DONNIE DARKO (2001) Reviews and overview

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Donnie Darko is a 2001 American dark fantasy film written and directed by Richard Kelly. The plot depicts the adventures of the title character as he seeks the meaning and significance behind his troubling Doomsday-related visions.

The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore (Scream), Patrick Swayze, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle, Jena Malone, and Mary McDonnell.

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Budgeted with $4.5 million and filmed over the course of twenty-eight days, it initially grossed just under $7.7 million worldwide. The limited U.S. release of the film occurred during the month after the September 11 attacks. It was subsequently held back for almost a year for international release. Since then, the film has developed a large cult following, resulting in the release of a 20 minutes longer director’s cut.

A 2009 sequel, S. Darko, focuses on Sam (Daveigh Chase), Donnie’s younger sister. Sam begins to have strange dreams that hint at a major catastrophe.

Plot:
On October 2, 1988, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a troubled teenager is awakened and led outside by a figure in a monstrous rabbit costume, who introduces himself as “Frank” and tells him the world will end at a specific time in 28 days. At dawn, Donnie returns home to find a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom. His older sister, Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), informs him the FAA investigators do not know where it came from.

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Donnie tells his psychotherapist, Dr Thurman (Katharine Ross), about his continuing visits from Frank. Acting under Frank’s influence, he floods his school by damaging a water main. He also begins dating new student Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), who has moved to town with her mother under a new identity to escape her violent stepfather.

Gym teacher Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant) blames the flooding on the influence of the short story “The Destructors”, assigned by dedicated English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), and begins teaching attitude lessons taken from motivational speaker Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). Donnie asks his science teacher, Dr Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), about time travel after Frank brings up the topic, and is given the book The Philosophy of Time Travel, written by Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland), a former science teacher at the school who is now a seemingly senile old woman.

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Dr Thurman tells Donnie’s parents that he is detached from reality and that his visions of Frank are “daylight hallucinations”, symptomatic of paranoid schizophrenia. Donnie disrupts a speech being given by Jim Cunningham by insulting him in front of the student body, then burns down Cunningham’s house on instructions from Frank.

When police find evidence of a child abuse operation in the house’s remains, Cunningham is arrested. During a hypnotherapy session, Donnie confesses his crimes and says that Frank will soon kill someone…

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Review:
Upon its patchy 2001 initial release, Donnie Darko was proclaimed by admirers as the first great cult movie of the 21st century – may be even the greatest cult movie of the 21st century.

That is quite a reputation to which it had to live up, and when Fox relented and gave Richard Kelly’s feature (even in a more indulgent, “director’s cut” version) a second-chance release ten years later, it still failed to engage mainstream American audiences to any great amount. More than one person has told me that the trick to watching Donnie Darko is to go in with few expectations – viewers who saw its original incarnation had no clue the film was anything but teen-horror-suspense-slasher filler – and keep a very open mind. Do not expect the greatest thing ever, and then it just might turn out to be.

The setting is a cosy, affluent suburb called Middlesex (based on but not quite pinned down as Virginia) in October 1988 – yes, there are a plethora of contemporary Britpop tunes on the soundtrack; hope you have nothing against Tears for Fears.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a rebellious teenage misfit at school, is smart but forced into mental-health therapy by his caring-but-confused parents. One night, Donnie is lured from his bedroom by a phantom wearing a grotesque, metal-masked rabbit costume. `Frank the bunny’ says the world will end in 28 days, on Halloween night. Donnie awakens on a golf course the next morning; meanwhile, a plane engine falls out of nowhere onto the Darko house, crushing Donnie’s bedroom. Donnie escaped alive only because of an intervention by Frank.

Meanwhile, Donnie’s world includes strange acts of vandalism he may or may not be committing in a trance state, a potential love interest (Jena Malone) in class whose mother survived a murder attempt, a sympathetic English teacher (Drew Barrymore) being punished for assigning writings by the “dirty” author Graham Greene, and a positive-thinking guru (Patrick Swayze) who seems to have too strong a hold on the community.

Talks with Frank lead Donnie to an obscurely published treatise on time travel and parallel universes written by an ex-nun-turned-scientist who happens to still live nearby, as a withered zombie-like crone constantly checking her mailbox. Eventually, Donnie begins to witness diaphanous tendril-type shapes that seem to precede people in the choices they make – or are the tendrils actually doing the guiding, and everything is fated? Donnie ultimately realizes his pivotal role in a mystically interconnected web of destiny and a “tangent universe?”

First concocted when newcomer filmmaker Kelly was only 23, Donnie Darko works well on numerous levels – as a brainy piece of science-fiction, an ominous psychological thriller, a satire on narcotized-feelgood/Republican American suburban family values, or a tragic drama of the classic doomed teen rebel, with Donnie affirming ultimately that he is not crazy, just brighter than the average student and hence aware that sometimes being miserable and bewildered in a screwed up world (a “Mad World,” in a late musical interlude) is perfectly normal. The picture would fit beautifully with the reality-bending properties of scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman, particularly Eternal Sunlight of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich.

And the storyline is possibly a trick on the audience since we are basically seeing everything from Donnie’s point of view; at the outset, we hear (from Donnie’s sister, played by Jake Gyllenhaal’s real-life actress-sister Maggie) that he’s not very reliable about taking his psychotropic medication. Quite possibly none of it ever even happened except in Donnie’s head.

Kelly has acknowledged the resemblance to the iconic Ambrose Bierce plot ‘An Occurrence of Owl Creek Bridge’ but his own interviews indicate that we are to take the plot rather literally, and that in fact, Kelly’s 20-minute-longer 2004 director’s cut emphasizes the science-fictiony elements – and that in fact Donnie is contacted by beings with far-future technology, granting him superpowers and running the citizens of Middlesex through a coordinated plan to fulfil destiny, correct a time-warp hiccup, and thwart an apocalypse. Hence a major clue in graffiti he leaves at one of his misdeeds: “THEY MADE ME DO IT” Um, okay… I must say, blasphemously, that the feature as a whole worked better for me in the shorter, more Carnival of Souls-y theatrical-release version than in Kelly’s lengthier cut.

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With its quoteworthy lines (Great dialogue between Donnie and Frank: Question: “Why are you wearing that stupid rabbit suit?” Answer: “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”) and Moebius-puzzle timeline, Donnie Darko made such an impression on its first-generation viewers (who also took good advantage of the internet to spread the word). Patrons in the UK responded especially well, and Richard Kelly was guest of honour at an upstart Donnie Darko themed art exhibit in London and innumerable comic cons. You might even find the movie name-checked in some alt-rock tunes of the 21st century.

The “cult of Darko” has since dissipated for the most part, but it is still fun sometimes to hit somebody with references to Donnie’s monologue about Smurfs and their asexuality. Or verbally doubting your friend’s commitment to Sparkle Motion.
Charles Cassady Jr, MOVIES and MANIA

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Other reviews:

“… the drowsy surrealism and elaborate inconclusiveness of Donnie Darko will simultaneously guarantee it a rabid cult and put it way off-limits to the don’t-get-its. It shares with David Lynch’s Eraserhead a stubbornly-what-it-is unhipness that ensures inadvertent, and possibly perennial, hipness … But the flaws, if you find them to be so, are merely grit in the texture.” eFilmCritic.com

“I guess what bothered me the most is the utter “importance” that was placed on every insight revealed along the way. As if the filmmaker were bashing you over the head to say, “You better pay attention because parts of this film are really, really deep and meaningful.” Well, for some, maybe, but not for me.” Film Threat

 

“Donnie does not want to be terrified of his demons anymore, delusional or otherwise, and doesn’t want them to poison the lives of everyone around him either. Donnie Darko isn’t perfect, either as a horror film or psychological study. But what a refreshingly different, distinctive piece of work it is.” The Guardian

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