A haunting work of loneliness, alienation, and the universal desire for companionship and meaning that’s wrapped in a guise of understated ‘80s nostalgia and head-spinning science fiction mythology, Donnie Darko defines itself through sustained mood, otherworldly intrigue and deep, abiding humanism. In a quiet suburb in October 1988, troubled teen Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) attends therapy and is plagued by sleepwalking, and after one nocturnal jaunt – during which he’s guided by a man named Frank (James Duval) in a furry, malevolent bunny suit – he returns home to find that he’s escaped death at the hands of an airplane engine that’s crashed into his bedroom, and which hails from a jet the FAA can’t locate. That near-miss doesn’t initially disrupt the family’s day-to-day, as Donnie profanely spars with his sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) over dinner while she proclaims allegiance to Michael Dukakis as a rebuke to her conservative father (Holmes Osborne), a sequence of unaffected familial love and contentiousness that’s emblematic of writer/director Richard Kelly’s intense empathy for his characters. Such compassion most forcefully centers on Donnie, though it also extends to high school teachers (Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle) trapped – like teens, be they outcast Donnie or picked-on overweight Cherita (Jolene Purdy) – in a world that decries individuality, intellectualism, unique expression, and emotional complexity.
The competing forces of evil are many in Donnie Darko, from monstrous self-help guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) and his hateful disciple Kitty Farmer (a phenomenal Beth Grant) – a gym teacher who coaches Donnie’s youngest sister in the popular, highly sexualized dance troupe Sparkle Motion – to the apathetic principal and sadistic bullies that populate the high school’s corridors. As these cretins increasingly seem poised to snuff out rational thought, Donnie plunges deeper into apparent madness, experiencing visits from Frank during which he’s told to flood the school, set fire to a house, and – more crucially still – that Frank himself is a time traveler, and that the world will soon end. Is Frank, as a midnight movie marquee suggests, the Evil Dead, and is Donnie’s saga that of The Last Temptation of Christ? Kelly drenches his material in ambiguous clues to the nature of his tale’s reality, with characters’ offhand comments implying ulterior roles in this apocalyptic passion play, and the sight of a jet engine’s curly-cue hub intimating a chasing-its-tail temporal structure to the proceedings. Yet for all its time-space paradox and wormholes-emanating-from-human-chests mysteries, Kelly’s film remains a sorrowful portrait of feeling alone, a notion relevant to many of its supporting players but most fully to Donnie, driven to make sense of a universe that seemingly provides no lasting solace.
A wide-scale panorama of grief and sacrifice that’s shot by Kelly with expert widescreen acuity, Donnie Darko also provides a wrenchingly authentic vision of adolescence as a time of uneasy identity formation and – via Donnie’s romance with new girl Gretchen Ross (Jenna Malone) – first romance. Gyllenhaal’s creepy-eyed glares are chilling but its Donnie’s heartfelt fury, confusion and fear that ground the increasingly topsy-turvy action, never more so than in an early scene where he lashes out at his mother by calling her bitch, and the director – refusing to shy away from the act’s callousness, and yet sympathetic to its underlying causes – lingers on Donnie’s immediately regretful follow-up reaction. Nonetheless, to describe Donnie Darko as purely a work of grave internal and external conflict would be to deny its great humor, which springs forth from borderline-caricatures given distinctive verve, Donnie’s amusing refusal to sit quietly while life-lesson lies are propagated as dogma, and its more general, absurdist outlook on the surreal craziness of childhood and adulthood alike. As with his assured visual compositions, his pitch-perfect use of ‘80s pop hits, and his story and style’s gentle Steven Spielberg and David Lynch-indebted touches, Kelly’s tonal balancing act is flawless, leaving his debut an alternately sad and hopeful investigation of destiny, free will and God which recognizes, ultimately, that no one dies alone if they’ve touched the lives of those they love.