DARK. DARKER. DARKO.
I have had dreams where I’m being chased by Nazis in a forest. I have dreamt that I was a cast member of Falcon Crest. I have had many weird dreams, but in none of them have there appeared a large, evil-looking bunny rabbit predicting that the world will come to an end within 28 days. But that is exactly what happens in Richard Kelly’s wildly inventive and strangely fascinating breakthrough piece. But is it a dream? Well, that’s one of many questions you will be asking yourself after watching this film that has been elevated to true cultdom.
It is October 1988, George H.W. Bush looks set to win the presidential election and Donald Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a very troubled high school kid, is seeing a shrink. That strange rabbit (who goes by the name of Frank) keeps reappearing before him and Donnie is basically always sleepwalking, either literally or just looking like it. He is rebelling against his repressively conservative school, something which kind of runs in his genes because his sister and parents are open-minded liberals. Eventually he meets a girl, Gretchen (Jena Malone), who seems to connect with him. As the date when everything will end moves closer, Donnie’s interest in theories of time travel increases. Is it possible to change a whole chain of events? Perhaps prevent a disaster from ever happening? Part of this film is science fiction and that part is undeniably confusing. The ending feels too much like a bunch of sequences have been piled on top of each other, making no sense at all. It is nevertheless true that the director has managed to create something that can be widely discussed and interpreted in many ways. I have read one such theory about what it is that’s going on in the movie, and it’s quite good. Who knows what Kelly intended? What matters is that so many interesting interpretations can be made, that there is so much in this film that every viewer can hold on to and believe is the cornerstone of his or her very own theory.
Adding a lot of spice
Part of the film is also high school drama and comparisons have been made with John Hughes’s work. There are moments when the humorous portrayal of alienated teens may remind you of that filmmaker, but Kelly has also added a lot of spice to this fable. And that goes for the cinematography as well; the film’s dark mood makes viewers feel like they’re drawn into a very separate universe, the world as seen through the eyes of Donnie Darko. Gyllenhaal delivers an excellent performance, his world-weary, almost malignant appearance hard to forget; should Frank the rabbit be a figment of his imagination it would come as no surprise. Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell are well chosen as the parents.
Drew Barrymore executive-produced this enterprise and has given herself a small part as a teacher who refuses to accept the debilitating atmosphere on campus. Patrick Swayze rounds out the ensemble as a self-help guru; the lack of honesty in this community is rampant and Swayze’s character becomes the very symbol of that. But what about that original question, is it all a dream? You know, in the end, the answer to that may not be as important as you first thought.
Donnie Darko 2001-U.S. 113 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Adam Fields. Written and directed by Richard Kelly. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), Jena Malone (Gretchen Ross), Drew Barrymore (Karen Pomeroy), James Duval, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell… Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze.
Trivia: In 2004, a twenty-minute longer director’s cut was released to theaters. Mark Wahlberg and Vince Vaughn were allegedly considered for the part of Donnie. Followed by a direct-to-DVD sequel, S. Darko (2009).
Last word: “I had an idea about a jet engine falling on this house. I remembered an urban legend about a piece of ice that falls from a plane and kills people. Wasn’t there an episode of ’Six Feet Under’ where something like that kills? Frozen urine or something? It became a jet engine and it became this mystery of they can’t find the plane, and how do I solve the mystery, and it has something to do with time travel. And this coming of age story and do it about the 80s and make the jet engine become like a symbol, like the death knell of the 80s. It’s all coming to an end. I spewed out this story – and here we are.” (Kelly, About.com)