Donnie Darko (2001)

First published by Daily Info

It is October 2000. In a month George Bush will take office, and Richard Kelly is completing his debut feature Donnie Darko. The film premières at Sundance to great acclaim, securing for itself a general US release in October 2001. Then the film disappears down a wormhole (recalling the question “Where is Donnie?” scrawled on the Darko family’s fridge), only to reappear mysteriously in the UK in October 2002.

In a parallel universe, it is October 1988. In the next month, (another) George Bush is going to be swept to victory, ensuring that eight years of harsh Reaganomics will be extended for yet another presidential term of office. The future does not look good for those who want change, like Elizabeth Darko (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who delivers the hopelessly defiant opening line of Donnie Darko: “I’m voting for Dukakis”. Elizabeth’s brother Donnie, an idealistic teenager with paranoid schizophrenia and aggressive tendencies, also wants things to change, but he is faced with a different and more urgent inevitablity: the end of the world, as predicted to him with alarming chronological precision by a giant rabbit (called Frank) which Donnie has followed one night to a hole on a golfcourse (just as Alice once chased an equally time-obsessed talking rabbit down a different hole). What follows is a dark vision of alternative realities, beginning with Donnie’s discovery on the following morning that he has narrowly escaped being crushed to death by a jet engine which has plummeted seemingly out of nowhere into his bedroom, and ending with… well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

Donnie Darko is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Complex, inventive, gripping, strange, and in the end deeply moving, with more ideas in it than Hollywood has produced in the entire last decade.

The cast is superb, especially Jake (actual brother of Maggie) Gyllenhaal as Donnie, and the understated Mary McDonell as his concerned mother. The script (also written by the director) manages to incorporate some extremely tricky concepts while avoiding clumsy exposition, and combines credible characterisation with an elegant economy (every tiny detail is meaningful in this film). The direction captures Donnie’s unhinged perspective perfectly, transforming his school, and the entire community, into a dreamlike, drug-addled, psychotic, apocalyptic vision of unspeakable menace.

The film has an eclectic mix of influences: Donnie holds regular conversations with a human-sized rabbit which nobody else sees (as in Harvey); he is shown a dark vision of a different version of his own world (It’s a Wonderful Life, only at Hallowe’en rather than Christmas); he miraculously survives an accident, thinks he may be a superhero, and wears a grey hooded cloak on his ‘missions’ (Unbreakable); there are time paradoxes in a nostalgic high school setting (Back to the Future, discussed obliquely in one scene by Donnie and his science teacher); the themes of time-travel, dreams, madness, and destiny are inextricably confused (The Twelve Monkeys); and Donnie must make a sacrifice for the world to become a better place (The Last Temptation of Christ, showing in the cinema where Donnie sees The Evil Dead with his girlfriend). Ultimately, however, the film is very much Richard Kelly’s own. A true original.

See it – and then see it again, on loop…

© Anton Bitel