Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko
Directed by: Richard Kelley
2001, rated R
5 stars

After seeing a film for the first time, most people have a strong first reaction. Sometimes the reaction can be favorable, and the audience is left feeling deeply satisfied. Other times this reaction is one of disappointment, or regret at having wasted viewer’s money. My first reaction after seeing Richard Kelley’s Donnie Darko was just “whoa.” By the time the credits started rolling I was still trying to sort out what had just happened, and what it all meant. Personally, for me this is a sign of excellence in films—when the audience is actually required to think about what has just been presented to them. In this respect, Donnie Darko is perfectly excellent.

As the film’s themes are rather complex, good acting is key. Jake Gyllenhaal takes the title lead of Donnie Darko, meshing perfectly with his troubled character. Gyllenhaal portrays Donnie’s moods flawlessly, easily jumping between the extremes necessary to the character; at times he appears slightly evil and lunatic, at others he’s just a goofy high schooler. His comic lines are delightfully placed, and handled with such natural ease that the audience is caught pleasantly by surprise. Gyllenhaal’s talent is complemented by the characters around him, especially that of Frank (James Duval), Donnie’s commanding imaginary friend in a giant demonic bunny suit. Frank has a powerfully frightening character, not just due to his appearance and voice, which are alarming by themselves, but also in his supernatural presence and knowledge of things to come—he prophetically predicts the end of the world, and orders Donnie to commit acts of vandalism to guide him through the labyrinth of Frank’s master plan. The other surrounding actors are equally talented, with Mary McDonnell as Donnie’s mother Rose Darko, Patrick Swayze as the ridiculous self-help guru Jim Cunningham, and Jena Malone as Donnie’s girlfriend Gretchen. These and other characters collide to create the kaleidoscope of Donnie’s surreal, but at the same time typical, teenage life.

Even before the stunning plotline is introduced, Donnie Darko is just enjoyable to watch. Interesting cameral angles and alteration of pace keep the movie flowing and provide insight to the jumble of images in Donnie’s world. Each new set of characters is introduced by means of a montage of sorts, where the different people and different aspects of each new setting are established. This technique is used to introduce Donnie’s home life and family, and again with his high school and life there. The music chosen to accompany these sequences, and the rest of the film for that matter, fits brilliantly, setting the tone of each scene with gentle, quiet melodies, dramatic operatic scores, or choice 80’s rock songs. Director Richard Kelley also makes some excellent editing decisions, with cuts and splices that add either to the darkly comic nature or to the more sinister aspect of the film. Donnie Darko also includes some interesting special effects, mostly as a demonstration of the odd theories regarding space and time travel.

Along with being an impressive film regarding cinematography and acting, Donnie Darko also raises some interesting philosophical and theological questions. Although in one scene Donnie insists that the spectrum of human emotions cannot be lumped into the two simple categories of Fear and Love, that is often what this film does. Each character and each action is shown as an extreme of one of the two emotions, and the closing sequence shows this perfectly, with shots moving from one character to the next, showing their emotions, each one in a state of extreme fear or extreme love. This philosophy of a fear-love trajectory is not the only thought-provoking issue addressed in the film, however. Christianity and the search for God is also a major theme, with Donnie emerging as a Christ-like figure. Along with raising questions about the necessity of the search for God, the film also raises questions about morality. When Donnie burns down the house belonging to a man who truly seems to deserve it, the question arises, was it then right or wrong to burn down the house? This act of arson exposes crimes which could otherwise have gone unpunished, but the act was still illegal and dangerous. These moral questions arise often throughout the film, keeping the audience actively involved in the development of the plot and storyline. Along with these theological and moral issues also appears the philosophical dilemma of time travel and the problems which arise from the choices that would be possible. All these questions weave together to create a perplexing story, with an excellently enlightening twist.

Donnie Darko has been hailed by many as the first cult film of the new generation. A low-budget film, and having been released shortly after 9/11, the movie received little attention from major audiences. It made its debut instead through midnight showings and word of mouth. Now that the film’s popularity has grown, a director’s cut is being re-released in theaters, and will be showing throughout the country this coming year. So if you appreciate a certain amount of the bizarre and weird, and also enjoy being able to think about a film after you have seen it, Donnie Darko is the perfect film. Donnie Darko—sounds like some sort of superhero… but then, how do you know he’s not?

Donnie Darko official site

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