Donnie Darko (2001)
Sometimes directors reach their peak with their debut efforts and this may well be the case with Richard Kelly. In 2001 his first film, Donnie Darko, was unleashed and although it earned back its budget, it certainly didn’t set the box office alight. I remember my brother and I driving all the way to York to find a sole screening of the film, only to find the damn thing was sold out. UK screenings and we were forced to wait for the DVD. The good news is that the wait was more than worth it.
It’s best to remain on the surface with Donnie Darko otherwise I may risk going over a plethora of spoilers. Suffice to say, the story is a complex one and will leave many scratching their heads trying to fully understand it. Set in 1988 we have troubled teenager, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), who regularly meets with a psychologist and is on medication to keep him mentally stable. One night Donnie is woken by a creepy voice that lures him away from the house and to a golf course. There, Donnie meets a man in a costume with the headpiece being that of a rabbit’s skull. This man is known as Frank and informs Donnie that in 28 days the world will end. Donnie wakes the following day on the golf course and this is dismissed by the locals as another of his sleepwalking escapades. While Donnie has been out, a plane engine has fallen from the skies and crashed into his bedroom. Where it came from is a mystery and for us Donnie’s odyssey begins. At the behest of Frank, he is guided through the next 28 days, meeting new people and learning many secrets along the way but will the world really end?
The opening to Donnie Darko sees our protagonist asleep in the middle of nowhere before hopping onto his bike and making his way home. The Killing Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen sounds in the background and in that moment it’s clear we’re at the start of something special. Donnie has a fractious relationship with his parents and older sister, while his younger sister seems to be spared from much of the tension in the family. At school, Donnie has a small clique of friends but isn’t one of the popular students. The arrival of a new girl – Gretchen (Jena Malone) – hints at a possible romance but Donnie is quite preoccupied with Frank guiding him. Over the 28 days a series of bizarre events occur and Donnie ultimately finds revelation as we near the end.
Donnie Darko is one of those films where you not only need to pay attention but you may well need to watch it a second or third time to identify all the pieces of the puzzle and understand how they all fit into place. You don’t need to spot every detail though. Indeed, there are elements that have been pointed out to me that I hadn’t noticed after multiple viewings of the film. Much of the film is open to debate and sole interpretation, especially the denouement but I believe films that keep you talking long after the final credits have rolled are the best ones.
What is impressive with Donnie Darko is the quality of the cast given that Richard Kelly was a first time director. Gyllenhaal is the best by a long way but the likes of Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Holmes Osborne, Mary McDonnell and a memorable turn from the late Patrick Swayze all add weight to this wonderful film. Each and every character ultimately has a part to play in Donnie and Frank’s journey, and whether it’s family, friends or fellow students, many will leave their mark on you by the end.
Donnie Darko also gave rise to a fantastic cover of Tears for Fears’ Mad World which was recorded by Gary Jules and memorably beat Darkness to the coveted UK Christmas no.1 slot in December 2003. Tears for Fears actually have one of their own songs – Head Over Heels – in the background during our first visit to Donnie’s school, while a number by Duran Duran also pops up at one point during a talent contest. Perhaps the only negative legacy from Donnie Darko was the decision to make a sequel, released as S. Darko in 2009, which Richatrd Kelly did not approve of and given how dreadful the film is, it’s not difficult to see why.
I could easily talk about Donnie Darko for hours and never get bored. It’s one of the greatest cult films there has ever been. It benefits greatly from having a fantastic cast, but Kelly’s intricate storyline is one of the most thought-provoking and must have surely led to many hundreds of hours of discussion amongst those who have had the privilege of seeing this. Whether it’s Donnie meeting with Frank, defying the school establishment or having an in-depth discussion about the Smurfs with his friends, every scene in Donnie Darko is well-crafted and it must stand as one of the finest ever debut efforts in film history. If you have yet to see this then why not join Donnie and Frank on their path towards the world’s end?
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