Written and directed by Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko is the story about a young teenager who evades a horrible accident as he strange things happening relating to the end of the world. Meanwhile, he sees a strange bunny rabbit who tells him what to do as his small suburban town starts to unravel. The film is a surreal tale that features element of time travel and teen angst as then-rising star Jake Gyllenhaal plays the title role. Also starring Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, James Duval, Holmes Osborne, Mary McDonnell, Daveigh Chase, Alex Greenwald, Beth Grant, Seth Rogen, Katherine Ross, and Patrick Swayze. Donnie Darko is a stylish yet entrancing debut film from Richard Kelly.
Donnie Darko is a young teenager who always sleepwalk where he finds himself in different locations as he lives in a nice suburban home with his parents (Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell), his college-bound sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and their younger sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase). While Donnie is often lewd towards his family, he has another sleepwalking moment where he sees a bunny named Frank who leads him out of the house where an airplane engine falls into his room. Though the family is OK as is Donnie who wakes up at a golf course, he becomes the talk of the school as he meets a new classmate in Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). Still, Donnie is haunted by the message that was written on his arm that stated “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds”.
When school is cancelled due to a mysterious vandal incident, Donnie gets to know Gretchen as the school led by teacher Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant) who believes that the teachings of English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) is responsible for what’s happening. With Farmer turning to the teachings of Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) for help, Donnie still sees strange sightings of Frank who gets him to do things. Donnie is still dealing with Frank’s presence as he starts to cause some trouble in school while being amazed by what is going on as he talks to his psychiatrist Dr. Thurman (Katherine Ross) about his fears. With things still becoming strange and Cunningham trying to impose his ideals to fellow students, Donnie starts to rail on him as he clings closer to Gretchen.
When an incident involving Cunningham has him in trouble and Kitty needing Donnie’s mother for help to chaperone the school dance troupe, that includes Samantha, to Star Search. Things get stranger following a Halloween party thrown by Elizabeth where Gretchen turns to Donnie for help as the mysterious images he sees has Donnie realize what is going on leading to a climatic moment revolving around the end of the world.
The film is about a young teenager in the late 1980s growing up in a suburban home where he sees strange visions relating to the end of the world. Throughout the film, Donnie Darko deals with bullies (Alex Greenwald and Seth Rogen), new love, authority, and the fear that the world is going to end as he only shares it with his new girlfriend Gretchen and his psychiatrist. During this journey, there is a lot that goes on in the film as Donnie’s family are dealing with the chaos that Donnie has created as a teacher tries to get books banned and impose the ideals of a self-help guru. Yet, Donnie is doing it because a strange bunny rabbit named Frank tells him what to do in hopes that Donnie can save himself.
The script that Richard Kelly creates is real genre-bender as it’s a teen-angst film, a sci-fi film, a drama, a time-travel film, and all sorts of things. Something like that could be messy and unfocused but Kelly manages to create a story that does have a cohesive center as it’s all about this young man dealing with the end of the world. While it’s largely an ensemble film, it has a lot of mysticism that revolves around time travel where Darko talks to his science teacher Dr. Monntioff which leads a revelation about the mysterious woman (Patience Cleveland) who always walks back and forth to her mailbox.
Kelly’s direction is very stylish though a lot of the scenes involving dialogue and character-driven pieces are very intimate. He knows how to frame a family dinner where there’s two people in the shot or shooting from afar to capture certain conversations. There’s also some great stylistic pieces such as this amazing, slow-motion tracking shot with very few cuts where it introduces to some characters and things that are going on. Kelly knows how to create proper introductions while injecting bits of humor in these scenes. For the more surreal moments, it’s all presented in a dreamy yet harrowing moment with a few visual effects and stylistic shots. The overall work that Kelly does is spectacular as he creates what is truly a mesmerizing debut film.
Cinematographer Steven B. Poster does an excellent job with the film‘s low-key cinematography that has some great scenes involving some of the exterior settings and some nighttime interiors including the Sparkle Motion dance scene. Editors Sam Bauer and Eric Strand do a great job with the editing in creating a mostly straightforward approach for a lot of the film’s narrative while utilizing a lot of slow-motion cuts for some of the stylish moments of the film.
Production designer Alec Hammond and set decorator Jennie Harris is very good for the look of the Darko home and school including the big bulldog statue. Costume designer April Ferry also does a good job for the casual-style 80s clothes that a lot of the people wear including the school uniform that a lot of the young actors wear. Visual effects supervisor Marcus Keys does a brilliant job with the visual effects created such as the orb that Donnie sees to some of the fantasy stuff that he sees in his head. Sound editor Victoria Rose Sampson does a superb job with the sound to capture the chaos of the party scene as well as some of the big crowd moments and the more intimate moments in the film.
The film’s score by Michael Andrews is a plaintive yet somber piece driven by piano to play up some of the drama and eerie tone of the film. Music supervisors Manish Raval and Tom Wolfe create a gorgeous soundtrack that includes a lot of post-punk tracks from acts like Echo & the Bunnymen, Joy Division, and the Church along with cuts by Duran Duran and Tears for Fear that includes a haunting cover of their song Mad World by the film’s score composer Michael Andrews and vocalist Gary Jules.
The casting by Joseph Middleton and Michelle Morris is amazing as it includes appearances from a young Seth Rogen and Phantoms Planet vocalist Alex Greenwald as two bullies who dislike Donnie, a young Ashley Tisdale as a member of Sparkles Motion, David St. James as the school’s principal, James Duval in a brief appearance as Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Patience Cleveland as the mysterious Grandma Death, Noah Wyle as Donnie’s science teacher Dr. Monnitoff, Katherine Ross as Donnie’s concerned psychiatrist Dr. Thurman, Jolene Purdy as the very shy Asian student Cherita Chen, and Beth Grant in a very showy performance as the very conservative teacher Kitty Farmer.
Other notable small roles include Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell as Donnie’s parents, Daveigh Chase as Donnie’s youngest sister Samantha, Drew Barrymore as the sympathetic English teacher Karen Pomeroy, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Donnie’s college-bound sister Elizabeth where she has a great scene where she and real-life brother Jake square off in a verbal war of words. Patrick Swayze is excellent in a very slimy role as Jim Cunningham, a self-help guru whose ideals are challenged by Donnie who would uncover a harrowing secret about him. Jena Malone is wonderful as Gretchen Ross, a new classmate of Donnie who becomes the love interest while dealing with her own issues as she is hiding from her abusive father.
Finally, there’s Jake Gyllenhaal in a brilliant performance as the titular character who has some outstanding scenes whether it’s ranting about the Smurfs or defying authority while being very worrisome about the end of the world. It’s definitely a true star-making performance for the young actor at the time as he really gets the chance to carry a film while be surrounded by an amazing ensemble. It’s definitely one of his best performances of his career.
*** DVD Content Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 8/27/03 w/ Additional Edits***
The Region 1 DVD to the theatrical cut of Donnie Darko not only enhances the film's growing cult stature but also brings more depth into the film's storylines. Aside from a clearer video transfer on the DVD in comparison to watching it on Cinemax or HBO where it's a bit fuzzy, the film looks much better in the DVD video transfer. Then there's the audio commentary in the DVD. There are two sets of audio commentary in the film. The first is from the cast that includes Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, James Duval, Beth Grant, and producer Sean McKittrick that is a bit annoying at times but also funny as many in the cast are still hoping for a Sparkle Motions reunion.
The other set of commentary is from creator Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal where they discuss some of the things that were overlooked in the film. Gyllenhaal even reveal some things including the Halloween party scene where Maggie dressed up as the girlfriend of Clare Quilty as a reference to Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of Lolita. Gyllenhaal does what is probably one of the worst impressions of Christopher Walken, whom he wished played Frank.
Aside from the usual cast & crew info, trailers, and subtitles, the DVD is filled with great stuff including the infamous Jim Cunningham, Cunning Visions infomercials. Those infomercials by the way are the most cheesiest and hilarious pieces of film ever presented and Swayze‘s performance is hilarious, even the little kid who claims to have wet the bed with his famous line, "I'm not afraid anymore". The DVD also has an art gallery of the drawings of Frank as the bunny rabbit. There's even a look at the Philosophy of Time Travel and a gallery of the film's website, which is by far one of the best film websites ever that includes the deaths of a few characters in the film. Another great feature is info on the film's soundtrack and a video for the song Mad World performed by Gary Jules.
The final tidbit in the DVD is twenty scenes that were either deleted or extended. Each scene includes optional commentary from Kelly about why these scenes were cut. The scenes include more moments with Jake Gyllenhaal talking with his psychiatrist and Karen Pomeroy, who he felt, was the best teacher in the school. Even extended scenes on the bus that reveals more cruelty towards Cherita Chen. There's even more scenes that were cut that you wished were kept. One was when Jake tells Daveigh Chase that he'll fart on her face in an extended hotel scene and another with Maggie as they're carving pumpkins. There are more scenes of Frank in the film and more depth into the relationship between Donnie and Gretchen. There's another scene unlike the rest of the nineteen that was cut from the film that reveals Donnie's fate which brings reason into why Kelly cut that scene out.
***End of DVD Review Tidbits***
Donnie Darko is a haunting but enchanting film from Richard Kelly featuring a chilling performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. Featuring a great ensemble cast that includes Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Patrick Swayze, and many others, it’s a film that isn’t for everyone as far as conventional storytelling is concerned. Yet, that is what is so great about it because it takes chances in bending genres while creating something that a young audience can relate to. In the end, Donnie Darko is an outstanding yet surreal film from Richard Kelly
Richard Kelly Films: Southland Tales - (The Box)
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