View Date: March 10th, 2002


Jake Gyllenhaal Donnie Darko
Holmes Osborne Eddie Darko
Maggie Gyllenhaal Elizabeth Darko
Daveigh Chase Samantha Darko
Mary McDonnell Rose Darko
James Duval Frank
Patrick Swayze Jim Cunningham
Jolene Purdy Cherita Chen
Jena Malone Gretchen Ross
Seth Rogen Ricky Danforth
David Moreland Principal Cole
Noah Wyle Mr.  Monnitoff
Drew Barrymore Karen Pomeroy
Patience Cleveland Roberta Sparrow/
Grandma Death
Katharine Ross Dr. Thurman

Written and Directed by:
Richard Kelly

Related Viewings:

Final Destination (2000)
Crime and Punishment in Suburbia (2000)
American Beauty (1999)
Stir of Echoes (1999)
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
Breakfast Club, The (1985)

Official Site:
Donnie Darko

Also see my reviews at:


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Donnie Darko

All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere

John Hughes was the penultimate voice of the youth during the 80s.  With Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, he captured the vast scope and breadth of what it was like to be a fertile, blooming, but confused young mind during the decade of decadence.  But for all the depth that he gave his movies, he only skirted and browsed through the darker tormented sides of growing up during those years.  Behind the façade of suburban families, IROC’s, Hobie T-shirts and leotards, lie a generation struggling to understand the world and their place in it, and afraid of what lie ahead at every juncture where decisions controlled destiny.  In Donnie Darko, a chillingly morbid, and at times frustrating view of life during these times, director Richard has slashed open the wound that Hughes exposed, and dives into it with twisted, but truthful glee.  Those who seek to grasp and understand the film may get frustrated or angry, but I ask them to look not at the end result, but at the undercurrents flowing seamlessly through the characters, stories and atmosphere of the story.  The 80s, and our teens did not make sense to us either, and we grew up okay, so he asks not to justify or explain, but simply understand and try and relate.

And their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow
No tommorow, no tommorow

Donnie is a student who is mysterious, brilliant, troubled and blunt.  He isn’t afraid to confront a teacher preaching the explanation of life (between Fear and Love), or a motivational speaker who seems to feed the audience full of empty catch phrases, or ask the pretty new girl if she will “go” with him (probably the most believable initial dating sequence since Say Anything) Inside Donnie’s mind though, lies something dark and mysterious.  His name is Frank, and he’s a 6-ft haunting rabbit, who prophesizes about impending doom, while “driving” Donnie to explore his darker inhibitions.  The movie is mostly an exploration of the characters cast in Donnie’s life, and the reaction after a plane engine mysteriously falls through Donnie’s bedroom, yet no airplane is ever found.  Cue the foreshadowing music here.  Barrymore is the teacher who seems to care about expanding the minds of students (since Barrymore’s production company produced the film, her role may have gotten more screen time than necessary).  Mix in his parents (Osbourne (the slimy boss from Affliction) and McDonnell (her sarcasm and charm both ever-present and in perfect pitch), his torturous, yet oddly loving sister (real-life sister Maggie), a lonely Oriental student and Grandma Death, and this still only scratches the surface of the realm of personalities covered here.  Only a film this odd could make Michael Dukakis, plane crashes, talking rabbits, the sexuality of Smurfs, and time travel, into a cohesive, gripping, and dark story.  The contrasts of cultures are blatantly shown, to show that while things on the surface may appear well, underneath, may be bubbling confusion and frustration.  Think American Beauty, from the children’s point of view.  Our lives are just a series of events and occurrences along the path towards a goal we may not understand, but always seek to find and achieve.  Upon rumination, the ending of this movie may not make sense, but in the criticism of any aspect of the moviemaking process, I feel that if you cannot offer a viable alternative, then it is difficult to fault.  In the case of Donnie Darko, I am not sure I could have come up with a sensible, or justifiable ending for Kelly’s setup, but I somehow feel that one is out there.  Like the answers that Donnie, his friends, family, and the residents of his town seek, the explanation of this film, and its ending, may defy, confuse yet still resonate in the inhabitants.

And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I'm dying
Are the best I've ever had

Helping to set the mood of the 80s, along with clothes and the references (Smurf’s, Star Search etc) is the soundtrack, full of some great songs from that decade, which ironically enough, are now fitting in the context of the film.  Tear’s For Fear’s love/obsession anthem Head Over Heels, Duran Duran’s melodic, but creepy, Notorious, and a remake of Fears fitting Mad World gave music to the moods and feelings and characters.  As a side note, this becomes the second film in months to use Joy Division’s underground classic Love Will Tear Us Apart (the first was Series 7:The Contenders climatic showdown/love story angle) which will always make me smile, yet ache inside when remembering the decade.

The casting in this film is good, but the size and necessity of certain roles (namely Barrymore’s) is questionable at best.  McDonnell and Osbourne as the parents strike a chord a difficult, yet realistic balance of loving, imperfect and compassionate as they struggle, along with their children, through the events.  Courtesy appearances from Wyle (as the science teacher who feeds Donnie’s time travel ideas) and Swayze (hamming it up as the motivational speaker) lend credence to the oddities, yet commonalities that naturally occur in life without question to purpose or reason.  But the strongest performance, of course, comes from Gyllenhall as Donnie.  A drastic departure from his October Sky role, Gyllenhall lends a creepy curiousity and innocence to this conflicted, confused soul searching for his place, and what it all means.  Coupled with Malone, who isn’t given much to do and Purdy who stands out, even though she only has one line, repeated several times, Kelly has managed to almost encompass the darker side of the decade of decadence and confusion.

Children waiting for the day they feel good
Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday
Made to feel the way that every child should
Sit and listen, sit and listen
Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello teacher tell me what's my lesson
Look right through me, look right through me

Ultimately, Donnie Darko is Hughes style teen movie, filtered through Todd Solandz, and applied by David Lynch.  It is twisted, dark, uncomfortably humorous, yet painfully real in its telling.  It builds a tension of impending doom, akin to what adolescents felt, and feel trying to understand the world around us.  While the setup may be tiring, and the payoff frustrating, the heart of this film lies in the relation of the audience to its characters, and their predicaments.  Having things forced upon you, pressures applied, both internally, and externally, there is no telling what the end result may be.  Maybe we would see giant talking rabbits, pushing us towards those temptations that exist within our subliminal conscience.  Maybe not. Kelly explores both sides of things, exposing us to multiple characters (from the motivational speaker and Bible-thumping mother, to the picked upon Oriental girl and the teacher who wants to expand young minds), to show the varying aspects and effects that the decade, the expectations, and the need to conform to societal mores put on us.  Being a child of the 80s, I guess I related more to this, once I overlooked my initial frustration of things.  At first, I tried to figure this movie out, like most movies that offer a conclusion or resolution that is not readily evident, and I found it frustrating, yet intriguing because of the masterful setup.  The way Kelly lures us in, and builds things up, and generates expectation and anticipation shows his true talent as a storyteller and filmmaker.  And the emotional undercurrent remains present throughout, and evident upon later reflection, but a stronger, easier to discern conclusion may have driven the message home better.  I got the point, I think I understand it as well as can be expected, but still have a bit of an empty feeling about it all.  The overall experience isn’t diminished, but what could have been truly breathtaking, instead is worth a gasp, a puzzled look, an a-ha, and then a general feeling of anxiety.  In relation to the decade in which it’s set, I think that is satisfactory enough.  ($$$$ out of $$$$$)

Mad World, performed by Gary Jules, lyrics written by Roland Orzabal

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