Advertisement
Movies

Review: Sixteen years later, ‘Donnie Darko’ makes an eerily prescient return

Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT. A Newmarket Films release. © 2004
Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2004 director’s cut of the 2001 movie “Donnie Darko.” The film has been restored and is getting a new theatrical release.
(Newmarket Films / Newmarket Films)
Film Critic

If revisiting an old movie is a bit like going back in time, that sense of disorientation is doubled in “Donnie Darko.” A haunted miasma of youthful alienation, suburban malaise, cosmic upheaval and 1980s pop-cultural infatuation, writer-director Richard Kelly’s captivatingly strange 2001 debut plays more than ever like its own suspended-in-time artifact. Or perhaps I should say Artifact, in reference to the jet engine that comes tumbling out of the sky on the night of Oct. 2, 1988, crashing into the bedroom of our teenage hero, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Time travel plays a key role in the movie’s distended wormhole of a narrative, which takes inspiration from textbooks both real (Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”) and fictional (“The Philosophy of Time Travel,” written by Roberta Sparrow, who is played in the film by Patience Cleveland). But a simpler portal to the past seems to open whenever we set eyes on Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone and Seth Rogen (in a brief, memorable screen debut), their young faces looking touchingly unblighted by experience.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Richard Kelly's 2001 movie
Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Richard Kelly's 2001 movie "Donnie Darko." (Dale Robinette / NewMarket Films)

Broodingly intelligent, heavily medicated and possibly schizophrenic, Donnie is no ordinary troubled teen.

That all four actors have gone on to significant careers only underscores the remarkable prescience of a movie that never quite found its own moment, at least in theaters. First screened at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, “Donnie Darko” was released by Newmarket Films later that October — a little more than a month after 9/11, which decimated the already narrow audience for a weird, melancholy indie drama set in motion by a freak plane accident.

But the movie discovered a passionate cult following on DVD, and when a 20-minutes-longer director’s cut was released, well before 2004, “Donnie Darko” had been vindicated as one of the most remarkable if head-spinning first features by an American independent filmmaker in then-recent memory. Now the recipient of a 4K restoration and back in theaters 16 years later (in both its original release version and the director’s cut), the movie feels perfectly timed to coincide with our nation’s latest flirtation with the apocalypse.

A scene from the 2004 director's cut of the 2001 film
A scene from the 2004 director's cut of the 2001 film "Donnie Darko." (Newmarket Films)

Certainly it’s hard not to smile at the movie’s opening line — “I’m voting for Dukakis,” Donnie’s older sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) announces provocatively at the dinner table — and its distant reminder of a divisive yet far more civil moment in American politics. Donnie will soon stage his own personal rebellion against the forces of Reagan-era conformity, represented less by his parents (Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell, both superb) than by his high school’s viciously censorious gym teacher (a priceless Beth Grant) and her motivational-speaker crony (Patrick Swayze).

Broodingly intelligent, heavily medicated and possibly schizophrenic, Donnie is no ordinary troubled teen, and his is no ordinary act of protest. He is spurred on by bizarre ectoplasmic visions and, most of all, by Frank, a 6-foot-1 bunny rabbit who shows up with an ominous grin and an equally ominous prophecy: “Twenty-eight days, six hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. That is when the world will end.”

Jena Malone as Gretchen Ross in "Donnie Darko."
Jena Malone as Gretchen Ross in "Donnie Darko." (Arrow Films)

Is the entire world at stake, or just Donnie’s? The genius of Kelly’s movie is that it refuses to acknowledge a meaningful difference. His totalizing vision, conflating an epic bout of depression with the threat of global annihilation, in some ways anticipated (without necessarily influencing) Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” (2011). There is solipsism as well as grandeur in these doom-and-gloom spectacles, but there is also tremendous feeling — and in “Donnie Darko,” that feeling manifests itself most powerfully in an abiding reverence for the cultural touchstones of its moment.

The movie feels perfectly timed to coincide with our nation’s latest flirtation with the apocalypse.

The brilliant casting of generational icons like Swayze, Katharine Ross (as Donnie’s therapist) and Drew Barrymore (as his English teacher) proves both surreal and strangely moving, as does a near-climactic image that wordlessly references Barrymore’s own breakthrough movie, “E.T.”

Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore in "Donnie Darko."
Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore in "Donnie Darko." (Dale Robinette / NewMarket Films)

This kind of pop nostalgia, of course, has only intensified in the 16 years since “Donnie Darko’s” initial release, as demonstrated most recently by the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things,” which shares Kelly’s affection for Steven Spielberg and Stephen King.

Kelly’s tale of youthful temptation and heroic sacrifice plays in some ways like a twisted spin on the Christian gospel, sprinkled with excerpts from Sparrow’s secular scripture. (Another clue: Check out the theater marquee when Donnie and his girlfriend, played by Malone, go to see “Evil Dead.”) It was Kelly, of course, who would fatefully take the fall not long after “Donnie Darko’s” triumphant rediscovery.

"Donnie Darko" director Richard Kelly, left with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, in 2001 at the Four Seasons Hotel at Beverly Hills.
"Donnie Darko" director Richard Kelly, left with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, in 2001 at the Four Seasons Hotel at Beverly Hills. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

The year 2006 saw the disastrous Cannes premiere of the director’s sprawlingly ambitious 160-minute end-times satire “Southland Tales,” an instant film maudit that was despised by many, championed by a few, and ultimately trimmed and recut en route to a theatrical run that made “Donnie Darko” look downright lucrative. Since then, Kelly has made only one feature, the Cameron Diaz-starring thriller “The Box” (2009), though he has said in recent interviews that he’s in the process of fully financing his next independent project — which is a much more challenging endeavor than it was 16 years ago.

An aversion to self-editing may be Kelly’s Achilles’ heel as a filmmaker, but whatever the future may hold for this singular talent, his first feature remains a pure pleasure — a work that maneuvers its wild tonal shifts, its spasms of humor and density of ideas with an astonishing sense of control. Every living creature may die alone, in the memorable words of Roberta Sparrow, but “Donnie Darko” still lives.

Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2004 director's cut of 2001's
Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2004 director's cut of 2001's "Donnie Darko." (Newmarket Films)

------------

‘Donnie Darko’

MPAA rating: R for language, some drug use and violence (theatrical cut); R for language, some underage drug and alcohol use, and violence (director’s cut)

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes (theatrical cut); 2 hours, 13 minutes (director’s cut)

Playing: Cinefamily, Los Angeles, and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena

More archival images from ‘Donnie Darko’

Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie Darko, Jena Malone as Gretchen Ross and James Duval as Frank in 2001's
Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie Darko, Jena Malone as Gretchen Ross and James Duval as Frank in 2001's "Donnie Darko." (Arrow Films)
The dance troupe, Sparkle Motion, in the 2001 film "Donnie Darko."
The dance troupe, Sparkle Motion, in the 2001 film "Donnie Darko." (Arrow Films)
Patience Cleveland in the 2004 director's cut of 2001's
Patience Cleveland in the 2004 director's cut of 2001's "Donnie Darko." (Newmarket Films)
Jena Malone and Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2004 director's cut of 2001's
Jena Malone and Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2004 director's cut of 2001's "Donnie Darko." (Newmarket Films)
Beth Grant, left, and Drew Barrymore in the 2004 director's cut of 2001's
Beth Grant, left, and Drew Barrymore in the 2004 director's cut of 2001's "Donnie Darko." (Newmarket Films)
Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2001 film "Donnie Darko."
Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2001 film "Donnie Darko." (Arrow Films)
Katherine Ross and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Donnie Darko."
Katherine Ross and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Donnie Darko." (NewMarket Films)
Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone in "Donnie Darko."
Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone in "Donnie Darko." (Dale Robinette / NewMarket Films)
Actor Jake Gyllenhaal, right, and Beth Grant with members of the dance troupe
Actor Jake Gyllenhaal, right, and Beth Grant with members of the dance troupe "Anti Gravity" at the premiere party for the director's cut of "Donnie Darko" at Hollywood's Egyptian Theater on July 15, 2004. (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
Girls in the dance group
Girls in the dance group "Anti Gravity" put on a performance at the premiere party for the director's cut of "Donnie Darko" at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood on July 15, 2004. (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
"Donnie Darko" director Richard Kelly in 2007 promoting "Southland Tales."
"Donnie Darko" director Richard Kelly in 2007 promoting "Southland Tales." (Karen Tapia–Andersen / Los Angeles Times)

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

justin.chang@latimes.com

@JustinCChang

ALSO

Review: The ravishing sci-fi noir 'Ghost in the Shell' is fascinating, and not without its glitches

Review: 'The Boss Baby' is the rancid diaper of animated movies

From the archives: After Cannes disaster, Richard Kelly resurrects 'Southland' at the Toronto Film Festival

From the archives: The LA Times 2007 review of Richard Kelly’s ‘Southland Tales”


Newsletter
Get our weekly Indie Focus newsletter

Movie news, screening invitations and reviews from the world of independent film and beyond.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
Advertisement