The superbly twisted psychological thriller Donnie Darko deftly incorporates elements of suburban satire into a compassionately drawn dysfunctional-family portrait, all in the service of a compelling mystery. It begins with a large rabbit who announces the end of the world to the titular tormented protagonist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a teen struggling with suburban ennui, adolescent angst, and major-league hallucinations as he counts down the 28 days to apocalypse. Donnie's world (Southern California, circa 1988) is a strange one to be sure, unfolding like a psychotic, paranoid delusion in which the demonic rabbit's warnings are somehow connected to a jet engine that falls inexplicably from the sky and demolishes Donnie's bedroom. Gyllenhaal makes Donnie a riveting character, shifting convincingly between tortured confusion and sinister dementia. The supporting cast is equally strong, featuring a superb Mary McDonnell as Donnie's mother, Katharine Ross as his shrink, and Patrick Swayze as a creepy self-help guru. Drew Barrymore also makes an appearance as Donnie’s English teacher. As for the mystery, those who like theirs with a twist won’t be disappointed: Writer-director Richard Kelly, in his feature debut, delivers a denouement that packs the punch of divine revelation. One of the finest-ever first efforts in American independent cinema, Donnie Darko is a disturbing, exhilarating, and profoundly touching film about sacrifice, redemption, and destiny.
One of the eeriest and most ambitious American independent films of the early 2000s, Richard Kelly's debut feature is an eclectic amalgam of science fiction, horror story, '80s nostalgia-fest, and teen movie. A child of the '80s, Kelly wears his formative influences on his sleeve: the movie invokes Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis among others, and the soundtrack boasts Echo & the Bunnymen, Joy Division, and Tears for Fears. Unlike films that have trafficked in '80s nostalgia, Kelly's portrait is admirably restrained, mining the period for specific political and personal connotations (as opposed to cheap laughs and pandering irony). Despite being a period piece, the movie succeeds in conveying a sense of imminent doom. Anchored by Jake Gyllenhaal's nuanced performance as the eponymous hero and Steven Poster's tenebrous lighting, the movie is genuinely unsettling. Its denouement, set on a portentous Halloween night, evokes an unraveling world of lost kids and absent parents -- perhaps the closest thing to a definitive statement the movie makes about growing up during the Reagan years. With its intimations of apocalypse and visions of planes falling from the sky, the movie inadvertently gained added resonance in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. An unabashed popcorn movie at heart, Donnie Darko gets terrific mileage from Kelly's imaginative scenario and evocative direction. For all its splashy special effects and inspired casting, it's the movie's ominous and ultimately elegiac tone that stays with you.
Excitingly original indie vision. Lisa Schwarzbaum
A wondrous, moodily self-involved piece of work that employs X-Files magic realism to galvanize what might have been a routine tale of suburban teen angst.