Low, ominous rumblings of thunder accompany a completely black background. A sense of unease washes over the viewer, and when the first images appear onscreen, they only heighten the apprehension. In the middle of a curvy mountain road lies a figure. A driver would never see the body in time to stop. As the film progresses, this feeling of dread slowly builds into a tidal wave of impending doom.
Donnie Darko, an eerie, heartbreaking portrait of a deeply troubled, perhaps psychotic adolescent, marks the feature-writing and directorial debut of 26-year-old Richard Kelly. The film, which premiered at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, is just now getting its theatrical release. As emotionally rich as it is intellectually demanding, it succeeds despite several wayward plot developments, thanks to Kelly’s firm grasp of his enigmatic and unsettling material and an extraordinary performance by Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky, Bubble Boy) in the title role.
The story takes place in the late 1980s, in an unidentified upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood. Donnie, the eldest of three children in a seemingly close-knit and loving family, is a confused, unhappy high school student whose increasingly hostile behavior toward his parents masks a deep despair about life and his place in it. He curses his mother (a wonderfully maternal Mary McDonnell) and disappears for hours at night, refusing to explain where he goes or what he does. “What happened to my son?” his mother implores him. “I don’t recognize this person.” Donnie hardly recognize himself: Plagued by fits of sleepwalking and vivid hallucinations of a six-foot-tall metallic rabbit with monstrous teeth, he feels totally out of control, unable to decipher what is real. Panicked by the world around him and terrified of being alone, he finds himself unable to connect with other people.
One morning Donnie wakes up on a golf course after sleepwalking out of his house. Dazed, he returns home to find that during the night a jet engine has fallen off a plane and landed in his bedroom; had he been home, he would have been killed. In the days and weeks that follow, Donnie finds his world changing: He falls for a new classmate (Jena Malone) and begins to see strange, inexplicable sights that suggest his near-death experience has left him with supernatural abilities. He begins reading books on time travel and alternative universes.
Frank, the metallic rabbit who invades his dreams, increasingly enters Donnie’s waking life, warning that the world will end in 28 days. Donnie wonders whether his newfound gifts will enable him to change the course of time and destiny. The success of the story rests squarely on Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, and he is astonishing in the role, giving one of the year’s best performances. A contemporary Holden Caulfield, he alternates between kindness and cruelty, boldness and fear, hope and despair. The film never sugarcoats its protagonist’s failings, and Gyllenhaal doesn’t sweeten the portrait, revealing a rebellious teenager so rude to his mother that we cringe.
The other performances are good, especially McDonnell and, in a most atypical role, Drew Barrymore, who also executive produced the film; indeed, without Barrymore’s participation and championing of the project, this film never would have been made. Katharine Ross, unseen on the screen for many years, appears as Donnie’s psychotherapist, while Patrick Swayze, of all people, does a fine job as an inspirational guru who seems to encompass all the hypocrisies that Donnie most hates.
As chilling as it is heartrending, Donnie Darko straddles the line between drama and fantasy. Although open to numerous interpretations, it is primarily a portrait of a deeply troubled young man. Viewers who read the film as merely a sci-fi exploration of time travel will sorely miss its point — as well as its beauty and strength. Working in perfect sync with director Kelly is cameraman Steven Poster, whose cinematography captures the mystery and darkness — both literal and metaphorical — that pervade this extraordinary film. Like gathering storm clouds, Donnie Darko creates an atmosphere of eerie calm and mounting menace, and along with L.I.E. and Our Song — two other independent films that opened under the radar this year — this film stands as one of the most exceptional movies of 2001.