When it was released, I described Donnie Darko as David Lynch for teenagers, and then 26 year old writer-director Richard Kelly is Lynch-in-training. That was in 2001. And while Kelly appears to have been a one-hit wonder, his debut feature continues to amaze and delight – a magic realism horror ride, moody and resplendent with teen angst, dissociation and primitive fears.
Donnie Darko is 16 year old high school student in 80’s suburban Middlesex, Virginia; one having regular visitations from a six foot tall grey rabbit wearing a hideously toothsome metallic mask.
Yes, Donnie’s been seeing a shrink and mostly taking his medication. But Frank, the rabbit, has plans, and there aren’t enough meds to keep him from seeing them to their conclusion.
He turns up in the middle of the night and orders Donnie out of the house, luring him to the bush, where he explains that the world is going to end in 28 days. Disoriented, Donnie falls asleep and returning home in the morning, he finds the house cordoned off by police; a jet plane engine has fallen from the sky directly into his bedroom, but no aircraft has reported a problem in the area, much less a missing engine. The government can’t explain it either, and orders the family to keep quiet.
Life eventually returns to normal for the Darkos, but Frank becomes Donnie’s constant companion, commanding him to commit various acts of vandalism while urging him to explore time travel theories as the countdown to the end of the world continues.
With Drew Barrymore acting as executive producer and appearing as Donnie’s English teacher, this indie was able to raise a $4.5 million (US) budget: enough to take on a solid cast of Hollywood’s B-list in supporting roles; Patrick Swayze (Ghost) as a sleazy motivational speaker hiding a terrible secret, Katharine Ross (Butch Cassidy) as Donnie’s therapist, and Dances with Wolves’ Mary McDonnell as his Mum; with enough cash left over for some special effects to draw us into Donnie’s view of the world – nothing we haven’t seen before, but enough to do the job.
But it’s Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky) as Donnie who makes the flick, an extraordinary young actor playing a withdrawn genius who’d rather not make eye contact, taciturn one moment and discoursing on Smurf sexuality the next – reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, only not quite as well adjusted.
It took director Richard Kelly three years to get the picture financed, and then only 28 days to shoot it. While some of his technique is a bit heavy-handed, most notably the menacing clouds and wraithlike neighbours, mostly he’s hands off, letting his inspired script do its job, right up to its Lynchian ending.
The film’s website is still up, though updating this review, I found it’s got a new address – http://www.donniedarkofilm.com. It remains almost as intriguing as the flick, “assisting” in resolving some of the time travel and wormhole issues fans may not be able to work out on their own.
But which DVD to choose? Donnie Darko – the theatrical release, clean and tightly edited, but so many questions left dangling? Or the Director’s Cut, 20 minutes of extra footage, including excerpts from The Philosophy of Time Travel, an expanded soundtrack and a slightly different take? Each comes with it’s own set of special features. My suggestion – buy the theatrical version, and rental the Director’s Cut to watch once. The tight theatrical edit is so much more satisfying. Of course there is a collector’s release that contains both versions.
As for the flick’s wunderkind director, Richard Kelly hasn’t dazzled anyone since Donnie Darko. The Box, a horror film starring Cameron Diaz, Frank Langella and James Marsden is due in October. My guess is it’s his last chance to shine.