Donnie Darko, (2001) Cert 12A.

Director - Richard Kelly.

Writer - Richard Kelly.

Starring - Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, Mary McDonell & Patrick Swayze.


Premise - 1988, Middlesex, USA. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled teenager with a diagnosed case of paranoid schizophrenia. Donnie sleepwalks frequently and recently he has started seeing a giant rabbit named Frank who has predicted the end of the world and is instructing Donnie to carry out acts of vandalism..............

It's taken me a while to write this review, I felt that not only was it necessary to fully take in all the parts of the movie, but I had to watch the film again. Donnie Darko is a film that demands multiple viewings, its multi-layered plot and surrealistic imagery toy with the mind and confound reason to such a degree that trying to figure the film out in one sitting is folly.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves; I'll come to the juicy plot of the film soon. For now I want to go over the technical aspects of the film that combined with the killer story serve to create one of last years finest movie going experiences.

First time writer/director Richard Kelly has shot to the top of my 'must watch' directors list. His style for Donnie Darko suits the dark foreboding tone of the film down to a tee. His use of the camera puts us right into the heart of the movie, it really is quite breathtaking. Hand held cameras, stead-i-cams, slow motion, time lapse; all the tricks in the book are used. Kelly isn't using these techniques for styles sake; they serve perfectly to take the viewer into Donnie's head.

The lighting also serves the purposes of the story. When Donnie is in one of his conversations with Frank, the lighting alters the mood of the film dramatically. For example the scene in the bathroom when he is speaking to Frank. The lighting is low and exposes shadows over Donnie’s face, giving a feeling of foreboding, however when Donnie's sister interrupts and Frank disappears the lighting changes to reflect the change in mood.

Combine Kelly's stylistic touches with Gyllenhaal's tour de force performance and you have a startling depiction of a schizophrenic. I had previously seen Gyllenhaal in the poor 'Highway' and the excellent 'October Sky'. In both these films I saw the potential in him to be a great actor. In Donnie Darko he fulfils that potential ten fold. The finest example I can think of comes from the scene mentioned above. Whenever Donnie is 'hallucinating' he has this look of depravity on his face, a distanced look like he's somehow detached from reality. When his sister comes into the room, in the same shot, in the blink of an eye, he goes from this remote, distanced look to a normal teenager. This is just one example of Gyllenhaal's marvelous work in this movie.

If the rest of the cast are not quite up to Gyllenhaal's standard then it's not their fault as each and every member of the cast is exemplary. Jena Malone as Donnie's girlfriend, Mary McDonnell as his mother, Drew Barrymore (in perhaps a career best performance) as his idealistic English teacher, Noah Wyle is his Physics Teacher, Jakes actual sister Maggie as his sister and even Patrick Swayze as a cheesy self help guru. All are outstanding and give one of the best ensemble performances I have seen in a long time.

The music that populates the film is taken from the hits of the 80's. Now as you know, the 80's was a barren desert for good music and Kelly must be applauded for collating such a fine selection of music that is not only easy on the ear, but actually has resonance to the scene in which it accompanies. Perhaps the best use of music in a film in the past year sees a stead-i-cam shot traveling through the school hall to the Tears For Fears track 'Head Over Heals'. The camera follows Donnie then peels of to another character, then another, and so on all the way down the hall. Words can't really convey the way this breathtaking scene plays out; you really do need to see it. The use of Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' later in the film is fantastic and the song that plays over the final moments of the film is just beautiful.

Yes, all these factors contribute to make Donnie Darko a magical movie, but the real hook is the mind bending story that weaves its way through the film.

On the surface of the movie you have a pretty bog standard coming of age teenage high school film. Donnie is a bit of a misfit, his condition makes him a little out there and he gets into trouble a lot for his actions. He meets a girl and they fall in love, there is a school bully who threatens him and he fights authority at every opportunity. We've seen this stuff a bunch of times before in films like 'Pump Up The Volume', 'Heathers' and any number of other Christian Slater films. However, the coming of age tale is not the real story. The real story is about Donnie, Frank and the jet engine.

Now, I will be the first one to admit that Donnie Darko as a story is wide open to personal interpretation. So basically what follows from now on is how I perceived the events of the movie. How I felt the many different pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Also, from now on I am delving deep, deep into SPOILER territory. If you haven’t seen the film yet I implore you to not read any further and run off and rent the film. Donnie Darko really is a film that benefits from no knowledge of the plot. So please go now. Otherwise, please read on………..

Near the beginning of the film Donnie sleepwalks and meets Frank for the first time on a golf course. In doing this he avoided the jet engine that crashed through his bedroom roof and therefore avoided death. From that point on what we see is not reality, but an altered reality that was created by Donnie cheating death. Donnie was meant to die that night, so by cheating that he has sent the time line spinning off into a wild direction.

Because of this, greater powers than we cannot fully comprehend (Aliens, ghosts, God? My own personal feeling is God) empower people in this alternate reality to guide Donnie to a point where he can alter time and take his rightful place in the timeline so that he will die when he is meant to.

Frank, his doctor, his teachers, his girlfriend even Grandma Death have all been made guides for Donnie so that he is influenced to do certain things at certain times that will lead to a situation where a time portal is created and he can fulfil his destiny. Once his destiny is complete and he is dead all that remains from the alternate timeline are the Jet engine and some remnants of memories in the guides that are perceived as merely fragments of a dream.

Now after watching the Directors commentary track on the DVD, this is pretty much the explanation offered by the director Richard Kelly. Although he himself says that this is merely his interpretation and that the film is wide open for people to intemperate it any way the see fit. You may believe that it was all a dream, all in Donnie’s mind, or you may have some other feelings. That for me is the beauty of Donnie Darko, the ambiguity.

Donnie Darko is a stunning piece of filmmaking and one of the finest debut films from a writer/director in recent memory. It's a truly beguiling film that assaults the senses and confounds every expectation.



See Donnie Darko if you enjoyed - Mulholland Drive, Heathers, Lost Highway.

Poster Quote - See the light, see Donnie Darko.