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Savant Pal Region 2 Guest Review:

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko
Metrodome Distribution
2001 / Colour / 2.35:1 anamorphic / 108 m.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katherine Ross, James Duval, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daveigh Chase, Patience Cleveland
Cinematography Steven Poster
Production Designer Alexander Hammond
Film Editors Sam Bauer, Eric Strand
Original Music Michael Andrews
Written by Richard Kelly
Produced by Adam Fields, Nancy Juvonen, Sean McKittrick
Directed by Richard Kelly

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 Playfair in 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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