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Donnie Darko (2001)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

"Life is one long insane trip. Some people just have better directions."

This film defies simple categorization. From the trailers and TV spots included on the DVD its initial theater marketing seems to have pitched it as a type of horror movie. Although “deeply eerie” often seems a fair description, in my opinion horror doesn't. This film combines a coming of age story with elements usually found in psychological thrillers. It satirizes the “education system” and other aspects of the establishment, while exploring both science fiction and religious themes.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes laying in the middle of a road. The view from the road shows mist encircling the hills as dawn approaches. Donnie has a “problem” with “sleep walking.” Mounting his bicycle he journeys back to his home town of Middlesex. Reaching his home, the camera shows his father, Eddie Darko (Holmes Osborne), using a blower on leaves in his yard. As Donnie's older sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake's older sister) comes across the lawn her father playfully turns the blower on her. Donnie's younger sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase) jumps on a trampoline as he pulls up on his bike. Dismounting and entering the house he passes his mother, Rose (Mary McDonnell), who reads a book while reclining in a patio chair. The Darkos seem a reasonably normal American upper middle class family.

Later, the family eats pizza together seated around a large table. Dinner discussion starts with Elizabeth mentioning an upcoming election and her vote. Politics leads into a discussion of Donnie's sessions with his therapist, friction between the children and some bad language. Rose eventually puts a stop to the odd dinner discussion, which may not have been that strange to many families which had teenagers in the late 20th century. Later, after some more friction between Donnie and his mother, he takes a prescription bottle from his medicine cabinet. Although apparently unhappy about the medication Donnie swallows it.

Later yet the same evening, Eddie can't sleep. He leaves Rose in bed and watches television. The large grandfather clock in the house chimes midnight and characters on the screen show the date as October 2, 1988. A strange voice says: “Wake up.” Donnie rises from his bed -- apparently sleepwalking -- perhaps semi-consciously aware of his surroundings. The strange voice adds: “I've been watching you.” As Donnie descends the stairs and leaves his family's house, the voice says “Come closer.” On a neighboring golf course, Frank (James Duval) –- who appears to be a hideous six foot tall rabbit -- tells Donnie the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds.

As Elizabeth -- getting home very late -- enters the family house, a large crash shatters the silence of the night, waking Eddie and the other family members. Golfers, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) and a friend, wake Donnie as the sun shines in his eyes. When he returns through a gathered crowd outside his home, Donnie discovers that a huge jet engine has crashed through the roof of the house into his bedroom. FAA officials on the scene cannot explain the events. No aircraft have shown up missing an engine.

When Donnie returns to school many of his classmates know of the strange happenings. However school events flow seemingly unperturbed. Health instructor Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant) introduces Jim Cunningham to the school principal and other teachers: Prof. Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) and Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore). In Ms. Pomeroy's English class a new girl: Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), arrives and has a seat assigned next to Donnie.

After school when driving to his therapy session with his father, they nearly hit an old woman: Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland) -– the kids call her Grandma Death, who was in the road going to her mailbox. When Donnie tells her “No mail today, maybe tomorrow.” She whispers something in his ear. Later, Donnie tells his therapist, Dr. Lilian Thurman (Katharine Ross), about Frank and his claims about the world's coming end. When she asks Donnie whether he believes Frank's claim, he says “No.”

That introduces all the major characters and I don't think I've committed any spoilers. However, going much further with the story will make that almost inevitable. Like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (in more ways than one), this film has a very complex storyline. One viewing may leave you with many questions. A second viewing might help to clear up those questions. In my opinion, the writing and direction of Richard Kelly, the superb soundtrack, along with the great acting of the excellent cast provide a quality in this film which merits many viewings. Usually I don't care much for time travel stories, simply because of the paradoxes that result from time travel. However, this film seems to grow from those paradoxes. If you've seen the “Mad World” music video, you may have caught some of the flavor of this film. Another longer review with spoilers from one of my favorite writers gives another viewpoint. Like that reviewer, I give Donnie Darko a very high recommendation.

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