United States, 2000
U.S. Release Date:
R (Profanity, Violence, Drugs)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Mary McDonnell
Donnie Darko, the debut feature from writer/director Richard Kelly, is part psychological thriller and part science fiction mystery. The title character (Jake Gyllenhaal), a teenager in his last year of high school, is suffering from all manner of delusions and hallucinations. He sees and does the bidding of a six-foot high rabbit wearing an insect mask, and, at times, appears completely dissociated form his surroundings. He is visiting a therapist and taking medication, but neither solution is working. Donnie is getting worse, but is it because he's descending deeper into a web of mental instability or because he's really seeing and experiencing these things? These are questions that the movie leaves unanswered until the end.
For much of the running length, Donnie Darko focuses more on Donnie's relationships with his sisters, parents, and girlfriend than on the science fiction aspects. This is meant to humanize a non-traditional protagonist and make him more "accessible" to viewers. It also allows the climax to have an emotional component (in addition to explaining the storyline's assorted, convoluted weirdness). Donnie Darko has a slow, methodical pace that allows the narrative to breathe; unfortunately, there are times when Kelly falls prey to the easy trap of self-indulgence. Selective edits would have made Donnie Darko tighter and more gripping, and, as a result, a better motion picture. As it is, there's a little too much redundancy in what's on screen. In addition, the highest-profile actress in the cast, Drew Barrymore, is playing a part deserving of less screen time - but, of course, since Barrymore is Donnie Darko's biggest selling point, her supporting character is featured more often than is necessarily good for the movie. Still, despite its flaws, this is a compelling motion picture, and offers the kind of "fresh" experience extended by the likes of Pi and The Sticky Fingers of Time.
One aspect of Donnie Darko's production that's definitely worth mentioning is the special effects. The movie was made on the kind of low budget typically associated with independent films, yet the visual effects are first-rate (one in particular looks like it was lifted out of James Cameron's The Abyss). With the price for this kind of CGI work in a steady decline, it is now becoming possible for all directors - not just those working with $50 million-plus budgets - to employ convincing, and occasionally eye-popping, special effects. Tools that were cutting edge a decade ago have now become commonplace. Donnie Darko proves that it's possible to do science fiction with visual effects in the independent film arena. This is just another area where the line between mainstream and indie movie-making has become increasingly blurred. Perhaps the only remaining difference is that smaller efforts like Donnie Darko use effects in service of an interesting story, while too many Hollywood productions think of the plot as a bothersome adjunct to their CGI eye candy.