Donnie Darko is a very difficult movie to characterise and assign to one or even two genres, which is also part of its appeal and fascination. It opens with the title character (Jake Gyllenhall) waking in his pyjamas, with his bike lying next to him, on a highway overlooking his hometown of Middlesex, set in an idyllic tree covered valley. Straightening up he looks out toward the rising sun on the horizon and with a knowing smile he re-mounts his bicycle and makes his way back home to the tune of Echo and The Bunnymen's 'The Killing Moon' in what is an excellent opening sequence. Right from these first few frames it was obvious that I was about to witness something very original and it had me hooked.
Donnie Darko is inspired (I would guess) by the weird combination of Philip K Dick, Wes Anderson, JD Salinger and the classic James Stewart movie 'Harvey'. It announces the arrival of two great new talents in Writer/Director Richard Kelly and the young actor Jake Gyllenhall, in what is a hugely original, ingenious and entertaining movie. Set in 1988, around Halloween time, this movie has the conventional leafy-suburbia-plus-high-school setting, which alludes to the horror genre of Carrie and Halloween but it is no horror movie. It also has specific elements that suggest that it's a psychodrama about a young man with schizophrenia but this is not 'A Beautiful Mind'. It also ponders the possibility of time travel but this is not science fiction. Stranger still, Donnie Darko is unusual in that (unlike most retro 1980's pictures such as The Wedding Singer) it actually has a very cool soundtrack drawn from the period of my youth, which includes contributions from the likes of Echo and The Bunnymen, Tears For Fears and Joy Division.
So, what is Donnie Darko about? Well, without giving up too much of the plot, Donnie is continuously visited by a 6 foot tall rabbit named Frank, which unlike the Pooka in the classic 'Harvey' is both visible to the audience and strangely satanic. Frank tells Donnie that the world is going to end in 28 days six hours and forty two minutes but not to worry as everything is going to be all right. Guided by Frank he narrowly misses being killed when an engine from a 747 crashes through his house whilst he is lying sleeping on a local golf course and the plot thickens when it becomes apparent that the aviation authority has no record of any aircraft losing an engine. Donnie is of course undergoing therapy with a local shrink and hypnotherapist played by Katherine Ross (The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid) and the suggestion is of course that Donnie is hallucinating, for as his sister says "he hasn't been taking his pills". One of Donnie's recurring visions suggests that he can see the future before it happens and so he becomes obsessed with the possibility of time travel and a book written by a retired teacher, who is now a scary old recluse, 'The Philosophy of Time Travel'. There are also many other sub-plots including Donnie being inspired by his English teacher (Drew Barrymore) and Graham Greene's short story 'The Destructors' into some playful vandalism. In addition to this Donnie's subversive thoughts and actions begin to undermine the stability of the local community that is strangely gripped by a slimy fundamentalist guru played by Patrick Swayze.
Much of this movie is darkly comic and there are some great scenes including a conversation between Donnie and his therapist, where she asks him what he thinks about at school. Like most teenage boys he inevitably replies "having s*x" before proceeding to unbutton his trousers about to m*sturbate. There is also a scene where at a PTA meeting Donnie's mother challenges the local bigot by asking "Do you even know who Graham Greene is?" she confidently and proudly replies "Oh please! I think we've all seen Bonanza".
Personally I loved this movie but whether or not you enjoy this movie probably depends upon how far left of centre you like your movies. If you are not a fan of independent cinema or movies by the likes of Wes Anderson and David Lynch then you probably wont like this. However there is much to recommend in Donnie Darko, not least the cast, which includes, Noah Wyle (ER), Mary McDonnell (Dances With Wolves), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Confessions of A Dangerous Mind) and the previously mentioned Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore and Katherine Ross. Jake Gyllenhaal's exquisite comic timing and laidback personality endows Donnie's existence with a dreamlike quality at odds with his teen angst and the suburban paranoia of his surroundings. Meanwhile writer/director Richard Kelly creates a wonderful sense of tension and keeps you guessing throughout the movie that even after the final titles have rolled you are still left to mull over what you have just witnessed.
Whilst critics may argue that Donnie Darko fails as a psychological study and/or horror movie, you cant help but feel they are missing the point, as it deliberately avoids easy classification to a specific genre and instead concentrates on being intelligent, ingenious and highly original. Closing appropriately to a cover version of the old Tears For Fears song 'Mad World' and the lyrics "the dreams on which I'm dying are the best I've ever had", neatly ties up the previous two hours and what was for me a very satisfactory cinematic experience. Destined for cult status this undoubtedly deserves five stars!