A sprawling, surprising, often muddled plunge into the feverish imagination of a disturbed teenager, “Donnie Darko” has plenty of problems. But most stem from a young filmmaker overswinging on his first time up to the plate and hitting a deep fly out rather than a home run. This overweaningly ambitious picture will be difficult to market without strong critical support, but it deserves further exposure and heralds the arrival of a very promising writer-director in Richard Kelly.
A look at the dark side of an affluent adolescence filled with mystical visions, unexplainable chance occurrences, lurid secrets and premonitions of imminent doom, the narrative chases down so many labyrinthine dark alleys that it finally hits a dead end in the maze of its own making. Although most viewers will probably resent the crash at the conclusion of the trip, some will find the journey up to then sufficiently stimulating to make it more than worthwhile.
The opening moments alone show the hand of a natural born filmmaker. At dawn along a remote mountain road, a teenage boy awakens next to his bicycle; he seems surprised to find himself where he is, perhaps even pleased to discover that he’s still alive. He then peddles happily home, only to become involved in a family argument spurred by his Harvard-bound sister when she announces that she’s for Dukakis.
It is, therefore, 1988, and on an autumn night when a voice informs the eponymous young man (Jake Gyllenhaal) that the world will end in 28 days, Donnie is saved from death when a sleepwalking episode removes him from the path of a jet engine that falls into his bedroom. His lucky fate makes him something of a celebrity at school, where crises begin to mount: The building is closed temporarily due to flooding, the mascot statue is found with an ax in its head, and Donnie’s progressive English teacher (co-producer Drew Barrymore) comes under fire for assigning a Graham Greene story about adolescent anarchists.
Displaying an imagination almost as unbridled as that of the unstable protagonist, Kelly places no limits — and only limited coherence — on what he throws into the narrative jumble: An uptight teacher tries to foist the teachings of a self-help guru (Patrick Swayze) on her students, Donnie gets turned on to time travel through an old book written by the local crazy old lady; Donnie’s little sister is invited to L.A. with her dance group Sparkle Motion to perform to the Pet Shop Boys; snaky special effects bubbles suddenly start protruding from people’s bodies; and, as the day of reckoning arrives, weather conditions form that can only be described as apocalyptic.
Through it all, Donnie is frequently visited by his doomsaying oracle, a six-foot rabbit that resembles a Bruegel-designed Harvey, and regularly consults his hypnosis-inclined shrink (Katharine Ross, very good in a welcome return). He also has a would-be romance with Gretchen (Jena Malone), a new girl in town who finds Donnie’s weirdness highly appealing.
All but the most outre episodes are given distinction by Kelly’s bracingly confident style. His sweeping widescreen images and moves in which the camera sometimes seems to float in concert with the characters and music recalls the Paul Thomas Anderson of “Boogie Nights,” while the multiple story elements and portents of civilization’s end are reminiscent of the same director’s “Magnolia.” The warped account of human relations and juggling of strange storylines also bring to mind the work of Todd Solondz.
Reduced to his most basic elements, “Donnie Darko” is about a young rebel a la “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Graduate” who needs to find a way to express himself in relation to society. By piling on so many layers of conflict and unclear meaning, Kelly has distanced the viewer too much from the central character and core subject.
Aiding the film’s cause considerably is Gyllenhaal, who makes Donnie an insidiously mischievous fellow with smarts that are, as a school official notes, intimidating; at times, the actor’s knack for glib humor suggests a very young Robert Downey Jr. Supporting thesps seem uniformly energized and stimulated by their roles. Among the notables are Malone, first seen five years ago as the girl in “Bastard Out of Carolina”; Mary McDonnell as Donnie’s observant mother; Holmes Osborne as the father who gets a kick out of his son’s insubordination and secretly encourages it; and Jake Gyllenhaal’s real-life sister Maggie as Donnie’s spirited older sibling.
Michael Andrews’ original score and the song selections are outstanding. Steve Poster’s lensing is beautifully fluid, and all other tech work is of a high standard. Pic bears few traces of having been shot in Los Angeles, as the fictionalized upper class setting of Middlesex has been deliberately generalized with great skill.