The cast/crew bit: Written & directed by Richard Kelly, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore and Patrick Swayze
The 10-word synopsis: Troubled teenager finds himself haunted by an apocalypse-predicting bunny.
It may seem like an odd port of call for a comparison to Richard Kellys’ chilling horror/fantasy/sci-fi drama, but Donnie Darko feels like a cinematic version of the Mona Lisa. This is a film put together with such craftsmanship that you can’t help but admire each and every brushstroke or craftily-placed fat man. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever see another film with such a carefully built-up world as Donnie Darko. Designed and planned to within an inch of its life, this is a film that feels like somebodies lifes work, which, considering débutante director Kellys’ subsequent pictures, it seems to be.On first viewing, Donnie Darko appears to be a complex story with complex characters, perfectly enjoyable in its own right. However, it’s when you start to spot the smaller details on repeat viewings that the Mona Lisa analogy comes to life. Whilst your first glance you’ll see how well-rounded the face is, it’s only on closer inspection that you spot the beauty of the paintings’ eyes. Donnie Darko is a film that requires multiple viewings. A quick Google search will return you with thousands of little bits of trivia about the film, all of which put in by Kelly to create an experience so vivid that you can’t help but get engrossed.
However, my one main argument against the film is that this vastness actually counts against it. While you can’t help but marvel at the scope and ambition of the film, it’s not hard to get lost. It’s impossible to truly understand what’s going on by watching the film alone. Personally, I count this as a strength to some degree, as it leaves a lot of the film up to the audience, making it the film you want it to be. Yet when you have to visit the films official website to know understand why the films key events took place at all, you know you’re probably missing something. Kelly attempted to fix this with an extended cut, which I admittedly haven’t seen. But a new version seems pointless when the films greatest triumph is that, for all the mind-wretching plot twists, you’ll see the credits roll with a sense of satisfaction. A feeling as though you understood it. As if it all makes sense. Half an hour later, though, this feeling is gone and you’re suddenly questioning how, why and what actually went on. It’s masterfully baffling.
This bafflement is conveyed through the story of the eponymous hero, Donnie Darko. A troubled young boy of around 17, one night, he cheats death when an aircraft engine thuds from the heavens and into his room. Having been pulled out of his house by a voice in his head, it is from here than Donnie begins to find himself being ‘haunted’ by what appears to be a 6-foot-tall man in a bunny costume known only as ‘Frank’, who tells him when the world is going to end. All else is in the realm of spoilers, and as such if you haven’t seen Donnie Darko, you’re probably best off avoiding contemplating the rest of this piece. I watched the film with absolutely no expectations and found myself blown away. I knew literally nothing about the film, and it was a better experience for it, and I can assure you that others in the same boat as me would feel the same. The plot is deep, the world is rich and the characters are believable.
Donnie in particular is a well-rounded human being. While the teen angst story has been done a thousand times, even if you removed Frank and the wibbly wobbly timey wimey plot, you’d have an interesting film. Not only is Donnie a captivating lead, he’s a strangely likeable one as well, despite his disturbances. Donnie is an articulate, sharp young lad with an individualist sense of humour, not just the angry ‘Nobody understands me’ teen who calls his mother a female dog at the start of the film. This is showcased in a brilliant moment as he shoots down Patrick Swayzes’ character, a life-advise man doing a question-and-answer session in Donnies’ school, with a few terrific lines of dialogue. Jake Gyllenhaal is absolutely perfect in the role, blending the mundane reality of normal life with the abstract nature of the plotline together without a hitch, often in the same scene. There is not a moment that passes in which you don’t believe this really is a teenager with psychological issues. He’s compelling and alienating at the same time. He flips between fear and elation in a manor so rarely captured on screen. It’s a cliché, but he really does bring the character of Donnie Darko to life.
In fact, aside from Beth Grants’ grinding turn as an enthusiastic PE teacher, the entire cast are on top form, with Drew Barrymore worth picking out. She fleshes out her role into a far more believable and likeable character than a random English teacher should be despite only appearing in a handful of scenes. Gyllenhaals’ real-life sister, Maggie, is also impressive as Donnies’ older sister, Elizabeth, and provides amongst a number of characters who provide metaphorical iron boots for the film, keeping it grounded at all times.
As much as its an establishment of a new world, Donnie Darko is also a collection of moments, moments probably worth not spoiling, as as such, skipping the rest of this paragraph. There’s the aforementioned confrontation with Swayzes’ character. There’s the scene in the picture above, spawning the famous “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” line. In fact, the majority of scenes involving Frank are genuinely chilling. The cheap Halloween costume look is far creepier than any CGI creation, and the way he watches over Donnie sends shivers down my back, if not anyone elses. Seeing Donnie extricate his fear in the psychiatrists office is another one of these moments- For the first time, we see what Frank has done to this boy. We understand Donnie.
The films soundtrack is commonly overlooked when people are gushing over the motion picture. The ‘Frank’ theme that plays over most of Donnies encounters with the bunnyman is a really atmospheric piece that adds to the disturbing nature of the events playing out on screen. Speaking of bunnymen, the use of ‘The Killing Moon’ by Echo & The Bunnymen in the opening is incredibly effective. That sequence is one of three excellent, tunnelling sequences from Kelly, all set to music, with one coming in the middle as we’re first introduced to the school setting and the other at the end, to an impossibly well-fitting cover of ‘Mad World’. An impossibly-well fitting cover that went on to become Christmas number one.
It’s that kind of success that, even with destiny-showing lines coming from the chest, not even Kellys wildest fantasies could have predicted, especially after the films initial US release has ruined by the 9/11 disaster. (Who wants to see a film about the end of the world when it seems to be happening right in front of you? And seeing buildings destroyed by planes probably wasn’t a popular plot device either.) However, Donnie Darko has an unflinching attention to detail. It has a heart. It has plenty of flaws, sure, but, personally I’m willing to over look them for the vastness of the world created. It’s going to be a long time before we see another film with such imagination and ambition. It’s a marvel that it was made. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a mans’ lifes’ work. While some may cast this Mona Lisa aside as ‘Just a face’ without looking at the depth or be all too willing to decide that it’s not worth the confusion, those who perceiver are in for an experience that no other film is quite able to give you. And trust me, it’s well worth it.
9 Stupid Bunny Suits out of 10