It may have bombed upon its original release, plagued as it was with poor-timing and too much hype, but Donnie Darko is today revered as a cult classic, a film representative of the promise of the noughties (despite its 80’s setting). Providing Jake Gyllenhaal with his first lead role, the film travels with his representation of the titular character as he struggles with adolescence, therapy and his stalker-esque companion, Frank the rabbit.
Suffering from an unnamed mental illness, Donnie regularly awakes to find himself in the middle of nowhere, supposedly having sleepwalked there the night before. His life is marred with strange visits from the afore-mentioned Frank, a vision only he can see, who informs him about the possibilities of time travel as well as encouraging his destructive tendencies. Weekly therapy sessions shed some light on his condition but it is ultimately Richard Kelly’s engrossing scripting that works in the film’s explanatory favour.
After his sleepwalking saves him from being crushed to death by a jet engine (for which there is no accompanying plane) Donnie’s increasingly harassed by Frank who urges him to dabble in progressively nastier misdeeds. We say harassed, but Donnie visibly connects with the stranger and actively investigates the information Frank provides him with, leading to the film’s dabble with time travel. Despite its presence, time travel doesn’t make the film reek of an indie sci-fi movie, the film being more concerned with its central character.
Despite its gruelling 28 day shoot, Donnie Darko is gripping and mysterious, thanks largely to its stellar cast who are all given their chance to thrive. Featuring Drew Barrymore as English teacher Karen Pomeroy, whose best scene involves her screaming ‘fuck’ at the top of her lungs after being dismissed from her position, Jena Malone as love interest Gretchen and Patrick Swayze as a child-porn loving, new age weirdo loved by the brilliant Beth Grant, the film mixes style with substance and manages to keep the viewer absorbed.
Taking a dry look at the idiocy of those in authority (Grant’s Kitty Farmer being its main victim), the film utilises the performances of Donnie’s family (Holmes Osborne as his father, Daveigh Chase as his mother and Gyllenhaal’s real-life sister Maggie as his sister) and their comedic misgivings for the world around them. After all, that’s one of the film’s crowning glories; for all of its introspective takes on philosophy and heavy subject matter it still maintains a certain lightness that makes you actually care for the characters. The camera-work is sometimes overly showy but it helps add to the enigmatic storyline.
The film eventually comes full circle when Donnie is confronted with a real-time Frank and, as the final twists and turns are revealed, we are met with a dramatic conclusion that has been carefully set up. His realisation that ‘everyone dies alone’ is poignant to the film whilst his apparent disability’s ability to uncover unknown evils makes us question the trust we put in social stereotyping. Aptly appearing on compiled lists of films to see before you die, Donnie Darko is an arresting watch that has been much admired and borrowed from since its release.
Best performance: Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie.