Donnie Darko (2002)

D: Richard Kelly
S: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone

Stylish and absorbing if ultimately self-defeating fantasy drama following the adventures of an alienated somnambulistic teenager (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is told by a demonic rabbit named Frank that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. By no small co-incidence, this happens the same night that a fragment of a jet liner crashes into his house, sending him into a twilight world where he can see patterns in time and in which riddles and other problems seem to need solving before the clock counts down.

Set in 1988, this film is extremely well crafted for the most part, drawing the viewer in to a tightly constructed if entirely subjective world. Spoken of in the press as a horror movie, it is more strictly a tale of the fantastic, a story set in a reality which in which the 'laws of nature' are in flux and in which familiar frames of reference are inadequate to fully explaining or navigating the environment. Donnie's quest to sort of the interlocking enigmas of time travel, predestination, religion, social hypocrisy, and personal responsibility is really just as much a story of a teenager looking for meaning in a world he is reluctant to play an 'adult' role in as any of the John Hughes scripts from which it draws some inspiration.

Written and directed by debuting Richard Kelly, the film is actually steeped in references to other movies and to popular culture in general. Not only it is self-consciously reminiscent of the John Hughes school of teen drama so prevalent in the era in which it is set, its references to dream states and its penchant for creating characters with undefined edges adrift in a world which defies contextualisation makes it seem like a distant cousin of David Lynch and the absurdist/surrealists who preceded him. The narrative prominence of an giant rabbit visible only to the central character creates immediate associations with the classic Harvey, Donnie and his equally disenfranchised girlfriend attend a screening of a Freddy Kruger film during which both of them fall asleep, and the supporting cast includes Catherine Ross, Drew Barrymore, and Patrick Swayze, actors with a wealth of association behind them in themselves.

In essence, of course, this kind of self-referential deconstructionist absurdism takes the movie firmly into the realms of the postmodern, the dread condition of apathetic self-absorption characteristic of a cinema with nothing to say but with all kinds of technological, imagistic, and aural means with which to say it. The film makes superb use of frame, image, space, and sound to hold the viewer's attention, creating a sense of ontological uncertainty which keeps the audience on edge. The camerawork is actually very simple, but the cumulative effect of well balanced mid shots, well judged edits, low-key lighting and a disturbing soundtrack running beneath most of the action is the construction of a singular cinematic world in which any and all flights of fancy and narrative digression seem imbued with deep meaning.

On some level, the film can be read as the disturbed rantings of a medicated, suicidal teenager, and the oscillation between his perception of reality and the hard-hitting facts of his life gives it some mileage. Like with Repulsion or even Rosemary's Baby, the real value of trip through a subjective perspective is in finding the clues with which to relate the psychic divergence to the world which is at least partly the cause for it. Donnie Darko presents us with a family and community framework which has evidently produced pressures enough on this teenager to drive him to at least one attempted suicide and to therapy with doctor Catherine Ross. The narrow minded Catholic school environment and confined social world in which he evidently finds himself has also clearly played a role in forming his attitudes.

Kelly is actually quite precise in his employment of signs and signifiers, carefully situating Donnie in this world in ways which allow the movement between realities to suggest meaningful relationships between the two levels of experience. The film is less effective when it attempts to wrap up by correlating the objective and the subjective. As the story attempts to resolve with a 'real world' twist which justifies all that has gone before, the nexus of denotation and social criticism which it has so carefully built up literally collapses into a self-indulgent adolescent daydream. The act of redemptive self-sacrifice upon which the climax turns seems relatively unmotivated, solving none of the real problems of Donnie's world or his relationships with is family and seeming to make some of the sub-plots completely irrelevant. The viewer is left wondering just exactly what the film was really about.

Donnie Darko is destined to become a significant cult item. Already in receipt of indie plaudits and raves on the limited distribution circuit, it seems to have connected with people in ways which must be gratifying for Kelly but which are likely to be as personal to you as they are to him. As such it is a qualified recommendation, a film with many great qualities but which is less satisfying than it is promising.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.