It's October 1988 and Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled teen on medication who sleepwalks right out of his house on some nights. He also suffers from visions of a man in a grotesque rabbit costume, a harbinger of doom who tells him that the world will end in twenty-eight days...
This weird, jigsaw-with-pieces-missing science fiction was the debut of writer/director Richard Kelly. It contorts the template of the typical teen movie into an unsettling enigma; the usual characters are there: the outsider (the well-cast Gyllenhaal), the new girl who he connects with (Jena Malone), the juvenile delinquents, the bullied fat girl, the understanding teacher, the sympathetic but distant parents.
Yet teen alienation is taken so far that we feel no empathy with any of them, only Donnie seems to be on the road to discovery, despite the efforts of the school and their banal self-motivation classes (inspired by the local inspirational speaker played by Patrick Swayze). There is something not right with the world of Donnie Darko, it appears to be a typical American small town but it feels off kilter, and there's tragedy hanging over the place.
Teachers are afraid to hold challenging discussions with their pupils for fear of being sacked, an aeroplane engine falls out of the sky into the absent Donnie's bedroom, and a session of hypnosis with a psychiatrist (Katharine Ross) abruptly ends with Donnie's sexual fantasies taking over. And that's before we consider what is happening with time itself.
Are we predestined to take a set route through life? Is that route dictated by a God? How is it possible to travel through time, anyway? Can we even change time itself? The film offers no obvious answers, and moves slowly to its mysterious conclusion. It's haunting, intriguing and carefully made, but there's a nagging doubt that to work it all out may require more effort than it actually deserves. Moody music by Michael Andrews, along with an amusing use of eighties hits on the soundtrack.
In 2004, Kelly released a Special Director's Cut of the film with scenes and various effects added to make the storyline more obvious, apparently not realising that the very enigma of the film was one of its strengths. While he didn't spell everything out (not quite, anyway), by making Donnie a more overt superhero character (a passing comment in the original cut) he makes the ending even more like the finale of the first Christopher ReeveSuperman film, and the overall effect was oddly diminished. Most unforgivably, he changed the music for the opening: INXS just wasn't the same somehow, which could similarly be said of the Director's Cut. The first cut is the deepest.
American writer/director whose first film, skewed end-of-the-world sci-fi thriller Donnie Darko, was a big cult hit. He followed it up with the script for Domino, then a disastrous science fiction epic Southland Tales which chased away his blossoming acclaim. The Box saw him continue to be enigmatic, but without much of the approval Donnie Darko had won him.