Tagline: Life is one long insane trip. Some people just have better directions.
Synopsis: A troubled teenager meanders through high school while visions of man-sized large bunny rabbit talks him into a series of crimes before a bizarre accident sets him on the path to discovering the secrets of time travel and his inter-connected fate.
Meat & Potatoes: I have to make a distinction very early on that my review and comments are purposefully directed at the original feature – not the hodge-podge, kitchen sink of too-much-information that is the ‘directors cut’. For those who have viewed both, the reason for my preamble should be clear. For those unfamiliar with the film, I can only hope that you watch the original version prior to any hopeless stumbling through the later iteration. Fingers crossed.
The original cut of this film was such an impressive first feature for Richard Kelly that one could almost make the assertion that it was an accident – or perhaps the result of heavy-handed collaborations with a slew of big brain types and astro-what-nots. But to say that this is the work of one man seems to hark memories of another filmmaker with the most earnest of humble beginnings (Tarantino) but then again, it’s not the start of the race that is important but rather the way you finish. This film finishes heads and tails above others, both a blending of genres and a genuine character study that is hardly as complicated or confusing as some have written. Lets not discuss the directors cut since I’m still recovering from my initial viewing – a year and a half later – so absent is the very essence of the first film as to suggest somehow, by chance the directors cut was cut by someone else?
Lets talk casting. The casting directors, Josep Middleton and Michelle Morris were spot on with the leads in this film but one cannot deny the extraordinary results from the supporting cast either. You’ll recall Middleton for his work on films like Mulholland Drive in 1996, Dream with the Fishes in 1997 (a personal favorite, btw), to Go (1999) and later, Jumper (the first movie we watched on our new Sony big screen flat panel, wow!) in 1998. His track records stretches back to 1993 and countless projects since. Michell Morris has an extensive career with films like Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 1995.
Richard Kelly has been reported to have received $9,000 to write and direct his film, Donnie Darko, and in 2001 was given a budget of just $4,500,000.00 to make the film. This was his first feature and once completed, it would go on to be nominated for 21 small awards, of which it garnered 11 of them, including a nomination for a Saturn Award. At the age of 25, Kelly was considered too young to be a professional screenwriter and director. The film later ended up #2 on Empire magazine’s list of 50 greatest independent films of all time, behind Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
To begin to write about this film I have to take pause and allow the numerous screenings to soak in. It is difficult to find anything negative, from casting to cinematography, from an intricate and equally available script, to the methodical filming and ever-present author just off camera beckoning you to follow ever closer. If I had to pick a handful of films to take with me to a desert island – this would be one of them. What stands out almost immediately is the sheer watch-ability of this film. Sure, there are areas where you might not fully understand where the film is coming from or to what length you should explore the subject of time travel. You might wonder about the appearance of things or the disappearance of those very elements at some indispensable moment later in the film. All in all, this is a dense film and as such you shouldn’t worry yourself about the unknown. It would be just as easy to follow the characters with their sharp and witty discourse. You might be enthralled by the juxtaposed dynamics of children and adults, or the inter-connected social and political elements that solidify the time but remains timeless to this very day.
Jake Gyllenhaal as the whimsical, often punchy Donnie is by far the cement in the foundation of this entire film. His performance is deep-rooted in a fundamental understanding of the character. His formidable, frequent antagonist and sister, who happens to be his real life sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal provides some of their smartest scenes together – debating the relevancy of Michael Dukakis or exploring the finer workings of youth and revolt in the parlance of the mid 80’s. Mom and Dad Darko are spot on favorites and have made equally memorable scenes in films and television projects since.
You know a film strikes at your core when you find yourself returning time and time again to specific moments from the story, little exchanges between characters, quiet scenes beautifully shot and purposefully arranged with just the right score or subtle sound design. I’ve been fond of quoting this film for as long as, well, as long as it took for me to find it most likely a couple of years after it was screened the first time. The verbal banter between characters is hard-hitting, quick jabs of verbal subterfuge until we get down to the sinews where the filmmaker has done his score of research and study.
Bits & Bytes: O.K. I know I’ve mentioned on-line based movie web pages before. I’ve said, hey, go check this out cause it’s pretty cool. Maybe you checked it out and maybe you didn’t. If you did and it wasn’t there, hey – nothing lasts forever, no?
Check out the web page for Donnie Darko.
Similar Films: Nothing.
The Closer: Donnie Darko will change your mind. About a lot of stuff.