Donnie Darko, the genre defying slow burner released in the US in 2001, has only just had a feature release in the UK and this is probably due to both its troubled beginnings and its current cult status. Written by first time Director Richard Kelly straight out of school, he spent a disappointing 14 months putting the script under the nose of every studio suit he could find, but when they discovered he wanted to direct the movie they told him to make sure the door didn’t smack his butt on the way out.
Eventually Drew Barrymore agreed to executive produce and take a small part in the movie which secured the modest budget $4.5 million from investors. The result, although it didn’t set the box office alight became a cult hit on DVD with countless websites springing up discussing what the movie actually meant.
The movie is set in 1988 on the eve of the George Bush’s victory over Michael Dukakis in the presidential elections. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a sleepy eyed troubled teenager, is on a course of medication and seeing a psychiatrist due to a previous incident involving setting fire to an abandoned house. That night he hears a voice telling him to go outside. He wakes up on a golf course and when he gets back to his house discovers that a jet engine has crashed through his bedroom and would have killed him had he stayed there.
The voice belongs to Frank, a giant bunny with a metal sculpted rabbit spook mask. He tells Donnie that the world will end in just over 28 days and asks him if he believes in time travel. No-one else can see the giant rabbit and it’s tempting to believe the vision is a product of Donnie’s schizophrenic mind or his medication, especially when Frank asks Donnie to flood the school or burn down another house. But coincidences start to happen: the local crazy lady, Grandma Death, seems to have written a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel which seems to echo what is happening in Donnie’s life.
The film abounds with movie and literary references. Many have commented on the Donnie Darko’s similarity to Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, where an angel shows a businessman played by James Stewart what life would be like if he’d never existed. There are also references to the movie Harvey, which also starred James Stewart who has an invisible friend who just happens to be a six foot rabbit. Director Richard Kelly claims to have never seen Harvey saying that the rabbit reference in Donnie Darko comes from a Watership Down subplot that was cut out of the movie for time reasons. Whether or not that is the case, there are other references that allude to Spielberg’s ET and Stephen King’s IT as well as echoes of Alice in Wonderland and Faust.
What is undeniable is that the movie works on many different levels: teen romance, science fiction movie, a riff on the eighties, psychological thriller, metaphor, study of madness, and more. And not only is the plot genuinely interesting, but the music of the era is cleverly woven into the movie, in particular, the Tears For Fears’ Head Over Heels montage and the poignant cover of Tears For Fears’ Mad World by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews at the end of the movie.
Special mention should also go to Jake Gyllenhaal for his brilliant portrayal of Donnie. He underplays most scenes, never going for over the top emotion that would cheapen the movie He acts like someone in a dream, slightly phased, but curious and quizzical rather than frightened. In fact, all the performances were great and securing 80s heartthrob Patrick Swayze as the sleazy Jim Cunningham was a masterstroke.
I loved Donnie Darko as soon as I had watched it, and the more I think about it the more I like it better. It’s one of those movies, like Fight Club or Memento, that come out of nowhere and make you go wow. I have no idea what Richard Kelly has planned next, but I’ll be watching his career with interest. Until then, I urge you all to see it on a movie screen, visit the amazing website, which like the websites for The Blair Witch Project and Requiem For A Dream enrich the movie and are interesting in their own right, then buy it on DVD.
And, no, I still don’t know what the movie’s about.