[Picture of projector]

Laramie Movie Scope:
Donnie Darko

An offbeat teen angst time travel killer rabbit story

[Strip of film rule]
by Robert Roten, Film Critic
[Strip of film rule]

April 12, 2002 -- "Donnie Darko," as you can tell by the headline above, is a movie that defies conventional categories. It could be a science fiction film, a fantasy, or even a "Mulholland Drive"-type film about dreams or illusions. Whatever it is, it is fascinating, lyrical filmmaking and it demands multiple viewings to wring the most out of it.

Jake Gyllenhaal of "October Sky") stars as the title character, a troubled high school student who has recurring visions of a man in a cheap rabbit costume who predicts the imminent end of the world and who impels Darko to commit acts of vandalism. Darko, understandably, has schizophrenia, and has a habit of not taking his medication. He doesn't mind taking illegal drugs, however. He tells his psychiatrist (played by Katharine Ross of "The Stepford Wives") about his strange visions, and she prescribes more drugs. As if poor Darko's life is not complicated enough, he also falls in love with a fellow student, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone of "Life as a House"). Darko's parents, Eddie (Holmes Osborne) and Rose (Mary McDonnell of "Mumford"), are concerned about their son, but don't know what to do for him except to buy more prescription drugs, as his psychiatrist recommends.

On top of all this, Darko's high school science teacher, Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), gives him a book on the philosophy of time travel, written by a well-known local nut case. Darko reads the book and becomes convinced that time travel is possible. Also, a jet engine just happens to fall out of the sky and crashes into Darko's room one night. Luckily, Darko is not in his room. Or is this destiny rather than luck? The film also includes a nice tip of the hat to the 1985 time travel film, "Back to the Future." I kept waiting for this film to make sense, and it never did. It turns out to be yet another gimmick film in a year of gimmick films ("Memento," "Mulholland Drive," "Vanilla Sky," etc.). The film, like "Mulholland Drive" is vague enough that it can be interpreted in a number of ways (more of this in the spoiler section below). Unlike "Mulholland Drive," "Donnie Darko" has compelling characters and a cohesive storyline.

The soundtrack of the film is excellent, featuring some great music from the 1980s (the film is set in October of 1988). The haunting score by Michael Andrews also augments the film's dark mood, as does the cinematography by Steven B. Poster ("Someone to Watch Over Me"). First-time writer-director Richard Kelly does a fine job bringing his vision to the screen, with the aid of executive producer Drew Barrymore of "Riding in Cars With Boys." Barrymore also appears in the film as literature teacher Karen Pomeroy. Her performance blends nicely into the film. Kelly successfully resisted the temptation to make this film more conventional (and more commercially successful). One of the main reasons he was able to make the film his way is the quality his script. The script attracted enough solid talent, plus a Hollywood heavyweight, to the project, and that gave Kelly the freedom he needed to operate.

One of the reasons the film works so well is the compelling acting performance of Jake Gyllenhaal. He is mesmerizing on the screen. Gyllenhaal makes the outlandish story seem believable. By the way, his real sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal of "40 Days and 40 Nights" plays his sister, Elizabeth Darko, in the movie. Too often in films about teens, the parents are portrayed as adolescent-like idiots. Not so in this film. The parents are believable, adult characters. The romance between Darko and Gretchen Ross is also handled well. Gyllenhaal and Malone have good chemistry on screen. This film rates a B.

I saw this film for the first time on DVD and was impressed by the extra features, especially the self-help infomercial by Jim Cunningham (slickly played in the film by Patrick Swayze of "City of Joy"). If you watch the "Cunning Visions" infomercial, with the accompanying audio commentary supposedly by the infomercial director, it turns out to be a hilarious send up of audio commentaries on DVDs in general. The two commentators start calling each other names, arguing over a donut. The music video, featuring "Mad World" sung by Gary Jules, is best watched after you see the film. Jules sings a haunting, powerful cover of the Tears for Fears song. The images complement the film, and the music, very well. The DVD also features widescreen format, Dolby sound encoding, various trailers, deleted scenes, pages from the "Philosophy of Time Travel" book, commentary by Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal, art gallery, production stills and movie website information.

Spoilers below (if such a thing is possible in a film like this)

I was struck by the similarities of this film to "Mulholland Drive." Both films have a non-linear narrative structure (or can be interpreted as being such). As I said in my Mulholland Drive review, that film can be interpreted as a nightmarish dream which happens during the last seconds of a person's life. "Donnie Darko" can be interpreted the same way. If the entire narrative unfolds in Donnie Darko's brain during the last seconds of his life as he is killed by the falling jet engine, that eliminates a lot of problems with the whole time travel subplot.

If you have to rely on time travel, then you have a bunch of loose ends, and more than the usual number of time travel paradoxes. Donnie Darko apparently travels back in time so that he can die in place of his girlfriend. But he does not need to die to accomplish that goal. The time traveler knows when and where she will die, so all he has to do is keep her away from that time and place. Since he is the one who persuaded his girlfriend to go to the place where she was killed in the first place, how hard can it be to keep her away? Then you've got the jet engine that seemingly travels from the future to the past, while the rest of the plane stays in the future. Then there's the time-traveling giant killer rabbit which makes a lot more sense as some kind of nightmare than as a real time traveler. There is also the unresolved conflict between the concepts of free will or fate. The argument is made that God has pre-determined everyone's destiny. The counter argument is also made that time travel gives us the chance to change that fate. You can't have it both ways. Again, if the whole story is a nightmare in the final seconds of Donnie Darko's life, the fate versus free will argument is moot.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

[Strip of film rule]
Copyright © 2002 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
[Strip of film rule]
Back to the Laramie Movie Scope index.
[Rule made of Seventh Seal sillouettes]

Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)