There are films that lend themselves to easy reviews. Donnie Darko is not one of those films. It’s difficult to say too much about it, because the way in which it unfolds is something that a person should experience for themselves. Often that sort of statement is interpreted to mean “there’s a surprise, shocking twist that renders the movie unenjoyable if you already know it”, but that’s not what I mean here. What I mean is that Donnie Darko is a film that is every bit as much about the journey as the journey’s end, and experiencing the weirdness of that journey is a lot of the film’s appeal.
Thus it’s probably best to keep the plot summary very brief. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a very troubled high school student who takes medication for hallucinations. His latest hallucination, Frank (James Duval) — a man in a bunny costume — saves his life from a freak accident, and warns him that the world will come to an end on the night before Halloween. And then Frank starts encouraging Donnie to take certain steps…
Writer-director Richard Kelly has created a very solid film in Donnie Darko. The surrealism of Donnie’s situation is played out for the audience, who get to see all of Donnie’s hallucinations just as he does. At the same time, the audience is outside of Donnie and can just as easily see the young man is losing his mind. It’s a balancing act with tightrope precision. We sympathize with Donnie when he bursts out in class at a teacher with a cult-like devotion to an emotional balance guru, and at the same time we see how he can be an ass to his family. We want to believe he’s a good kid at heart, but we know he’s not well in the head. Gyllenhaal brings all this to life very believably.
The film has become a cult classic since its release, and it is easy to see why. It’s a thought-provoking film in more than one respect. What Donnie goes through — both his mental instability and what that instability causes him to perceive and do — provide a lot of fodder for discussion. That said, although I enjoyed it, I didn’t find it quite as mind-blowing as its reputation makes it out to be. This is probably less a factor of its quality, which is quite high, but because these are themes that are explored extensively in other media. I’ve read similar works in science-fiction. But dialing things back to its 2001 release, looking not at myself but at my contemporaries… these themes were not explored in quite this way in film as much. So it’s quite easy to see how it would have a profound impact.
But regardless of one’s familiarity with the themes of the film, it explores them deftly. Any first-time viewer is going to find themselves wondering just what will happen on October 30th, and just what Donnie Darko will do about it.