You can’t really classify “Donnie Darko.” It’s not really a horror film though many parts are told that way. It’s not really science-fiction although it is focused on time travel. It’s also not really a drama because it has several humorous parts. All that considered, it’s not surprising that the film fell under the radar and developed a cult-classic reputation. The reason being that whoever had the task of distributing this film would have a hard time figuring out how to advertise it. But for film lovers, that doesn’t matter, because no matter how you identify “Donnie Darko,” you’re likely to at least deem it a good if not great film.
“Darko” takes place in the Maryland suburbs and centers around the life of its title character and his family. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled teen with a troubled past that only gets worse when he starts sleepwalking at the beg and call of a giant bunny named Frank who tells him the world will end in 28 days and leads him to commit a series of crimes. Along the way, Donnie finds himself learning about time travel, wrestling philosophically with his teachers and he becomes involved with a girl named Gretchen (Jena Malone from “Stepmom”). The film makes out to be a character study of Donnie but eventually becomes much more than that.
Gyllenhaal is excellent as the intelligent but clearly off-kilter Donnie. The schizophrenia is portrayed all too well by the actor of course with the help of Richard Kelly, who really creates a believable distinction between normal and deranged Donnie. Mary McDonnell as Donnie’s mother is also very good as is his sister, his also biological sister Maggie Gyllenhaal. Even Drew Barrymore as Donnie’s English teacher stands out in this film.
While the acting is good, this is clearly Richard Kelly’s film. He has without question put an incredible amount of thought into this project and it really shows. While the time travel aspect of the plot is pretty out there, Donnie is definitely portrayed as a realistic teen in a realistic family with normal family issues. At no point do you feel forced to come to terms with the ridiculousness of the premise. You are pulled in by who and what Frank is and the film delivers on that end as well. Rarely do supernatural characters come down to earth like Frank does in the film. Kelly’s juxtaposing sequences and fades make the film a very effective mood piece as well. At first you’re expecting something more out of the horror genre, but eventually that simply becomes part of the many moods that makes “Donnie Darko” so unique.
Perhaps the film’s only true weakness is that thematically it feels a bit jumpy and cluttered. There is a lot going on and a lot to think about and it doesn’t seem to feel connected from scene to scene. As the film ends you begin to think about the many different ideas raised and not one clear thing comes to mind. While it does make it rather rich for discussion, it’s hard to come away with exactly what Kelly was trying to say. Perhaps the biggest idea is the very clearly established continuum that runs between extreme fear and extreme love. Those ideas echo throughout everything although sometimes clearer than others.
Perhaps the genre that it is assigned (independent) serves “Donnie Darko” best, but the film clearly demonstrates an ability to cross lines and appeal to everyone, mostly through its intricacy. You can tell Kelly knew exactly what he wanted in every shot and what little hints and trivia he wanted to drop throughout the film. “Darko” goes to show that films about people at their core, regardless the genre “assigned” them can affect people and impact a wide audience.
Written and Directed by: Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone