Worth A Look: 16.97%
Pretty Bad: 4.44%
Total Crap: 4.96%
10 reviews, 323 user ratings
by Collin Souter
I think most filmgoers can remember where they were as a teenager when they first saw that one movie that truly spoke to them. For me, it had to be “Heathers,” and I watched it the day it came out on video back in the summer of 1989, just before my junior year at John Hersey High School started. I remember it well because the movie told the story about outsiders who get revenge on the popular people only to find that their methods ended up giving theses rotten people more depth, more brains and, oddly enough, a soul. Most importantly, though, it gave us outsiders a movie anti-hero and heroine whom we could call our own. Sure, they killed people, but they spoke for those who had been picked on and put down all their lives.And it was our little secret movie, and no one else could have it. “Secret,” because it didn’t last more than a week when it hit theaters. Its light-hearted approach to teen suicide scared people off and it got slapped with an R-rating, the kiss of death for any teen movie, since most of its target audience doesn’t fit the age requirements for admission. In 2001, a similar fate fell upon a masterpiece of teen angst, “Donnie Darko,” a movie I came upon almost by accident, and came away from almost in tears. A friend of mine said at the end of the year, “The single greatest movie tragedy of 2001 is what happened to ‘Donnie Darko.’” No one saw it. No one noticed. No one cared.
"One of the most important films about teenagers ever."
Upon a recent second viewing of this brilliant odyssey of a movie, I realized that I might have to alter my Top Ten of 2001 and put “Darko” a little higher than #8. I had taken a hiatus from writing movie reviews at the time of its release back in the fall. It came out the same day as “K-Pax” and “Thirteen Ghosts.” On its opening night, my girlfriend and I snuck into “Darko” after being disappointed in “K-Pax,” and we ended up being the only two people in the theater. We didn’t know what to expect. We had no expectations except that it might be a horror movie, seeing as how they advertised it as such.
A bad move on the part of the publicity department, but who can really blame them? I can’t even begin to describe this film. But this is a review and I want people to see this film, so I’ll do my best. The film takes place in 1988. The title character, a bright and slightly disturbed teenager named Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), lives with his suburban white-bread family of five, two parents (Holmes Osborne and Mary MacDonnell) and two sisters (Maggie Gyllenhaal as older sister Elizabeth and Daveigh Chase as younger sister Samantha). The family functions well and have funny arguments about why one should or shouldn’t vote for Dukakis.
Donnie has a sleepwalking disorder. He lies on the side of a road next to his bike when we first see him. One night, as the Darko family settles in (and Donnie goes for a walk) an engine from a 747 crashes into their house. No one gets killed, but Donnie has visions. One vision, actually, in the form of a man-size rabbit named Frank. Frank warns Donnie about the end of the world and its precise date: 10/30/88. It’s October 2nd when he hears this and the movie counts down to the final day as it progresses. Donnie only tells this to his psychiatrist, Dr. Thurman (Katherine Ross) while under hypnosis. Already this sounds as though the filmmakers crossed “Harvey” with “12 Monkeys,” but that only begins to describe it.
Donnie also has a literature teacher, Mrs. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) who has taken an interest in him. She tries to teach the class about Graham Greene’s book “The Destructors” which has been branded by the PTA as “pornography.” Here, the movie makes its point (again, without hitting us over the head) about the role of literature and media in the life of a teenager. The movie goes even further with the character of Jim Cunningham (a hilarious Patrick Swayze), a self-help guru who only knows two human emotions: Love and Fear. As if impressionable teenagers don’t have enough to deal with from their friends, their enemies and their misunderstanding parents, trying to lump all of humanity into two polar opposite emotions as a way of answering life’s deepest questions only patronizes them and adds to their frustrations. Donnie, of course, will have nothing of it.
In fact, Donnie may be one of the most well adjusted teenagers in the school. Even though he sees a psychiatrist, masturbates when put under hypnosis, dodges death from a falling engine and has visions about the end of the world, he does have an open relationship with his family. He also understands how crazy his imagination has become and has the insight to do some outside investigation. At one point, he comes across a book about time travel written by a 101-year old woman in his neighborhood named Roberta Sparrow (a.k.a. “Grandma Death”). Soon, he asks questions to his science teacher (Noah Wiley) about the possibility of time travel and the functions of wormholes. Here, we start to think about what has happened so far in this movie and what is actually happening.
“Donnie Darko” also tells a beautiful love story, which I find miraculous considering everything else that happens in the movie. Donnie meets a new girl in school named Gretchen (Jena Malone). She tells him about her mother and her former step-dad who has emotional problems, to which he lightheartedly replies, “Oh, really? Me too. What kind does he have?” Donnie and Gretchen’s relationship matures even though she wants to delay the first kiss. Why? A kiss should remind someone of how beautiful life can be. I know this sounds corny, especially when it comes from a teen’s perspective, but I’m telling you, nothing in this movie will have you rolling your eyes in disbelief. Their relationship is believable and is also one of last year’s best love stories.
I still don’t think I did justice in describing “Donnie Darko,” and that’s just as well. Part “Harvey,” part “12 Monkeys,” part “The Ice Storm,” part “American Beauty,” part “Catcher In the Rye.” The movie is made up of odd parts that somehow go together perfectly. First time writer/director Richard Kelly has the kind of vision that makes people sit up and take notice. How he managed to mix all these tones of sadness, humor, surrealism, angst and warmth all under the umbrella of its story and its chosen time period shows that Kelly has a gift that will take him far. He is truly an original.
The cast he has assembled couldn’t be better. As Donnie, Jake Gyllenhaal gives a performance of remarkable sensitivity. He takes a smart approach to the material by playing it straight. He doesn’t try to be weird because the movie is weird. He comes off as a perfectly acceptable everyteen, and anyone who has ever suffered through teen angst will see something of themselves in Donnie Darko. As Gretchen, Jena Malone has just the right balance of innocence and torment, while also conveying to us that she has an old soul and brains to spare. And, if you happen to notice why Donnie and his sister, Elizabeth, have perfect brother-and-sister chemistry, it is because Kelly had the right instinct to cast Jake Gyllenhaal’s real-life sister, Maggie, in the role.
Teenagers will find a lot to love about “Donnie Darko” if they take the chance on it. Most movies about teenagers these days haven’t a clue as to what makes these years so hellish. Most movies about teenagers lead up to the big prom or involve some stupid bet. Many don’t take the time to make their characters smart. This movie understands the teen mindset in the same way “Ghost World” and “Rushmore” does. Even though it takes place in 1988, it has a timeless feel to it. One of the reasons for that may be because Kelly has chosen timeless pop music of its time as the soundtrack instead of always inserting corny 80’s music for the sake of a laugh. (You’ll never hear Tears For Fears’ “Head Over Heels” in quite the same way again.)
But it also has to do with the ending, which I’m not giving away. The ending will no doubt have a few people scratching their heads (Did I forget to mention that this is one of those “weird” movies that requires thinking?). Kelly illustrates, among other things, with his closing sequence that we carry around our baggage no matter what age we happen to be. Even though some of us preach “love,” we have still have the burdens of our past following us through life. Sure, you can fantasize about getting into a time machine to try and alter your past, but you will always make mistakes and people will always be cruel. Medication can only go so far, but enlightenment is not impossible.
Now, please understand I wrote this review after my second viewing. Upon listening to the DVD commentary track with Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal, I realized that perhaps I had this movie all wrong. I have failed to mention that “Donnie Darko” makes for great science fiction. Kelly revealed many aspects of the story that I’m sure will go un-noticed by first-time viewers. My interpretation of it only partially coincided with Kelly’s vision. This didn’t frustrate me or cause me to reconsider my approach to this review. In fact, I love how many levels this movie works. How many movies have there been over the years that offer something fresh and new every time you watch it? And how many movies about teenagers will have you debating free will over predestination?"Donnie Darko” is a movie that needs to be discovered. Its video box shows the faces of the most well-known actors in the movie circled around a demented rabbit face. Most people will walk right by it. I agree with my friend about its fate as being the single biggest movie tragedy of 2001. This is the kind of movie that can inspire teens to make their own movies about life, the kind of movie that reminds every loner that someone out there understands them, the kind of movie that will stay in your mind for days, especially with the haunting song in its heart (“I find it kind of funny/ I find it kind of sad/ That the dreams in which I’m dying/ Are the best I’ve ever had…”). I sure as hell hope 10 or 15 years from now to come across a movie reviewer who remembers where he/she was when they first saw “Donnie Darko.” By that time, hopefully, it will be more than a secret.
link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4843&reviewer=233
originally posted: 03/18/02 16:32:37