For a while now, I have been wondering if there was a younger director willing to take up David Lynch’s legacy of the intellectual, mind-bending, and ambiguous thriller and create something truly ready for the twenty-first century. With Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly asserts himself as not only a likely candidate for the title, but an extremely capable one.
In Donnie Darko, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the eponymous character, who is continually confronted by a six-foot rabbit whom only he can see. As they begin to develop a relationship, strange things start happening. Soon enough, Frank (yes, the rabbit is named Frank) is telling Donnie about the impending end of the world.
Since the thrill of this film is largely plot-based, I shan’t continue to discuss the plot. Instead, I’ll focus on some of the more literal elements of the film.
The acting here is very impressive. Even Mr. Gyllenhaal, who often fills me with intense dislike when he is present on screen (Source Code being the other notable exception), seemed to be perfectly suited for his part. His eerie, probing eyes and intensely teenaged attitude created a definitive portrait of angst and intrigue. Less surprisingly, Mary McDonnell, an actress who has blown me away in the past with her work as the president in the Battlestar Galactica reboot and — ironically enough — the first lady in disaster film kingpin Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, puts on an incredibly touching and nuanced performances as Rose Darko, Donnie’s mother, possibly one of the best movie mothers I have ever seen. Despite her apparent cohesion to the omnipresent teen drama trope of the foolish parent, Rose Darko’s eyes constantly shine with an unmistakable air of understanding, empathy, and love. In a very real sense, Rose Darko reminded me of how wonderful my own mother is for putting up with me for so long.
Kelly isn’t just making this film for the drama, though; comedy abounds in this film, much of it provided by Beth Grant (No Country for Old Men, Little Miss Sunshine), who adds her name to the list of incredible performances in this film with the shockingly genuine Kitty Farmer: parent, health teacher, and creative director for “Sparkle Motion,” the amusingly lusty dance troupe where Donnie’s little sister plays a starring role. While the dance troupe hits tip top and gets invited onto a national talk show, Kitty’s favorite public speaker Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze, who is also great here) gets arrested for his “kiddie porn dungeon,” leading to an incredibly amusing and awkward encounter between the two acting powerhouses of the film as Kitty must ask Rose to attend the talk show in her stead:
This quirky sense of humor fuses with the dreamlike and creepy narrative in a unique and thrilling fashion, creating a vibrant and vivacious tone unlike any film I have ever seen; though the strategy employed here seems to be that staple of the “slow burn,” the humor breaks this up so well that you don’t realize you are being towed along until the Halloween party (naturally) near the end, when it suddenly becomes clear: the seeds of suspense were being planted all along. Like in his significantly less popular and significantly more expensive Action/Disaster/Comedy film Southland Tales, Kelly also makes good use of popular music to create his tone. Most notably, the popular cover of the Tears for Fears song “Mad World” was composed for this film. Its haunting minimalism creates the perfect tone for the montage it supports near the end of the film.
There’s so much more to be said about this film, like the fact that Richard Kelly’s prior life as a literary analyst of early postmodernist Graham Greene’s works is on display here, but I just don’t have the time or space. I plan on revisiting this film many times, though, so I may go into more detail about this in the future.
There are two cuts of this film, one released in 2001 as simply Donnie Darko (this one runs 113 minutes), and Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut, a 123 minute long version released in 2004. This “director’s cut” includes additional film , but most of those extra ten minutes are dominated by the addition of visual effects showing pages out of a book which Donnie finds, further explaining his predicament. Though many people complained that the original cut was too ambiguous, I found that ambiguity refreshing and poweful, very much in the vein of David Lynch’s ambiguous thrillers. Don’t get me wrong: this film is still a thinker regardless of which edition you watch; you can just expect to come up with a much more grounded explanation for the events of the film if you watch the “director’s cut.”
I give Donnie Darko a 5/5 and Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut a 4.5/5.