My wife gave me a hearty laugh the other day when, seeing I had received the new BD of Donnie Darko, a film we had watched on SD-DVD several years previously, she said, "I would have loved to have been at the pitch meeting for that one." Indeed, Donnie Darko is a marvel of unexpected influences and genre bending. It's hard to imagine a more original premise, something that is like the flipside of Rashomon mixed with a malevolently sinister version of the Mary Chase fantasy comedy Harvey. If Rashomon entered the public lexicon as a metaphor for the uncertainty of "objective" reality, Donnie Darko twists that conceit back on itself and posits two objective realities that are dependent upon one person's subjective experience. If Harvey provided post-World War II audiences with a nice metaphor for cutting loose a little and resisting the tamped down universe that would define the 1950s, Donnie Darko similarly twists a lovable imaginary bunny into a thing of peril and ominous portent, a suitable doppelganger for alienated youth struggling to make sense of a world that seems fated to destroy itself.
It's notable that in the commentary on the expanded Director's Cut of the film, Clerks' Kevin Smith perhaps jokingly takes Darko scenarist/director Richard Kelly to task for making a film so opaque and inaccessible. Unlike some other relatively recent headscratchers, though, Donnie Darko actually seems to repay the effort it takes to attempt to ferret out its Byzantine plot machinations and non-linear story telling techniques. Is the film satire? Science fiction? Fantasy? Fantasist? Surreal? Suprareal? The simple answer is: yes.
The ostensible plot of Donnie Darko revolves around its eponymous lead character (Jake Gyllenhaal), a perhaps mentally unbalanced youth living in 1988 who manages to escape a freak accident when a jet engine falls on his bedroom. Donnie is a troubled kid who unlike many unbalanced youth seems to come from an almost scarily normal family. That normalcy erodes into bouts of Donnie sleepwalking, voices urging him to do bizarre things, and, most importantly, visions of a demonic rabbit named Frank who warns Donnie that the end of the world is near. Donnie is "off his meds," something that concerns his mother (Mary McDonnell) and father (Holmes Osborne), who ferries him to an analyst (Katharine Ross) in order to try to dispel the demons which are haunting him.
On a completely other level, Darko examines the equally frightening world of high school society, with Donnie the iconic loner who doesn't fit in anywhere despite, or perhaps because of, being enormously intelligent and sensitive. He soon hooks up with new neighborhood girl Gretchen (Jena Malone), another outsider who's trying to overcome a more "traditionally" dysfunctional family than the Darkos. There are typical jock bullies and some hysterically funny cheerleaders (and their parents) who paint the background of Donnie's high school environment, but who actually end up playing important roles both in the story development and its shattering climax.
Playing out against these twin paths is an at times labyrinthine collection of supporting stories, including several teachers (including Drew Barrymore and Noah Wylie) attempting to deal with Donnie and his restless intellect, a self-help guru (Patrick Swayze) with a few dirty skeletons in his closet, and a sort of elderly neighborhood "cat lady" (Patience Cleveland), who just might be some kind of prophetic savant with the answers to all that is happening to Donnie. As the story progresses, Donnie's visions increase, including "light tunnels" erupting from himself and his family which show him "the way to go," as well as Frank's increasingly apocalyptic rants about "The End" drawing near. It's an extremely heady blend of story elements, knit together sometimes by the loosest of threads, but which, under Kelly's mostly sure guidance, manages to weave a spell of hypnotic subliminal terror that builds to a stupendous climax. I don't want to post any spoilers for those who haven't seen the film, but I don't think it's revealing too much to state that Donnie emerges as the link between two parallel universes, and he becomes something of a Christ figure who must decide what it takes to achieve salvation for those whom he loves.
I'm old enough to remember when 2001: A Space Odyssey first came out and how the cognoscenti lamented its inscrutability. Not being able to see the film in its first roadshow engagement, I instead opted for the novelization by Arthur C. Clarke. By the time I finally saw the film in my neighborhood theater some months later (I remember to this day it was second billed after Ice Station Zebra and my father fell asleep sometime early in the ape scene, quietly snoring through the bulk of Kubrick's masterpiece), I had read enough to more or less fully understand the film's intent and left wondering why so many people had been confused by it. Therefore, I highly recommend to Donnie Darko newcomers to do a little "field research" before viewing the film. There are copious websites about its many mysteries, and Kelly himself has provided ample background information that can help the viewer build some context for the at times patently bizarre happenings of the film.
This film, along with October Sky, first brought Jake Gyllenhaal some intense acclaim, and he is worth every superlative flung at him for this unusual and demanding role. I can pretty much guarantee you that you will never forget Gyllenhaal's ominous, chin tucked glower as he devolves further into what is either madness or inspiration. But surrounding those moments, Gyllenhaal is able to brilliantly portray Donnie's vulnerability and confusion. The supporting cast, which is huge, is uniformly excellent. Jake's sister Maggie is on hand as his film sister and there's an obviously real feel of siblings to their interchanges. McDonnell is wonderfully understated as Donnie's concerned mother. Swayze is a bit of a revelation as the smarmy self-help guru Jim Cunningham, a sort of Ted Haggard-lite whose exhortations about love and hugging have a deeper agenda.
Donnie Darko is a film that pretty much demands repeated viewings, and so home video is the perfect medium with which to enjoy it. Unlike a lot of modern films which obfuscate for obfuscation's sake, Darko actually seems to have some actual import to its insane ramblings. Kelly's reach may have exceeded his grasp (something that recurred with his subsequent Southland Tales), but he is obviously a filmmaker of enormous talent and unique sensibilities. Donnie Darko contains a host of unforgettable moments and images, weaving a subtly subversive spell that makes it one of the most remarkable cult hits in recent memory.
A second SD-DVD offers "The Donnie Darko Production Diary," which is exactly what its title implies, but which also offers an optional commentary by DP Steven Poster. Next up is the kind of silly "They Made Me Do It Too: The Cult of Donnie Darko," which amounts to a bunch of British fans congratulating themselves on "getting" the film faster than their American counterparts. "#1 Fan: A Darkomentary" proves what a cult item the film has become to some ardent followers. Rounding out the extras are several storyboard to screen comparisons and the theatrical trailer.