The best mysteries are the ones with no answers. The best stories leaves details out. The best films are the ones which one thinks about for years after they saw it. This film is the best representation of that idea. The more one tries to understand it, the more the mystique grows.
Donnie Darko (and yes, his name sounds ridiculous) has been seeing a man in a rabbit costume who tells him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and twelve seconds (or on the day after Halloween). He has a history of being emotionally disturbed and decides to believe what the Frank, the rabbit, says. After all, if he continues through the normal life he has, even though he has just found a girlfriend, he has to deal with his parents, teachers, psychiatrist, and a motivational speaker.
Most people remember the supernatural elements of this film. Time travel and parallel universes are major elements to this film’s mystery. When Donnie sees Frank, it is always under a supernatural circumstance, one in which he is the only one who can see him. Donnie has powers, but the nature of them are never explained. In fact, the times in which he uses them are under Frank’s influence. The supernatural elements give this film a sense of foreboding that adds weight to every frame of film.
However, even though the supernatural elements make the film what it is, it cannot be discounted that “Donnie Darko” also works well as an 80’s teen film. When striped of the supernatural elements, and given the setting during the 80s, it does resemble a film of that era. It more resembles a dark subversion of that style of filmmaking, since it has so darker elements even without the supernatural elements, and further colors the film’s mood and heightens it’s mystique.
Director Richard Kelly is admittedly best suited with ambiguous films with little explanation, as the weaker director’s cut of this film or his abysmal follow-up “Southland Tales” proves. He can create a mystery, but he cannot solve one. The film’s original cut is the best one because it tells us only so much, but it also allows us the ability to wonder about the film overall. And the film’s cast could help with that. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie and this is the film that honestly began his career as we know it. He can pull of the lighthearted moments in the film (such as the smurf scene), but can also go into the darker places needed for the film’s darker moments. Jena Malone is Gretchen, the girl he falls in love with. She is practically all sadness, given her backstory about her father, and it is pulled off well. His psychiatrist, played by Katherine Ross, is dead-pan enough to give these scenes a sense of humor, but still as tense as they need to be. James Duval gives Frank the mysterious air he needs. And then there’s Patrick Swayze as Jim Cunningham, the motivational speaker. There are few that would even attempt this role, but that he did and that he pulled it off with the effectiveness that he gave it is nothing short of amazing.
The mystery is discovering where the jet engine came from. That doesn’t seem impressive, but everything surrounding it makes it so. The film is awash in brilliance and mystery. It is best experienced blindly at first, then many other times to fill in the blanks. It works as a mystery and as a film. And it works because it leaves things out.
Directed by Richard Kelly
Jake Gyllenhaal, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, James Duval, Beth Grant, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle
133 Minutes (Director’s Cut)