×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Donnie Darko

A sprawling, surprising, often muddled plunge into the feverish imagination of a disturbed teenager, "Donnie Darko" has plenty of problems. 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.

With:
Donnie Darko - Jake Gyllenhaal Gretchen Ross - Jena Malone Karen Pomeroy - Drew Barrymore Frank - James Duval Elizabeth Darko - Maggie Gyllenhaal Rose Darko - Mary McDonnell Eddie Darko - Holmes Osborne Dr. Lillian Thurman - Katharine Ross Jim Cunningham - Patrick Swayze Dr. Monnitoff - Noah Wyle Samantha Darko - Daveigh Chase Dr. Fisher - Arthur Taxier Ronald Fisher - Stuart Stone

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Donnie Darko

Production: A Pandora presentation of a Flower Films production. Produced by Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Adam Fields. Executive producers, Drew Barrymore, Hunt Lowry, Casey LaScala. Directed, written by Richard Kelly.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Steven Poster; editors, Sam Bauer, Eric Strand; music, Michael Andrews; music supervisors, Manish Raval, Tom Wolfe; production designer, Alexander Hammond; set designer, Julia Levine; set decorator, Jennie Harris; costume designer, April Ferry; sound (Dolby Digital), Coleman Metts; sound designer, Michael Payne; visual effects supervisor, Marcus Keys; line producer, Tom Hayslip; assistant director, Richard L. Fox; casting, Joseph Middleton, Michelle Morris-Gertz. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 19, 2001. Running time: 122 MIN.

With: Donnie Darko - Jake Gyllenhaal Gretchen Ross - Jena Malone Karen Pomeroy - Drew Barrymore Frank - James Duval Elizabeth Darko - Maggie Gyllenhaal Rose Darko - Mary McDonnell Eddie Darko - Holmes Osborne Dr. Lillian Thurman - Katharine Ross Jim Cunningham - Patrick Swayze Dr. Monnitoff - Noah Wyle Samantha Darko - Daveigh Chase Dr. Fisher - Arthur Taxier Ronald Fisher - Stuart Stone

More Film

  • ‘Gravedigger,’ ‘Zanka Contact,’ ‘Sweet Annoyance’ Win

    ‘The Gravedigger,’ ‘Zanka Contact’ and ‘Sweet Annoyance’ Win Top Prizes at 2nd Atlas Workshops

    Djibouti’s “The Gravedigger,” Morocco’s “Zanka Contact” and Ethiopia’s “Sweet Annoyance” were among the major winners in the post-production and development categories of the second edition of the Marrakech Film Festival’s Atlas Workshops. “The Gravedigger,” by Khadar Ahmed, and “Zanka Contact,” by Ismaël el Iraki, won the top awards – €20,000 ($22,000) and $11,000 respectively – [...]

  • Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and

    Film News Roundup: Leonardo DiCaprio Presenting Robert De Niro SAG Life Achievement Award

    In today’s film news roundup, Leonardo DiCaprio will present Robert De Niro with his SAG Life Achievement Award, the Oliver Sacks documentary finds a home and UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television gets a new dean. AWARD PRESENTATION Leonardo DiCaprio has been selected to present Robert De Niro the SAG Life Achievement Award  at [...]

  • KARNAWAL

    ‘Karnawal,’ ‘Restless,’ ‘Summer White,’ ‘Firsts’ Win Big at Ventana Sur

    BUENOS AIRES  — With Ventana Sur now firing on multiple cylinders, featuring pix-in post or project competitions for not only art films but also genre pics and animation – two sectors embraced by young creators in Latin America – “Karnawal,” “Restless,” “Summer White” and  “Firsts” proved big winners among Ventana Sur’s arthouse and animation competitions, [...]

  • (center) George MacKay as Schofield in

    From "1917" to "Jojo Rabbit," Composers of Some of the Year's Top Scores Talk Shop

    “1917,” Thomas Newman The 20-year collaboration of director Sam Mendes and composer Thomas Newman has encompassed midlife crisis (“American Beauty”), crime in the Depression (“Road to Perdition”), the Gulf War (“Jarhead”), marriage in the 1950s (“Revolutionary Road”) and two James Bond adventures (“Skyfall,” “Spectre”). Now they’ve tackled World War I, with “1917,” but Mendes’ much-talked-about [...]

  • Billy Magnussen Aladdin

    'Aladdin' Spinoff With Billy Magnussen's Character in the Works for Disney Plus

    Disney is developing a spinoff of its live-action “Aladdin” with Billy Magnussen reprising his Prince Anders character. The unnamed project is in early development for the studio’s recently launched Disney Plus streaming service. Disney has hired Jordan Dunn and Michael Kvamme to write a script centered on the haughty Prince Anders, one of Princess Jasmine’s [...]

  • ROAD TRIP – In Disney and

    Disney Boasts a Bevy of Hopefuls for Oscar's Original Song Race

    When the Academy announces its shortlist for song nominations on Dec. 16, you can be certain that at least one Disney song will be on it and probably more. Disney songs have been nominated 33 times in the past 30 years, winning 12 of the gold statuettes. This year, the studio has at least four [...]

  • Innovative Scores Elevated the Year's Documentaries

    Innovative Scores Elevated the Year's Documentaries

    It’s next to impossible for a documentary score to be Oscar-nominated alongside the dozens of fictional narratives entered each year. But it did happen, just once: In 1975, composer Gerald Fried was nominated for his music for “Birds Do It, Bees Do It,” a documentary on the mating habits of animals. Fried, now 91, perhaps [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content