Review: Donnie Darko

Richard Kelly’s debut feature is a tale of adolescent angst ripe with enigmatic sci-fi underpinnings.

Donnie Darko
Photo: Newmarket Films

Writer-director Richard Kelly’s debut feature, the Lynchian Donnie Darko, is a tale of adolescent angst ripe with enigmatic sci-fi underpinnings. Regardless of whether Kelly’s titular protagonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is seemingly deranged or merely on the brink of saving humanity from itself, his timewarping fantasies become startling metaphors for confused teenage male development. This endlessly inventive film is the virtual antithesis of happy-go-lucky ’80s teen flicks, hauntingly gauging the pulse of a nation gripped by sexual repression and political uncertainty. Kelly’s jabs at Reaganism are about as subtle as his devilishly boldfaced “Vote Dukakis” shtick. By film’s end, Kelly has expertly transformed his comfortable ’80s milieu into an apocalyptic sweat chamber nervously situated between moral complacency and heartbreaking could-have-been hopefulness.

“Maybe it’s the story of Holden Caulfield, resurrected in 1988 by the spirit of Phillip K. Dick,” says 26-year-old Kelly of his film. The students at Donnie’s school free-float through hallways that begin to resemble portals into an alternate universe. Make no mistake, this is Kelly’s deadpan notion of what life was like in the ’80s. A school bully openly snorts cocaine by a friend’s locker in one hysterical slow-motion shot. Kelly allows ample room for poignancy when the bronze statue of the school’s mascot (here, a curious squatting dog) keeps stoic watch over a fat girl named Cherita (Jolene Purdy), whose swan-inspired performance at the school’s talent show is rejected in favor of a lame Stacy Q rip-off. The group is named Sparkle Motion, spearheaded by Donnie’s young sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase). They are the embodiment of ’80s cheese-pop; their performance is ghoulishly applauded while Cherita’s hopeful gaze into the future is tossed aside with polite disinterest.

A sleepwalking Donnie is lured out of his house by his alter ego (here, a rabbit named Frank), who saves Donnie from the plane engine that crashes into his bedroom. As a result, Donnie comes to believe Frank’s prophecy that the world will end in 28 days. Halloween’s arrival and the Bush/Dukakis race pitch-perfectly compliment the film’s apocalyptic wind-down. With doomsday nearing, Donnie becomes an upstart messiah ridding the town of self-righteous false prophets, though he does find time to innocently woo new-girl-in-town Gretchen (Jena Malone) with retro come-ons like “do you want to go with me?” A New Age gym teacher who makes little emotional allowances outside her fear/love lifeline is Donnie’s main target. Her downfall is followed by and linked to the fiery demise of a self-help guru played by Patrick Swayze, whose motivational shenanigans Donnie hysterically shoots to the ground.


Now in a hectic search for enlightenment, Donnie begins to believe that time travel is possible. For help, he looks to the town’s 101-year-old biddy (writer of the fictional tome The Philosophy of Time Travel), who is as eerily frozen in time as her hopeful disciples. Taught in English class by quasi-hippie Karen (Drew Barrymore), Graham Greene’s The Destructors and its tale of creation/destruction beautifully compliments the film’s fateful finale. References to ’80s pop-culture abound: Sparkle Motion is invited to be on Star Search ’88 while Donnie and Gretchen catch Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead before Donnie does away with the town’s false prophet, whose participation in a kiddie porn ring seems to shatter the entire town’s sense of complacency. Donnie Darko is a blazingly original evocation of better-place-than-here hopefulness, an affront to ’80s naïveté that is mindful of strange events that seemingly happen for a reason though not always for the better good.

 Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, Jena Malone, Katharine Ross, Mary McDonnell, Alex Greenwald, Stuart Stone, Holmes Osborne, Daveigh Chase, Patrick Swayze, Arthur Taxier  Director: Richard Kelly  Screenwriter: Richard Kelly  Distributor: Newmarket Films  Running Time: 118 min  Rating: R  Year: 2001  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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