Sci-Fi Movie Month: "Donne Darko" Review

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Sci-Fi Movie Month: "Donne Darko" Review

-- Rating: R (language, some drug use, violence)
Length: 113 minutes
Release Date: October 28, 2001
Directed by: Richard Kelly
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi

Poor Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is having a tough time, much worse than your average teenager. He has some of the usual problems, like the fact that girls seem to think he is invisible, but he also has bigger problems. The biggest one is that a rather large person in a bunny costume with a metallic insect mask has been coming to him in his dreams. The bunny is warning Donnie about the end of the world and commanding him to do strange things. Then there is the day when an engine of a jet plane crashes into his house, destroying Donnie's bedroom.

Thankfully, Donnie is seeing a nice therapist, Dr. Lilian Thurman (Katharine Ross), who begins to suspect that most of Donnie's problems-except for the girl problems-are actually all in Donnie's head. She decides to have a meeting with Donnie's mom, Rose (Mary McDonnell), and father, Eddie (Holmes Osborne), neither of whom has ever heard of this deranged rabbit. There is also no record of any airline losing a jet engine, which surely would have been big news. Dr. Thurman is worried about Donnie's confused feelings regarding his older sister, Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has taken a year off college to be home with her boyfriend Frank (James Duval). The problem is that nobody in Donnie's house has seen Frank, so he may or may not exist.

One day, Donnie seems to finally make a connection with someone outside his home when a new girl, Gretchen (Jena Malone), takes a liking to him. Donnie now has a chance at a viable romance, although Dr. Thurman fears that this too might just be a figment of his imagination. Even with Gretchen, Donnie feels displaced in the world and is still trying to figure out if there is a way to save it, since the bunny keeps dropping hints that the world will soon end. Several plot twists will leave the audience wondering if Donnie's feet are firmly grounded in a bizarre reality or if there is something else going on.

Independent films are generally on a tight budget, so the script might be tweaked in order to avoid costly special effects. In a film full of sci-fi elements like "Donnie Darko," avoiding scenes that need computer-generated effects (CGI) is not really possible. Right around the time the film came out, the cost of CGI was finally starting to fall, allowing director Richard Kelly to include them. The result is a dark sci-fi drama with some occasionally eye-popping special effects that would look at home in a big-budget film. Kelly doesn't let the rest of the movie suffer in quality in order to use a chunk of the budget on CGI. The entire movie has excellent production values that make it look almost like eye candy at times.

"Donnie Darko" marks Kelly's second feature film as a writer and director, which makes the film that much more impressive. It looks like it has been directed with the skill of someone with much more experience because Kelly manages to draw great performances out of the entire cast. Though everyone from the main players to the supporting cast is great, this is Gyllenhaal's movie. It was his breakout part after spending a few years as a child actor in such films as "City Slickers" in 1991, when he was just 11 years old. He has gone on to build quite a career in Hollywood as both a dramatic actor and action star, but it all started with his turn in "Donnie Darko."

There are some films that neatly tie every loose plot thread up in a bow before the end credits roll. "Donnie Darko" is not one of those films. Instead, it creates several twists and turns, especially at the end of the movie, to keep the audience guessing. Kelly seems to be challenging the people in the audience to make up their own mind about what happened, which gives each viewer carte blanche to interpret what is happening on the screen. The ending is left fluid enough that with each new viewing-the film practically draws the audience into multiple viewings-a new understanding of the film occurs. It's a rare quality in a film to leave so much to an audience's imagination, but that is what sets "Donnie Darko" apart from most other movies.

Rating: 4 out of 5