One of the more surprising and original American pictures of recent years, Donnie Darko is worthy in every way of the cult following it has attained in the year since its U.S. release. The product of a young writer/director and young star who both clearly have long and successful careers ahead of them, 'Darko' begs to be analysed, discussed, and debated.
Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal, from October Sky), is a disillusioned and troubled high school student, living in an American suburb of undetermined location in the weeks prior to the 1988 U.S. presidential election ("I'm voting for Dukakis" is the first line). One night Donnie sees a vision of a costumed rabbit, who tells him that 28 days later the world will come to end- and while he's off sleepwalking one night, a mysterious jet engine crashes into his bedroom. The bunny later encourages Donnie to engage in various acts of violence and sabotage, and he emerges as a sort of ironic anti-hero.
Kelly's script and direction are both exemplary, his visuals beautiful and haunting at the same time. In the largely failed "teen angst" sub-genre, Donnie's alienation feels real, despite the supernatural aspects of the plot. He's a male "Carrie," a teenage Lester Burnham, a brooding Marty McFly... and it's not a surprise that Gyllenhaal has been offered virtually every young-man role in Hollywood and was in four different movies released in the U.S. this fall. He's an actor of great nuance and remarkable talent.
The rest of the cast is quite strong as well, including Jake's sister Maggie (of Secretary), former child star Jena Malone as Darko's unlikely love interest, Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore (who also produced) as teachers, and Mary McDonnell (in her best role since Dances With Wolves) as Donnie's mother.
That the film is a period piece is only one thing that adds to its off-kilter charm; except for the Dukakis references and a moderate amount of Tears For Fears-like music, this isn't some goofy '80s nostalgia piece along the lines of the previous Barrymore picture "The Wedding Singer"- Kelly doesn't even bother to give the characters funny clothes or haircuts. The best parts of the '80s setting are an extended cameo by 1988 icon Patrick Swayze as a sinister self-help guru, and of course the paradox of a movie made in 2001 about the world ending in 1988.
Barely released on U.S. screens in October of 2001, Donnie Darko later received a cult following on video and DVD, and is even screened weekly as a midnight movie. Like Mulholland Drive (released in the U.S. around the same time) part of the fun of Donnie Darko is attempting to make sense of the plot, which may take multiple viewings in order to decipher. But it's worth it - Donnie Darko is a shockingly effective film built with a great cast and even better script.