Donnie Darko (2001) Movie Review

I can’t get enough of time travel movies, or TV episodes involving time travel. Some of the best episodes of “Star Trek” (in all its various incarnations) have all involved time traveling. Why do I like time travel so much? I don’t know, but if I had to guess, I’d say it has something to do with the idea of being able to go back in time and change things that you wish you could do over, or going forward in time and witnessing all the wonders that you’ll never see because you’ll be dead when they come to past. I love time travel movies, so sue me.

Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko is not exactly a time travel movie, but it does explore the whole concept of being able to avert future events and taking one’s fate into one’s hands. The movie stars newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular character, Donnie Darko, a disturbed young man who is seeing a therapist and is an enigma to his family. Donnie is not only showing signs of anti-social behavior, but he’s begun to see, and converse with, a large, 6-foot tall man in a bunny rabbit costume named Frank.

One night, Frank saves Donnie’s life by luring him away from his house just when a plane’s fuselage slams into the house and into Donnie’s room, surely killing him if he had been in bed. From that moment on, Frank visits Donnie on a daily basis, and is telling Donnie to do things like vandalize his school and torching a house. But does Frank actually exist, or is Donnie’s mental breakdown getting worst? And where the heck did that plane fuselage come from, anyway?

It should be noted that Donnie Darko is not very concern with giving clear answers. For its first hour, the movie is a muddled mess, with no obvious connection between scenes. Even now, after having finished watching the film, I am still confused about what certain scenes and characters have to do with other scenes or characters. Whole series of dialogue seems written without any connection to the movie as a whole. This is not that big of a deal, but at over 110 minutes of running time, one would hope the filmmaker could put the time to better use. As we like to say in Texas, “This dog don’t hunt.”

That isn’t to say Donnie Darko isn’t a good film. In fact, it’s actually a very well-made film, with excellent direction by writer/director Richard Kelly, a first-time director who is only 26 when he made this film. And despite excellent acting all around by the cast, Donnie Darko suffers from a lack of concentration, a problem that only the writer and director, both Kelly, can take the blame for. The movie throws various scenes at us and expects all of them to have equal impact, but by movie’s end more than half of those scenes have no bearing on the outcome of the movie.

Although it could be said that at 26, writer Richard Kelly is probably trying to work out some of his own childhood issues, but still, I find the random insertion and deletion of various characters and situations to be, at the best, unnecessary padding. At its worst, the superfluous scenes show that Kelly is an unfocused filmmaker with still a lot of growing up to do. The movie seeks to thread a common theme of destiny and the ability (or inability) to change one’s fate through its scenes, but they simply don’t come through very well. In the end, I find it very hard to grasp what Kelly is trying to say, and at the risk of sounding egotistical, I have to conclude that a movie that can’t convince me of (or at the very least explain it to me clearly) its overall theme on first viewing to be lacking.

Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko) walks through his scenes exactly how I imagine a serial killer-in-the-making would look like while as a teenager. Donnie keeps his head down and eyes up, and there is an eerie and evil look to the boy that kept me on edge. Needless to say, Darko was mesmerizing to watch whenever he’s onscreen.

The rest of the cast fares well despite not given much to do. Most of the cast just walks in and out of Donnie’s life except for veteran Mary McDonnell, who plays Rose, Donnie’s mother, a woman who worries about her troubled son. The movie also sports a few cameos by notable actors such as Drew Barrymore (Charlie’s Angels) as an English teacher, Noah Wylie (TV’s “ER”) as a science teacher, and Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing) as a motivational speaker. At the risk of sounding picky, I have to question the casting of Barrymore as the English teacher, because I can’t help but chuckle each time her English teacher lectures on literature. I simply can’t take anyone seriously who has that kind of voice! Barrymore’s voice sounds pipsqueak-ish and incredibly, well, airheaded. Sorry, Drew.

Donnie Darko, with its dark undertone and bleak outlook on life, is the kind of movie that’s bound to become a cult classic. Anti-social kids will adore it and adult pessismists will love it. (Right from the start, you know this movie is not going to end well. Richard Kelly should really work on not foreshadowing the ending too early.) Of course, when a movie opens with a plane fuselage falling out of the sky and nobody, not even the FAA, can find the plane that it fell off of, you know you’re in for a weird movie. Donnie Darko delivers the weirdness in spades, but unfortunately too much weirdness without a strong finish left me curiously unfulfilled.

I guess I was wrong. Not all time travel movies can be good ones.

Richard Kelly (director) / Richard Kelly (screenplay)
CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal …. Donnie Darko
Holmes Osborne …. Eddie Darko
Maggie Gyllenhaal …. Elizabeth Darko
Daveigh Chase …. Samantha Darko
Mary McDonnell …. Rose Darko

Buy Donnie Darko on DVD