Review: Donnie Darko (2001)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #678

Number of Views: Three
Release Date: January 19, 2001 (Sundance), October 26, 2001 (United States)
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Cult Film
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $4,500,000
Box Office: $7,300,000
Running Time: 113 minutes
Director: Richard Kelly
Producers: Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Adam Fields
Screenplay: Richard Kelly
Special Effects: Robbie Knott
Visual Effects: Marcus Keys
Cinematography: Steven B. Poster
Score: Michael Andrews
Editing: Sam Bauer, Eric Strand
Studio: Flower Films
Distributors: Pandora Cinema, Newmarket Films
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katharine Ross, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daveigh Chase, James Duval, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Beth Grant, Stuart Stone, Gary Lundy, Alex Greenwald, Seth Rogen, Patience Cleveland, Jolene Purdy, Ashley Tisdale, Jerry Trainor, David St. James, Scotty Leavenworth, Fran Kranz, Jack Salvatore Jr., Arthur Taxier

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Echo and the Bunnymen “The Killing Moon”

[2] Tears For Fears “Head Over Heels”

[3] Steve Baker & Carmen Dave “For Whom The Bell Tolls”

[4] Joy Division “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

[5] Gary Jules “Mad World”

I like being different. It’s kind of like a super power when you think about it. The ability to observe the world around you and know that nobody else sees it in quite the same way is truly a gift to be cherished. It’s also a curse dependent on how you choose to view it. I always found it curious how I could spot things that seemingly nobody else could, notice the cracks in relationships that, on the surface, appeared to be healthy and strong, and read hidden meanings in the simplest signs and gestures.

I practically sleepwalked through my entire twenties and thirties, performing whatever perfunctory tasks life set me in just a fraction of the allotted time, before reclining back to the cozy confines of my own head as everything seemed to make so much sense from there. And that’s what we’re all ultimately striving for right? To make sense of something. Whether that means solving an arithmetic riddle to claim that all-important apple from teacher or searching for the forbidden fruit elsewhere, we all just want to grasp something. It just so happens that some of us can do this on auto-pilot and that’s a commodity most precious in my book.

Take Donald “Donnie” Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) for example. On the surface, you could mistake him for any other socially awkward and rebellious 15-year-old boy, and never once feel like you were missing a trick. He cracks inappropriate jokes around the dinner table, takes his teenage angst out on those closest to him, and thinks about sex approximately every 0.5 seconds. By all accounts, Donnie is your everyday kid. However, something else lies behind those eyes, something others simply aren’t equipped to discern.

His gradual detachment from reality isn’t easy for the untrained eye to spot, and while his psychotherapist, Dr. Thurman (Katharine Ross) regularly digs around in his hungry hungry hippocampus, even she is at a distinct loss for text-book answers. It is clear to her that Donnie is a very troubled young man but that’s about as much clarity as these on-the-timer visits afford her. Other than that, Donnie Darko is an inexplicable mystery and that’s just the way he likes it.

So about all this “acting out” then. It’s just the usual growing pains right? Adolescence takes no prisoners and it’s only natural that all this pent-up sexual frustration will spill over on occasion so it’s likely just one of his “phases”. That’s what his father Eddie (Holmes Osborne) would have you believe, while his too-hip-to-be-square mother Rose (Mary McDonnell) makes it her business to remind him of the unconditional love that is all around him to usher him through this difficult stage in his development as best she can.

Donnie’s relationship with older sister, Elizabeth (real-life sibling Maggie Gyllenhaal), is a curiosity all in itself. Fuelled by unspoken desire, the pair lock horns as though some form of foreplay, double daring each other to call out the elephant in the room with a twinkle in their eyes never anything less than impish. There’s something about the way Elizabeth informs her little brother that he should “go suck a fuck” that also says “just one finger then, quick while mom is rolling her eyes” and both parties know precisely how to play this game.

At school, Donnie’s English teacher, Miss Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) sums Donnie up rather beautifully through the tongue of visionary English novelist Graham Greene – “It was as though this plan had been with him all his life, pondered through the seasons, now in his fifteenth year crystallized with the pain of puberty”. Indeed, it was as though this line of verse was written just for him.

She’s a smart cookie that Miss Pomeroy which is why, when new student Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone) arrives in class mid-lecture, she affords the girl the honor of sitting next to the cutest boy in the room, knowing full well who that person will be. While the other kids in class are going through the customary teenage motions, there’s a certainty to Donnie’s uncertainty that she finds a little unsettling, and in turn, all the more fascinating. Much is pending for Miss Pomeroy too, with her place in a stifling conservative regime by no means assured and the board of education steadily tightening the thumb screws. Speaking of which…

“Wake up Donnie. The world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds.” Who said that? Don’t look now but could that possibly be a six-foot-tall man in a malformed rabbit costume dishing out the conspiracy theories? Is Donnie awake or simply sleepwalking again as has become commonplace? Better yet, could he actually be a time traveller being offered his starter’s orders for a strictly need to know mission?

It’s all dreadfully exciting and God knows Donnie needs the challenge right now. When you’re pathologically petrified of spiritual isolation, the quest for meaning and self-discovery can drive you to some pretty unusual places, the fringe of reality being one such locale. With the echoes of bunnyman, Frank (James Duval), ringing loud and clear in his ears, Donnie just seems naturally selected to go darko.

Are you still following? Jeez, I hope not as Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko is way too nimble a motion picture to ever hope to catch in snapshots. It’s one long trip down the rabbit hole so to speak, a paradox with no true end, a never-ending wonderland to traverse in time-sensitive fashion with its chief protagonist. The world around Donnie and all its inhabitants very much exist, but his place in said universe is much harder to pinpoint, as like any good time traveller, he’s always on the move, even when motionless. Nay, especially when motionless.

When the dimensional lines begin to blur, his disillusionment becomes chaperoned by a realization that, for all his travels, he may be pre-destined to negotiate eternity alone and Donnie takes this unintelligible intelligence in his languid, front-tilted stride, face forward and fixed in an expression of both bewilderment and wide-eyed wonderment. We cannot help but second his every emotion.

There are no superlatives adequate enough to describe Gyllenhaal’s turn as our titular journeyman as he doesn’t so much play Donnie as burrow beneath his skin and hang out there. There’s not a moment, a solitary bodily gesture, that suggests he’s any place else, while in the very same moment, he’s everywhere all at once. Precious few actors throw themselves into their roles in the same meticulous manner as he, without ever once appearing to be simply punching through the motions.

In short, his soul is malleable and his director need not even do the kneading as he’s more than prepared to put in any legwork himself. The best thing to do in such circumstances, and I’d imagine Kelly trusted this very instinct during shooting, is to observe in quiet awe as his vision really couldn’t be in better hands than his leading man’s. Indeed, if I were asked to list the five most personally affecting performances I have ever spectated over my thirty-five years plus as a scholar of cinema, then Gyllenhaal’s Donnie Darko would slide in effortlessly alongside Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham at the very top table.

It’s not just him though. Every last spirit in Donnie’s material world plays a critical role in fast-tracking our fascination. We hang onto their every word, as seeing things through Donnie’s eyes, we have the time on our hands to do so. However, the most magnanimous offering comes from sensitive soul Elizabeth, as she actively endorses his vulnerability by raising it with her own.

The blossoming affection between the two is so beautifully observed, so masterfully showcased by both Gyllenhaal and Malone, that we almost forget that there’s work afoot for our time and space jockey. The lengths he is prepared to go to in order to protect and serve his fair maiden are otherworldy and critical to us unraveling the film’s mystery. Even then, once we’ve sussed the relevance of every last motion for the past 113 minutes, we still feel like we’re drifting aimlessly through the void. The reason for this is simple – Donnie has opened up Pandora’s Box and invited us inside, where our own imaginations can continue the pilgrimage perpetually.

Perhaps the most startling fact about Kelly’s debut feature is that it is so many things all at once; a compound prism with numerous dimensions that bleed in and out of one another fluently. Call it what you will – a subversive take on eighties pop culture, nuclear family satire, earnest psychodrama, apocalyptic science fiction – it’s all of these things and therefore almost impossible to categorize. Eerily calm on one hand, it is awash with creeping dread on the other, with swirling storm clouds for every last ray of light. It has the ability to make us hope, fear, laugh and cry in close proximity and this is heightened by an incredible soundtrack that boasts the likes of Tears For Fears, Echo & The Bunnymen, Joy Division and Duran Duran, not to mention Mad World by Gary Jules, which has never sounded more haunting or poignant.

I know precisely what it feels like to be “high potential”. For every one of the pleasures this provides, there is a corresponding pain, the understanding that nobody could ever truly know you as you haven’t the first idea how to figure that one out for yourself. That’s why time travel is such an appealing career choice. Any chance to momentarily vacate reality is gratefully received as it feels like the only way we can truly punch the clock. The world around us will still spin on its axle regardless and drifting through the vast ocean of emptiness seems the only way to stall its countdown. What is a minor detail like the impending end of the world if not the beginning of a brave new one? Whether Donnie Darko is prophet or passenger is ultimately irrelevant, as the journey he embarks on is our journey too and knows absolutely no boundaries. One thing is for sure though – it’s funny how time flies.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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  1. I have always wanted to see this movie but never got around to it. Jake Gyllenhaal knows full well how to play tortured longing from October Sky to this film to Brokeback Mountain. Great appraisal, Rich.

    1. Thank you Susan. I hugely recommend giving this a watch, it would likely make my all-time desert island top five. Truly a life-changing movie and Gyllenhaal’s performance really is something else.

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