Donnie Darko: a film review

donniedarko This week, I’ll be posting thumbnail reviews* of movies (scary or not) that revolve around Halloween, starting with Donnie Darko.

It’s October, 1988, and Donnie Darko is counting down the days until Halloween. Why? The movie unravels that mystery, sort of, but the journey to that half-answer is tortuous, intriguing, and disturbing on several levels.

Despite writer-director Richard Kelly’s intent, for many viewers, the story ends up as a meta-mystery: is Donnie receiving supernatural messages about a doomsday event, or is he slipping dangerously out of touch with reality? Is this a film about extra-natural events, about a young man’s existential crisis, or about a descent into madness? Either way, the film is tragic, complexly compassionate, and sweetly elegiac, with a sorrowful empathy not only for Donnie’s plight, but also for supporting characters which a lesser film would treat as two-dimensional villains or clueless chumps.

Jake Gyllenhall, starring as Donnie, is an inspired piece of casting. He’s completely believable as a clever but troubled teenager. Gyllenhaal’s Donnie is vaguely threatening, a complicated mess of confusion and yearning, hulking around in a man-sized body. He manages to meld seemingly opposing characteristics in every moment of film. He’s gloomy and dark, but with bright bursts of cheer and charm breaking across his face like sun breaking through stormclouds, and even displays moments of delightful childlike innocence.

This is Kelly’s first film, and its scope and scale are almost impossibly ambitious; without Gyllenhaal’s talent and ability to underplay, you could cut that “almost” and leave it at “impossible.” (Though both DVD versions are fine, I prefer the original theatrical release; the director’s cut is 20 minutes longer, with a more cluttered narrative and less Echo and The Bunnymen.)

*My Halloween week reviews are also posted at The Fella’s site in Video Report 219.

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