Donnie Darko *****
Directed by Richard Kelly
Starring – Jake Gyllenhaal,Maggie Gyllenhaal,Drew Barrymore,Patrick Swayze and Jena Malone
THEY don’t come more cult than Richard Kelly’s 2001 Science Fiction feature, Donnie Darko, certificate 15. A clever little feature, that successfully merges high-school drama with a time-travelling plot, held together by a fantastic breakthrough performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Like so many cult movies, Kelly’s film was not a smash at the box-office. It earned its reputation through largely positive film festival buzz before finding its home on DVD. The director’s rather ambiguous storytelling, allows for multiple readings of the film, allowing viewers to discuss the film, long after the feature has finished.
The story sees Gyllenhaal’s character, Donnie Darko, plagued by visions of a large bunny rabbit, who manipulates the troubled young boy into committing a series of bizarre crimes, after seemingly saving Donnie from death after a strange accident.
Kelly’s greatest move was to cast real-life siblings, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal as brother and sister, with Maggie playing Donnie’s sister, Elizabeth Darko. The two have natural chemistry together making their roles much more convincing.
Personally, of all the Darko family it’s Donnie’s suffering mother, Rose Darko, played by Mary McDonnell, whose character I found most compelling. She yearns for a normal family unit, troubled by her son’s increasingly bizarre behaviour, hoping to reach out and engage with her son. After repeated watching, I’ve found Donnie’s mother to be one of the most emotionally engaging characters within the feature.
After seemingly escaping death, Donnie’s visions begin to escalate encroaching upon the young boy’s day-to-day life. He becomes increasingly frustrated and disgusted by those around him, in particular, Patrick Swayze’s character, Jim Cunningham. His imaginary bunny friend, known as Frank, encourages Donnie to expose characters the lies and secrets of characters like Cunningham.
The film features a strong supporting cast, including Drew Barrymore, in a surprisingly minor role, as Donnie’s young English teacher, struggling to deal with the small-minded attitudes of those within the local community. Noah Wyle, familiar to many from TV series ER, also plays another teacher at Donnie’s school. Some viewers might also have missed Seth Rogen, who made his big screen debut as one of Donnie’s classmates.
Kelly, would later release an extended directors cut of this feature, but I would strongly recommend viewers watching this film for the first time round. Watch the original theatrical cut of this feature. It’s much better paced and leaves the film’s ending open to a much more ambiguous reading.
Throughout the film, the director hints at possible time travel elements taking place. But it could also be argued that the events of the film could in fact, actually be a dream, played out in Donnie’s mind. After several viewings I’m still undecided.
Despite Jake Gyllenhaal taking much of the limelight for his performance in this film, for me the strongest performance is by Jena Malone, who plays Donnie’s love interest, Gretchen Green. Her character is a tragic one, coming from a broken home, Gretchen finds a kindred spirit In Donnie, and opening up to him. Their brief relationship is a brief but sadly doomed one. I would have loved to have seen her role expanded.
Since making Donnie Darko, Kelly has struggled to recapture the magic from his breakthrough feature. Film’s like Southland Tales and The Box have been seen by many as too complicated and convoluted for their own good. Personally, despite its failings I do have a soft spot for Southland Tales.
But with this feature, Kelly really nailed his storytelling techniques and visual style. Donnie Darko might not be perfect, nor be to every viewers taste but in my opinion is a rare cinematic treat, that demands to be re-watched and discussed.
And finally, ignore completely the truly awful 2009 sequel, S .Darko starring Daveigh Chase, as it’s quite possibly one of the worst films I think, I’ve ever seen.
Review By William McClean