, Frank appears to be simply amusing himself by maliciously
instructing Donnie to carry out a series of increasingly dangerous and destructive acts.
Hmmm, where to begin? Donnie Darko works just fine as a fairly serious, sometimes
angst-driven teen drama, and yet it is so much more than that. Set in the leafy suburbs
of small-town America circa 1988, the streets of Middlesex, USA bring to mind the generic
settings of a good number of popular 1980s Horror flicks: heck, the world is even going to
end during the Halloween festivities here. But a new kind of supernatural apparition is
walking the streets of this particular neighbourhood. Is Frank really a visitor from the
future or is he merely a twisted phantom conjured up by Donnie's disturbed mind? Making
Donnie commit acts of vandalism and destruction would certainly appear to be at odds with
Frank's cautionary warnings about the imminent end of the world. Then again, at times,
it does seem as though Donnie's actions might somehow be producing a series of slow-moving
but significant 'knock-on' effects. But is he/we imagining these or could there really be
some kind of method to his/their destructive madness? Either way, where will it all end?
When he's facing real problems in his day to day life, and when he's being distracted or
scared witless by Frank, Donnie gets our sympathy. He's creative, astute and intelligent
but he's sometimes slowed down by his medication: his psychiatrist (Katherine Ross)
chooses to try and counter the additional anxiety provoked by Frank's appearance by
increasing the strength of Donnie's prescription. But he still remains smart enough
and bold enough to publicly denounce the philosophies of a smarmy self-help guru, Jim
Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), and wilfully disobey a teacher that he doesn't believe in.
He even has a go at standing up to a pair of school bullies. So it's kind of heartening
when Donnie gets his girl, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), a kindred spirit who uses the
word 'weird' as a compliment.
The character of Donnie shares some of the traits and obsessions held by both Justin
They Might Be Giants and
Captain Cutshaw in
The Ninth Configuration. All
three characters are to some extent caught up in a mad search for beauty, love and evidence
of genuine goodness in a world which they perceive to be dark, painful and under attack
from the forces of evil. All of their futures seem to hold the potential for tragedy,
possibly necessitating the need for some kind of personal sacrifice, but each of their
stories manage to somehow remain positively uplifting. 1
That said, parts of this film play like a dark psychological thriller and it's
particularly hard to empathise with Donnie during the sections where he succumbs to
Frank's seemingly malicious influence. But Donnie Darko is a film that is full of
surprises so I'll give no further indication as to how things eventually turn out except
to say that (....mild spoiler begins) towards the end, when the true nature of what
has been happening in Middlesex, USA is being revealed, the film successfully projects
an overbearing and unsettling sense of inevitability: it's really riveting stuff,
leading to a particularly effective and completely engrossing and moving finale
(....mild spoiler ends).
Considering that this is his debut feature, Donnie Darko is an impressive piece of
work by writer/director Richard Kelly. Kelly does a great job of subtly recreating the
vibe of the 1980s. The film's soundtrack features some interesting period hits by the
likes of Tears For Fears, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, Duran Duran, The Church,
etc, and a plaintive reinterpretation of Tears For Fears' Mad World really works
well during the film's poignant final act. The use of this pop and rock music on the
soundtrack does push the film's cinematography in an MTV-ish direction in places but isn't
that what the '80s were all about? There are also passing references to Smurfette and The
Smurfs, Christina Applegate and Married With Children, George Bush, Michael Dukakis, Dan
Quayle and the US presidential election campaign and
The Evil Dead. There's a bit
of genuine '80s talk present, too: after one of Donnie's outbursts, Mr Darko (Holmes Osborne)
playfully assures his wife (Mary McDonnell), "you're not a bitch - you're bitchin'", etc.
And when Donnie approaches Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) for information about time
travel, the subject is broached in terms of the De Lorean car from Back to the Future
while a frantic group bike ride turns into a fun homage to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Mention must be made of the really quite exquisite casting on display here. The cast
interviews in the disc's extra features section indicate that everybody who was approached
immediately fell in love with the script and entered into the project with great enthusiasm.
The resulting performances are all uniformly excellent. Executive producer Drew
Barrymore initially seems just a little uncomfortable in her role as the school's
progressive English teacher, Karen Pomeroy, but this impression might simply be a natural
reaction to Barrymore being cast against type somewhat: our appreciation of her
performance tends to grow with each subsequent viewing of the film.
Some reviews of the NTSC Region 1 DVD of this title mention that the picture is a
little soft and that the print used is slightly worn. If that is so, I'm guessing that a
different print might have been used for this PAL Region 2 release because the picture
here is reasonably sharp and while there is the odd speckle here and there they don't
pose a problem. The sound is pretty much excellent. The disc contains some interesting
extras, of which at least two are exclusive to this Region 2 disc: a series of short
interviews with 15 members of the cast and crew and a featurette that goes behind the
scenes of the They Made Me Do It UK art happening. Relevant sections from Roberta
Sparrow's (Patience Cleveland) book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, are presented
in text form and these go some way towards answering any questions still lingering come the end of
the film. The content of the film is actually open to
a degree of personal interpretation: a quick listen to the commentary tracks found
Kelly himself offering two wildly different takes on the possible significance of Donnie's final scene.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Donnie Darko rates:
Supplements: Commentary 1 (Richard Kelly & Jake Gyllenhaal), commentary 2 (Richard Kelly, Drew Barrymore, et al), short interviews with 15 members of the cast and crew, cast and crew filmographies, trailer and TV spots, deleted & extended scenes (with optional commentary), B-roll footage/outtakes, production stills gallery, film artwork gallery, website graphics gallery, They Made Me Do It artwork gallery, They Made Me Do It featurette, excerpts from The Philosophy of Time Travel (available as an illustrated/animated book or plain text), Cunning Visions infomercials (with optional mock commentary), Cunning Visions graphics gallery and subtitles.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 3, 2003
1. Also, Donnie's appropriation of a 'clue' towards the end of the film is reminiscent of the way Playfair picks up his 'clues' and Donnie's fear of facing the great beyond alone is identical to Cutshaw's.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson