Donnie Darko: Richard Kelly’s Indie Debut Becomes Cult Movie

There’s a lot of talent, both in front and behind the camera, in Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s visionary directorial debut. Defying easy categorization, the film is part sci-fi, part fantasy-horror, part drama, and part satire of life in a typical American burb circa 1988. A strong central turn by Jake Gyllenhaal is a major plus, not only in unifying the fractured narrative but also in providing an emotional hook for viewers’ engagement in what’s an admittedly demanding movie. An entrepreneurial company should release this unusually original indie that holds special appeal not so much for teenagers as for the twentysomething and thirtysomething crowds who’re willing to go down memory lane and revisit their tumultuous highschool days.

The narrative is based on an apocalyptic axiom–“the world is coming to an end”–embodied in the film by Frank, a six-foot horrific deformity and nightmarish apparition that’s visible only to Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), an ideal, all-American teenager, blessed with sharp intellect, world-weary wisdom and vivid imagination. Like Jeffrey, the young protagonist of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Donnie is about to discover a macabre underworld of dark secrets lurking behind the veneer of placid suburbia where he lives with his parents (Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell) and two younger sisters.

An intriguing beginning depicts the fall of a huge jet engine on the roof of Donnie’s mansion, upon which Donnie is informed by Frank that he’s destined for a unique purpose in his life. Offering only a few prophetic clues, Frank promises a future relationship and, indeed, begins to pay calls on Donnie and haunt him not only at night but also at daytime.

Much simpler and more accessible is the principal, classic American coming-of-age saga that features all the genre’s usual suspects: an open-minded English teacher (Drew Barrymore) whose liberal reading list is attacked by conservative and caricaturistic teachers, a wise physics teacher (Noah Wyle) through whom Donnie discovers that none of the bizarre incidents happens randomly, a colorful gallery of classmates, and so on. Like most youth movies, there’s also romantic yearning, here between Donnie and a new student named Gretchen (Jena Malone) who, like him, is an outsider with a family problem. Highschool sequences, a veritable catalogue of all the awkward rites of passage, are often hilarious, and so is the appearance of New Age guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who’s hired to heal the children’s self-esteem, but predictably turns out to be a phony and a pervert.

Audiences at Sundance were confused by the narrative structure, and felt disoriented as a result of the rapid changes in tone, from the real to the surreal and from one time-frame to another. Part of the puzzlement derived from the fact that, unlike most school flicks, Donnie Darko is not just about getting laid. In its metaphysical concerns with the inner workings of the universe, and challenging notions about time-travel, the film aims higher than most pictures of its kind.

Indeed, while the film’s arduous scope and helmer’s imagination are commendable, the execution and ultimate result are not. With all the admiration for the elaborate special effects, they’re often excessive, distracting attention from what’s already a complicated story line, and the variou subplots odn’t alwasy add aup to a coherent whole. Even so, whatever faults critics may find with the unfolding of the plot and its ending, there’s no doubt that neophyte director Kelly (a recent USC grad) shows command of film’s technical properties (lensing and production design are accomplished) and is also wonderful with his huge ensemble. Holding the entire picture together is an enormously appealing performance by Gyllenhaal, whose physique and acting recall the young Tobey Maguire. The other roles are small but succinctly drawn, from Barrymore to McDonnell to Wyle to Katharine Ross, who plays Donnie’s shrink.

Cast: Jake Gylenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross