Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a high school student. Although his test scores are beyond the top he is extremely troubled. On medication for sleepwalking and under professional care Donnie is likeable if not a bit on the dark side. After skipping his medication he sleepwalks and avoids being killed by the unexplained 747 jet engine that fell through his house.
Donnie Darko is set in a typical suburban setting in 1988. Donnie’s mother (Mary McDonnell) and father (Holmes Osborne) provide a happy home bit this happiness is not the cause of Donnie’s angst, against the usual format of Hollywood it is merely the backdrop for a much darker tale. For one thing Donnie is visited by Frank (James Duval) a six foot tale demonic rabbit with a skull face mask. Frank informs our belabored hero that the world will end in 28 days. Donnie becomes fascinated with the concept of time travel and alternate time lines.
These alternate futures appear before Donnie as he sees translucent foreshadowing events of his family. As Donnie delves into the theory of the time space continuum he discovers that one of the leading experts in the field, Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland), also known in the neighborhood as Grandma Death, lives near by.
Donnie Darko takes offhanded jabs at some of the most beloved films of our times. Frank is the evil universe version of Harvey, the benign six foot rabbit that befriended Jimmy Stewart so long ago. There is a feel to the community that Donnie lives that reminds the audience of the opening of Poltergeist, a typical cookie cutter neighborhood that much of America grew up in. Personally I like the ‘hidden horror’ that lies beneath sub-genre of film. Trouble is it is often not treated in a manner that gives credit to the audience has having even a modicum of intelligence.
With Donnie Darko the thriller aspect is psychological and not the typical visceral and graphic as most films. As with the real world Donnie Darko is populated with a mixture of people both normal and bizarre. The gamut of views and the means to express them is impressive in and of itself. It helps to keep Donnie Darko not only moving but something difficult to turn away from. Of course, part of that is the same as slowing down in traffic to watch a car wreak, you just can’t turn your head.
The casting of Donnie Darko also represents what is great about these low budget independent films; it is a mixture of well known personalities and talented new comers. The multifaceted Gyllenhaal family is well represented here. Born from the director Steven (The Shield) and screenwriter mother, brother and sister Jake and Maggie are very well utilized here.
The sibling relationship on screen with out a doubt reflects their own true life one. Jake has had a rather uneven career so far. While excellent here and in the recent critically acclaimed ‘The Good Girl’ his parents most have been out of town and unable to advise him when he signed on for ‘Bubble Boy’. Jake’s real life and on screen sister Maggie is just beginning to come into her own as an actress.
Her resume includes some of the quirkier films around including the very strange ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’. She has presence on screen and provides an off beat jot to keep Donnie Darko from becoming too dark. Naturally, there are the bigger, more established stars also present in this film It is refreshing to see stars of this caliber willing to forego their normal, large salaries to participate in films of this nature.
Among them is Drew Barrymore that not only acts as Donnie’s English teacher but served as the film’s co-executive producer. Far more than just a beautiful goofy girl she is emerging as one of the true forces to be reckoned with in the film industry. Patrick Swayze as the nearly demented motivational speakers is a piece of inspired casting and a treat to watch.
This was director/writer Richard Kelly’s first and so far only foray into movie making. For a freshman effort is surprisingly good. There is a little touch of film school influence, trying a bit too hard to cram as many tricks of lighting and camera work as possible. Considering the innate talent this man possesses I am an influential director. The plot is somewhat convoluted and at times very difficult to follow. Many viewers too used to the simplistic plots typically offered by Hollywood will not get all that Donnie Darko has to offer.
What holds the audience’s attention to Donnie Darko is how emotionally and visually compelling. Rather than going off the beaten path just for the sake of doing it Donnie Darko was written ad directed with purpose, albeit a rather strange one. Watching Donnie Darko gave me the impression that Kelly is a true fan of movies.
Donnie Darko is refreshing in an age where so many directors seem to be in the craft just for their own personal exaltation. One obvious influence for Kelly is Paul Thomas Andersen’s brilliant film Magnolia. Where Andersen went off on the track that life is an immutable series of events bound by coincident, Kelly’s world view is just as dark but motivated by alternate timelines set upon a backdrop of quantum uncertainly.
The disc presents Donnie Darko better than the treatment given to most independent films, truth be told Donnie Darko is better than many big budget films faire on DVD. The anamorphic 2.35:1 video is a bit flawed but more than watchable. The picture has some trouble with the darker scenes and the color palette was just a bit off. Overall the video was clear on otherwise free of defect. The 5.1 Dolby audio was surprisingly robust and offered a full, rich sound field.
The extras really shine here. The commentary track with Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal is interesting although often young Jake’s enthusiasm results in his interrupting the comments of the director. There is also a commentary track featuring Barrymore and other cast and crew members. This is a bit lighter than the main track. There is also a set of deleted scenes and other background material. Overall Donnie Darko is not for everyone but it is worth a place in any serious collection.
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