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Donnie Darko by Richard Kelly (Review)

There’s no question that Donnie Darko is an ambitious film, and at times, almost too ambitious.
Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly

I think every person who takes movies seriously hopes to find a movie that completely intrigues them. That sticks with you, regardless of how long it takes before you actually see it. You read about it, hoping to glean as much you can about it without ruining the potential viewing experience. You check the papers, hoping that it might come somewhere close to your area, and when it doesn’t, you check to see when it might come out on DVD. When it finally comes out on DVD, you make a beeline for the store, calling all of your friends when you finally have it in your grubby little fingers. And all the while, you pray to God that it doesn’t let you down.

Donnie Darko was just such a movie for me. I’d read about it, immediately intrigued by the premise — a troubled young man is given visions of the world’s end from a giant demonic rabbit. That alone was enough to stand out in my memory. There were hints of time travel, parallel universes, and other science fiction gobbledygook, but it seemed more than just your standard sci-fi fare… much more.

Set in October 1988, the movie follows Donnie Darko, a brilliant, yet very disturbed high school student. One night, out of the blue, an airplane engine falls out of nowhere, crashing into his bedroom. The reason Donnie is spared? He walks in his sleep, lured out of his room by the vision of a giant, demonic rabbit named Frank that tells him the world will end on October 30.

Frank tells Donnie he is from the future, and that Donnie must follow in order to prevent some impending catastrophe. As Donnie follows Frank’s commands, seeking to find answers to this madness, the already troubled young man grows more and more detached from his classmates, his teachers, and his own family. He begins committing violent acts, flooding his school and burning down houses. The only bright spot is the new girl in school, Gretchen, who is seeking to escape troubles of her own.

As the end of the world draws closer, Donnie’s behavior grows more erratic as he seeks to find out Frank’s master plan. He’s given a book, written by a former teacher, which describes many of strange things that Donnie undergoes, compelling him to find out more. Is Frank merely a delusion of his troubled mind, a delusion born out his inability to cope with the world, or is Frank really a (Divine) messenger sent to give Donnie a special task?

It’s an intriguing premise, and even though the movie touches on various sci-fi elements, it’s most definitely not a sci-fi movie. I think that was what impressed me the most. The movie doesn’t delve into all sorts of scientific mumbo-jumbo best reserved for a Star Trek episode. Rather, its themes are alienation and angst, delivered in a darkly compelling vision; the inclusion of sci-fi themes only enhances the surreality of it.

At the heart of Donnie’s problems are his fears of being alone. Despite their best efforts, he and his family rarely connect. At school, despite his intelligence, the teachers ostracize him. Instead of seeking to understand him (and his fellow students), or help them cope with the quirks and problems of life, the teachers throw out motivational tapes from a local self-help guru (an inspired cameo by Patrick Swayze). Even the teachers who try to really relate to the students are held down, while the school is hampered by conservative busybodies (a veiled stereotype of conservative Christians that, unfortunately, hits pretty close to the mark at times). In the end, Donnie Darko is a really a coming-of-age film. Donnie, and his classmates, are at a perilous time in life. For Donnie, though, only Frank seems to offer any hope for answers.

There’s no question that Donnie Darko is an ambitious film, and at times, almost too ambitious. Newcomer Richard Kelly (who wrote and directed the film) is clearly trying to juggle a lot of themes. As a result, the film’s pacing feels in need of a little tightening here or there. However it’s hard to point out any real weak spots that could’ve used more editing (even the “Smurf” sex discussion, as gratuitous and needless as it was, is hilarious). But Kelly gets it right more often than not. Even when the film is at its most confusing, especially the final 15 – 20 minutes where it feels like Kelly is trying to tie up all of the loose ends, it’s still a compelling watch.

Kelly achieves that through several things. First of all, the premise itself is intriguing. Kelly leaves out just enough for the viewer to fill in the blanks, especially when he works in the whole parallel universe/time travel aspect. He doesn’t try to come up with gee-whiz explanations, but hints at just enough to inspire the viewer’s imagination. Second, he displays a deep sensitivity for his characters. Not just Donnie, but his friends and family are all rich characters, which give their interactions even more depth, humor, and sensitivity.

Finally, the look of the film is very impressive, especially considering its (relatively) miniscule budget. Special effects are used sparingly throughout the film, adding to the spookiness of Donnie’s experiences. The effects are used to service the film, not vice versa. The film’s editing and cinematography enhance Donnie Darko’s surreal feeling, but also adding a touch of nostalgia and tragedy (also helped by its use of music — any movie with Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” on the soundtrack gets points in my book).

For a first-time effort, Donnie Darko feels incredibly mature. If the film falters, it does because Kelly’s grasp extends beyond his reach (something he even hints at in the film’s commentary). But it’s so refreshing to see a director try to be this ambitious, especially on a rookie project. I’m reminded of that same thrill I got seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. Part of me is depressed at Kelly’s youth. He’s only 1 year older than I am and he’s already making movies like Donnie Darko. But I’m also incredibly excited to see what else he has in store for the future.

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