Donnie Darko

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

DONNIE DARKO

7/10

USA 2001
director/script : Richard Kelly
cinematography : Steven Poster
music : Michael Andrews
main cast : Jake Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Patrick Swayze, Katharine Ross
122 minutes

Donnie Darko is like a David Lynch’s version of The Ice Storm – and even if it doesn’t quite work, there’s enough to suggest debut writer-director Kelly is a real talent. The opening scene may be sufficient on its own: we discover the teenage title character (Gyllenhaal) lying on a road in the middle of a spectacular forest at dawn. He gradually wakes up and cycles home through the trees, Echo & the Bunnymen’s ‘The Killing Moon’ swelling on the soundtrack. It’s a transcendent moment, and soon after Kelly pulls off a second virtuoso sequence that’s almost as good: his camera darts through Donnie’s school, zipping between his fellow-students and his teachers (Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle), switching between fast, normal and slow motion to the histrionic strains of Tears For Fears’ ‘Head Over Heels’ – you can’t help thinking of Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest moments – and not just because Barrymore, with her pale make-up and long red-brown hair, looks so eerily like Julianne Moore.

These are two of the best sequences you’ll find in any film this year. But they both come in the first 20 minutes, and it’s pretty much downhill from there: Kelly the scriptwriter seldom shows as much flair as Kelly the director as he presents the ups and downs of Donnie, a paranoid schizophrenic 15-year-old living with his parents (McDonnell, Holmes Osborne) and two sisters (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daveigh Chase) in picket-fence semi-rural American suburbia, 1988. Despite repeated sessions with his sympathetic psychiatrist (Ross) and constant medication, Donnie is prone to bizarre visions in which he receives enigmatic messages from an imaginary friend named Frank – a man in a grotesque fancy-dress rabbit-suit. Frank urges Donnie to commit increasingly destructive acts, leading up to some unspecified, imminent catastrophe …

There are all manner of distracting sub-plots and spun around this basic framework, and they never quite manage to come together – the screenplay tries to do too much, and ends up falling short of its own over-eager ambitions. There’s no shortage of humour, much of it at the expense of self-help guru Swayze and his number one fan, shrewish teacher Mrs Farmer (Beth Grand) – both of them presented as broad caricatures – but this goes hand in hand with a genuinely unnerving sense of impending apocalypse, Kelly counting down to zero-hour with regular title cards.

Donnie’s descent recalls, of all things, Amityville 3-D, in which a troubled teen ended up slaughtering his whole family. While Donnie Darko‘s conclusion isn’t quite so nightmarish, neither does it make much sense. We end with another Tears For Fears tune (‘Mad World’) as the camera performs a Magnolia-style survey of all the major characters as they sleep, but by this stage it isn’t enough to compensate for the plot’s loose ends and gaping holes, which too often rely on a forced kind of surrealism.

Gyllenhall doesn’t quite pull his weight, either – his performance too often veers into a very actorish combination of stooped shoulders and zonked-out eyes, and you’re left wondering what Tobey Maguire or, ideally, Wes Bentley might have done with the role. And how come Donnie’s arms are so teen-movie-hunk massive? But Kelly wisely surrounds his young star with strong support, especially McDonnell, who’s outstanding as his mother. Seventies icon Ross makes a welcome return to the big screen, while Barrymore and Swayze have never been better, even if Swayze’s role is yet another echo of P T Anderson – he’s a cousin of Tom Cruise’s Frank T J Mackey from Magnolia, another self-help guru with skeletons in the closet.


31st October, 2001
(seen Oct-30-01, National Film Theatre – London Film Festival)

by Neil Young
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