The suburban teenager who gives "Donnie Darko" its title sees the world around him acutely, perhaps too much so for his own good. A perpetual sleepwalker and devotee of Stephen Hawking's theories of time travel, he possesses a restless intelligence that is constantly churning away, processing and analyzing his environment with a depth of perception that occasionally spooks his friends. Much of what he sees makes him angry and frightened, partly because no one else seems to see it.
As fictional names go, Donnie Darko is more literal than it is suggestively Dickensian. Fighting inner disturbances that border on paranoid schizophrenia, he seems to wear malaise like clothing. (If the film was set in the present, rather than 1988, he would display it on his person in the form of a brooding tattoo.) Instead, he confides in a therapist, with whom he shares his visions of a tall, reptilian rabbit named Frank who leaks warnings about the end of the world.
His worries are not entirely unfounded. A kind of apocalypse does indeed befall the Darko residence early on in this hypnotic debut feature by 26-year-old writer-director Richard Kelly. A jet engine crashes into the roof, sparing the lives of its inhabitants but unhinging Donnie's upper-middle-class Republican household in ways that can only reinforce his dad's faith in a foursquare presidential candidate like George Bush. (Donnie's older sister is voting for Michael Dukakis and wants everyone to know it.) Donnie is played with idiosyncratic grace by Jake Gyllenhaal, the captivating Charlie Brown-ish young actor who lent Disney's "Bubble Boy" more of a human dimension than it bargained for. Alternately bashful and bold, his Donnie is a high school Don Quixote driven by inner demons to antisocial acts and gestures of reckless heroism.
His Dulcinea is a pretty new girl in town (Jena Malone), foisted willingly upon him by his English teacher (Drew Barrymore, looking very Julianne Moore in a droll sendup of all those foxy Fox TV-style academics). And the windmill at which Donnie tilts is a self-actualization cult headed by guru Patrick Swayze that seems to be snatching the bodies and minds of his entire community.
Like its defiant hero, "Donnie Darko" rebels against simplistic classifications. In varying measures a supernatural campfire tale, social satire and teen comedy, it effects with stunning self-confidence a risky shift in tone from the citrus-y domestic banter of its opening 15 minutes to the Stephen King-like chills of its Halloween-set denouement.
It is stylistically expansive enough to allow for the credible coexistence of cartoonish villains (a Miss Gulch-y Beth Grant as Swayze's drillmaster acolyte) and complex parents (a terrific Mary McDonnell, who projects a wealth of shadings in a few brief scenes). Aided by its quietly expressive star, the film embodies with greater authenticity than any so-called teen film in recent memory that particular stripe of melancholy and alienation brandished by brainy high school misfits.
"Donnie Darko" has been subtly streamlined since it premiered to a mixed reception at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where I took in its hybrid of styles with decided skepticism. Upon second viewing, abetted by a lower Manhattan cataclysm that the filmmaker could not have possibly foreseen, "Donnie Darko's" transforming accident and its yearning to turn back the clock on tragic events takes on a potency and relevancy that are almost unbearably moving. If you let it be what it is, "Donnie Darko" will knock you flat.
MPAA rating: R, for language, some drug use and violence. Times guidelines: mature themes and humor, some coarse language, but OK for older teens.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Donnie Darko
Jena Malone: Gretchen Ross
Drew Barrymore: Karen Pomeroy
Mary McDonnell: Rose Darko
Patrick Swayze: Jim Cunningham
Holmes Osborne: Eddie Darko
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Elizabeth Darko
Beth Grant: Kitty Farmer
Katharine Ross: Dr. Lilian Thurman
Newmarket presents, in association with Pandora, a Flower Films production, released by Newmarket. Writer-director Richard Kelly. Producers Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Adam Fields. Cinematographer Steven Poster. Editors Sam Bauer, Eric Strand. Costume designer April Ferry. Music Michael Andrews. Production designer Alexander Hammond. Art director Julia Levine. Set decorator Jennie Harris. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In limited release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times