Former Richmonder envisions a comic, cosmic, time-tripping Holden Caulfield.
Donnie Darko, what kind of name is that?" a petulant girl asks the title character. "Sounds kind of like a superhero or something."
"What makes you think I'm not?" high-schooler Donnie (movingly portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal) fires back with a kind of Zen grin.
As created by 26-year-old writer-director Richard Kelly, Donnie is kind of super-heroic, an updated Holden Caulfield who has apocalyptic premonitions, a burgeoning knack for time travel and the disturbing ability to see silvery ectoplasmic portals extending out of people's stomachs. Of course, Donnie's the only one who can see these snakelike portals, just as he's the sole witness of his friend Frank, a demonic, 6-foot rabbit from the future. Or is Frank from the future? Or is Donnie not just Darko, but wacko as well?
With this feature debut, Kelly has crafted one of the most ambitious and unique indie films of the year. "Donnie Darko" is a wild ride; a twisted, dark roller-coaster of a movie where the plot and characters seem to shift before our eyes. He draws on a number of intriguing influences, including late-'80s nostalgia and music, phenomenology, teen angst, Phillip K. Dick-inspired twists and the first tall tale about a magic rabbit, "Harvey."
When we first meet Donnie, we discover he's been sleepwalking again. But apparently this time his somnambulant wandering is a lifesaver. For while our reluctant hero is dozing on the back nine at a local golf course, he's not nestled in his bed where a massive jet engine mysteriously drops from the sky and through the roof, obliterating Darko's bed and belongings. Could this possibly mean Donnie has the power to manipulate time? His evil bunny-suited friend seems to think so. Cryptically, Frank tells Donnie the clock has started counting down. Donnie asks, Counting down until what?
There's something mesmerizing about Kelly's characters, especially Donnie. And Gyllenhaal, recently of the abysmally bad "Bubble Boy," inhabits Donnie with an awkward ease, making us like this troubled soul even when we don't understand what he's doing or why. Jena Malone, who keeps getting better with each role, perfectly blends pretty-girl, high-school haughtiness with a fragile vulnerability. Of all the supporting roles and cameos, Drew Barrymore (one of the producers of "Donnie Darko") strikes the only false note. She's a hip kind of English teacher who gets in trouble for her "unorthodox" teaching methods and assignments. More than Donnie, Barrymore seems to be sleepwalking through the movie.
Sleepwalking, however, is the least of antisocial Donnie's problems. His behavior has already triggered suspicion in the dappled, sunlight-draped neighborhood of his youth and he's under the care of a psychiatrist (Katharine Ross).
When random acts of violence start occurring including the flooding of the private school he attends the administration cocks a cold eye in Donnie's direction. A hint of normality enters Donnie's life when new-girl-in-school Jena Malone stumbles across his path. But even this coming-of-age tangent is merely another ruse by Kelly. Things are moving rapidly now as Frank keeps track of the days left and Donnie's principal calls in smarmy self-help guru Patrick Swayze (!) to counsel the student body with his pat psychobabble that reduces every emotion to either "love" or "fear."
Now the scenes flash forward and back with dizzying speed, leading us and Donnie to a climax on Halloween night. Sadly, this is where Kelly's cinematic roller coaster jumps its rails. Sitting in the theater watching Kelly's narrative wild ride play out on screen, I found myself smiling, silently cheering because I truly had no idea where the movie was going. While Kelly has directorial talent, skill and vision to spare, "Donnie Darko" ultimately misses the mark. But not by much.
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