Donnie Darko Review
Everything that initially seems wrong with Donnie Darko, the debut from director Richard Kelly, threatens to send it into the category of 'interesting but weird' which contains so many ambitious first films from directors who haven't yet learned the value of self-discipline. What makes this extraordinary film special, however, is that it not only survives this danger but triumphs over it, becoming as completely achieved and moving a film as anything released this year.
Donnie Darko tends to defy classification but you could see it as the bastard son of a mating between The Catcher In The Rye and Michael Tolkin's little seen The Rapture, with a little touch of Alain Reniais thrown in for good measure. It's set in 1988, during the Presidential race between George Bush Sr. and Michael Dukakis. Donnie (Gyllenhaal), our eponymous hero, is a high school student in the mind-numbingly insular town of Middlesex whose misadventures have led to him being treated by a psychiatrist. One night he is visited by a spectral vision of a six-foot rabbit called Frank who tells him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. Understandably perturbed by this, not to mention the fact that his house has been wrecked by a stray aeroplane engine, Donnie embarks on a journey of self-discovery that has shattering consequences for both his life and the self-regarding community in which he lives. His attempts to understand the meaning of the message lead Donnie to question everything around him, from the possibility of time travel to the self-help platitudes spouted by his evangelical PE teacher and a truly ghastly motivational guru (played with amusing self-parody by Patrick Swayze). Frank continues to visit, persuading Donnie to engage in increasingly violent acts against the forces of repression in the town. Redemption seems possible in the shape of the new girl in his school, Gretchen (Malone) and the more unlikely source of Mrs Sparrow, the old woman who makes constant trips to and from her mailbox for reasons which only gradually become clear. Ultimately however, Donnie seems embarked on a course which can have only one inevitable conclusion - while fate, in the shape of Frank, has a particularly nasty surprise up its sleeve.
How you react to all this is probably a matter of temperament, because Kelly's film is as boldly, wilfully personal as you're likely to see this side of David Lynch. Comparisons to Lynch are inevitable - Mulholland Drive shares a number of similarities with this movie - and Kelly has the Lynchian knack of unsettling you, terrifying you and then suddenly turning round and breaking your heart. But whereas Lynch likes to leave his movies as open texts which can be read in myriad ways, Kelly has decided to wrap this up with an ending which is as bold and on-the-edge as they come. This may be a weakness - one viewing isn't really enough to say for sure - but it's done with such poignancy and force that it's hard not to succumb to the emotional power of his vision. The story, which sounds bizarre but actually makes internal sense, seems way out until you realise that what it's about can be summed up in a quote from Graham Swift's book Waterland (directed, appropriately enough, by another Gyllenhaal): "...And I realised that day that there are many ways the world can end, as many ways as there are people." It would be unfair to reveal any more, except to say that if you come away thinking this is a film about a loony kid who talks to a giant rabbit then you don't deserve films as good as this in the first place.
Like many first-time directors, Kelly tends to over-indulge in technique for its own sake. The high-speed shots in the first hour become a little irksome and I'm not entirely convinced that the heavily stylised look of the film is entirely necessary. The Scope cinematography by Steven Poster is consistently impressive, due to the use of scene-specific film, but it strikes me as a needless distraction from the central emotional pull of the storyline. However, his work with the actors is beyond criticism and his use of devices such as the fake motivational video and a marvellous speeded up reverse sequence towards the end demonstrate genuine skill. I also applaud his understanding that, sometimes, the camera needs to stay still and serve the writing and performances - a scene in which Donnie disrupts a self-help class at his school is beautifully simple and smashingly effective. His decision to set it in 1988 is a little curious too, although it pays dividends in giving the excuse for lots of wonderful eighties music to appear on the soundtrack - the opening use of "The Killing Moon" by Echo and the Bunnymen is a masterstroke and the closing acoustic cover of "Mad World" is just about guaranteed to get you pretending that something's got in your eye.
Jake Gyllenhaal has a remarkable presence as Donnie, giving this somewhat elusive character enough charisma to connect to the audience - although those of us who admit we're as basically fucked up as Donnie will need no encouragement to identify with him. His line readings are fresh and funny and he gets most of the best lines in the film. Kelly also gives good opportunities to the likes of Mary McDonnell - whose straightlaced mother turns out to be considerably more gutsy than she seems - and a very amusing Patrick Swayze, whose presence is, in itself, a good eighties in-joke. Drew Barrymore is surprisingly subtle as the English teacher - she is one of the film's executive producers. Jena Malone is particularly noteworthy as Gretchen, wiping away the horrible memory of her overplaying in the dire Stepmom.
Some people have dismissed the film as meaningless or pretentious, but the central narrative line is actually very strong - Donnie's search for answers is no more plotless than Lester Burnham's in American Beauty - and it would only be pretentious if Kelly was unable to back up his intentions with deeds. Whether or not the 'science' about timelines and suchlike actually makes sense (I'm not entirely convinced although it's very entertaining to listen to) is irrelevant because once the film starts it has its own logic and its own momentum. Richard Kelly is clearly well read and I particularly liked his use of Graham Greene's story The Destructors, since Donnie's crucial decision between becoming involved or staying on the sidelines is a classic dilemma for Greene's heroes. Kelly's restraint is also worthy of praise. Although he has the knack for the quick knee-jerk shock, he never uses the disturbing image of Frank for cheap shocks, and the moment when you realise Donnie and Gretchen are about to discover each other is beautifully side-stepped with a simple image of them holding hands as they come downstairs. In its exploration of those people marginalised by life and the endless possibilities of human choice, this is a deeply affecting film and it is undoubtedly as essential a viewing experience as anything to come out this year.