Donnie Darko

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 01/26/01 19:16:20

"A bold effort, but you have to crawl before you can sprint the 100 in 9.93"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

You've got to give cred to a guy who has never written or directed before, yet has the cajones to not only write one of the most multi-layered and elaborate scripts imaginable, and then stroll into Drew Barrymore's office and get her to bankroll his project. Rookie feature director Richard Kelly did just that, and almost pulled off one of the most daring directorial debuts in recent memory. I say almost because even the most prolific writer/director would have trouble keeping an audience in the palm of his hand throughout this minefield of surprise, philosophy, science, insanity, social commentary and 80's references.

Leading the show are Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky) and Jena Malone (Scary Movie). Jake is Donnie Darko, a boy with 'problems', that are perhaps exacerbated by the chemicals his parents and therapist insist he pump into his bloodstream. When Donnie pops a pill, he tends to see things. Like Frank, a huge demonic rabbit who seems hell-bent on making Donnie's life miserable. While Donnie dodges the police, crazy teachers and falling jet engines during the day, Frank sends him on nightly missions to right wrongs... the wrong way.

Let it be known that Gyllenhaal is on fire in this role. If October Sky gave a glimpse of what he can do, Donnie Darko shines a heavy spotlight on his ability. Someone has taught this kid that when it comes to acting, it's not what you show, but what you don't, that keeps an audience guessing and wanting more. This is a complex character - a hero and and anti-hero rolled up into one angst-ridden ball of confusion - and Gyllenhaal delivers in a big way, leaving the audience wondering until the very end if he's the villain of the piece or the victim.
Malone, on the other hand, so comedically sound in Scary Movie, struggles with a more dramatic turn. She just doesn't have the nuances needed to go toe to toe with Senor Gyllenhaal, but despite her co-star billing, she's not on the screen long enough to detract from proceedings. Nor does Drew Barrymore, producer and bit part player. Her role, as a teacher trying to reach her students, is perhaps the most confusing in the film, and for much of it she too seems to struggle to reign things in, but Donnie Darko is a 400 lb gorilla of a story, so complex that 'the impact of Drew' is quickly superceded by the urge to keep up, and figure out what the hell this will all come to.

But while Malone and Barrymore fade, not so Patrick Swaze.

Whatever you think of the Swayzlestick - over-the-hill romantic lead, wearer of too much eye make-up, hack that got lucky, in Donnie Darko he takes an axe to his reputation and does what he should have done long ago - drops the lead tag and just makes fun of himself. Swazye plays a self-help guru of sorts and bathes himself in self-love to the extent that his character becomes more charicature than portrait. He delivers some of the biggest laughs in the film in a role that, trust me, most actors wouldn't dare come near. Props to Pat for taking a chance on something different and having the talent to nail it whole.

Noah Wyle also impresses - not for any kind of bravura performance, but for underplaying things. Wyle could rightly claim borderline A-list star status, but never does he play the part of the scenery-chewer. His role is small, his character quiet, and much as Cate Blanchett regularly does, Wyle puts character before career.

But perhaps the star of this show is the director, Richard Kelly. To write a screenplay this multi-faceted is an accomplishment. To hold out on selling it until someone would allow him to direct was a gamble. And to then manage to put so many of the pieces together, so beautifully, you have to wonder what he could accomplish with a less tangled storyline, a bigger budget and a few more shooting days at hand (Donnie Darko was shot in only 28 days).

Having said all that, this film will, in all probability, not sell to the public well. After being burned on the recent string of "we don't know what's going on until the very end" films (What Lies Beneath and Unbreakable for example), a film that delves so deeply into insanity and depression would be a hard sell not only to a mainstream audience, but a large film distributor. And that's a pity, because with all it's tiny glitches, Donnie Darko provokes an audience into thought - something the majority of last year's film never even attempted, let alone succeeded in.

If Donnie Darko doesn't get the release it deserves, hunt it down on video, turn the lights off and try to keep up. And hail the emergence of another entry into the 'Young Indie Filmmakers Who Could Kick Hollywood's Hiney' Club.

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