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Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2002

If you could see what I see

Donnie Darko

Rating: * * * *
Director: Richard Kelly
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

"28 days. 6 hours. 42 minutes. 12 seconds. That is when the world will end." Troubled high-school teen Donnie Darko is given this crucial bit of information by Frank, a giant mutant rabbit who only Donnie can see. Of course, Donnie's off his medication, and Frank may just be a schizophrenic delusion. But when a hallucination starts giving you advice on real-world stuff that turns out to be correct, you have to sit up and take notice.

News photo
Jake Gyllenhall, Jena Malone and Frank in Richard Kelly's "Donnie Darko"

After Frank saves Donnie from a potentially fatal accident involving an airplane engine that drops out of the sky, Donnie reluctantly starts to heed this voice inside his head. But if Frank is correct, then what's the deal with this "end of the world" business, and why is Donnie being forewarned?

As you can probably already tell, "Donnie Darko" -- the debut of director Richard Kelly -- is a bit of a weird one. But on the other hand, it's perfectly normal, a teen-flick about family, high-school, falling in love and adolescent insecurity, set in an idealized Massachusetts suburb in 1988. The resulting contrast is a surprisingly fresh blend, as if Philip K. Dick had scripted a mid-'80s John Hughes flick, or if David Lynch had a go at the "Back to the Future" series.

Lynch is an obvious reference point here, and "Donnie Darko" continues on the path blazed by "Mulholland Drive" and other recent "puzzle" flicks such as "Memento," in which the subjective nature of the storytelling keeps you off-balance until a mind-bending ending sends you reeling back to where you began. But unlike Lynchland, which is usually a journey to the dark depths of the subconscious, "Donnie Darko's" concerns are closer to the metaphysical meanderings of Dick, particularly in his later works.

What is real? Are we alone in the universe? How does one cope with the breakthrough of the mystical into everyday life? And how does one distinguish it from insanity? Is our destiny -- that is, the future -- preordained and, if so, by who? (This is a theme that also comes to the fore in Spielberg's upcoming adaptation of Dick's "Minority Report.")

"Donnie Darko" is an ontological mystery that manages to touch upon all these questions in a pop mode that's as funny as it is eerie, that can shift gears from haunting Gothic choral music to the glam trash-pop of Tears for Fears and never choke for a moment.

Kelly's film is unabashedly '80s, kicking off with a vintage Echo & the Bunnymen track and dropping references to such defining '80s moments as the Bush vs. Dukakis debates and Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead." No doubt, this is part of what attracted Drew Barrymore to appear in and produce the film; after "The Wedding Singer," it looks like she's hell-bent on kick-starting the nascent '80s revival. But this is no kitschy nostalgia flick; the specifics of time and place allow Kelly to ground his film in the real before launching into his flights of fancy.

Much of the film does feel like a regular teen flick: Donnie (Jake Gyllenhall) has spats with his overly protective parents, endures his weekly visits to the shrink (Katherine Ross of "The Graduate" fame), gets bullied at school and bonds with a fellow outcast, a new kid named Gretchen (Jena Malone). A minor crisis erupts when his school's plumbing system is vandalized and floods; his sympathetic English teacher (Barrymore) has her reading list attacked for including Graham Greene's "The Destroyers," while a self-help guru (Patrick Swayze) is enlisted to brainwash the kids with glassy-eyed, feel-good positivity.

Amid this Anytown tale, the weirdness emerges from the cracks: the apocalyptic mutterings of Grandma Death, the town crackpot; Donnie's increasing interest in quantum physics and, especially, time travel; and the increasing visits of Frank. As the 28th day approaches, events rush toward something big happening, but what?

While Kelly's film stretches the boundaries of the possible, at its heart are some compellingly real emotions. Mary McDonnell brings a lot of warmth to her role as Donnie's mother, making a perfectionist and slightly vain suburban mom into something far deeper than cliche. Gyllenhall and Malone, as Donnie and Gretchen, also establish a real affection. Walking home from school, their halting conversation is full of the anticipation and nervousness of nascent teen romance.

"Donnie Darko, what kind of name is that?" teases Gretchen. "It sounds like some kind of superhero or something."

"What makes you think I'm not?" shoots back Donnie, a line pregnant with meaning when you hit the end of the film.

Gyllenhall has a look that's all dark and brooding, with the occasional disarming grin that brings to mind Wes Bentley in "American Beauty" or Tobey Maguire in "The Ice Storm." But Gyllenhall also displays a sharp and indignant sense of humor: The scene in which he takes on the new-age psychobabbler in front of the school assembly is a howler.

Trendy pop-psych is an easy target, and perhaps a dubious one for a film that itself indulges in the metaphysical. But Kelly's point is a clear one: our answers must come from within. "Donnie Darko" is such a meandering magical mystery trip that -- like with Dick -- it's easy to lose sight of the underlying seriousness. Kelly caps it all off with a surprisingly poignant finale, though, and you'll be heading back to see it all over again, with an entirely different perspective.

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