Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

SPECIAL REVIEW: Donnie Darko (2001)

Posted by Max Lalanne on May 28, 2012

There aren’t a whole lot of films as weirdly sensitive, refreshingly original, darkly comedic, amusingly subversive as Donnie Darko (2001), which is part of that elite group of cinematic few that truly deserve the cult status that has been given to them. And that’s why it’s one of the hardest films I’ve yet to review, describing all that abstract, fantasy-like action that unspools without revealing too much. I enjoyed this film because the final twist was left unspoilt, I had no idea which way the story was going to gleefully twist and turn next, taking us deeper and deeper into this cinematic rabbit hole where you can’t take anything for granted – not that you even have the slightest clue what’s going to happen next.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a young troubled teenager in 1988 who suffers from hallucinatory dreams, sleepwalks, and I’m sure a lot of other anormal stuff if his psychologist (Katharine Ross) had a say. A mysterious and absurd figure in a demonically creepy bunny suit, called Frank, appears to Donnie and draws him outside his bedroom, famously insisting with that eerie, hollow voice of his that the world will end in “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12  seconds.” While Donnie’s sleepwalking outside, a jet engine – yes, a jet engine – crashes into his bedroom, and that odd and unexplainable event slowly kicks into motion this uniquely fantastic film. Donnie meets Gretchen (Jena Malone), a pretty fellow student, tries to find the explanation behind his dreams and visions of the coming apocalypse, and begins to wonder what in the world is going on. Us too.

Mary McDonnel and Holmes Osborne are pitch-perfect understated as Donnie and his sister’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal, conveniently) concerned parents. If you want faces you know, you got them – Patrick Swayze has a memorably scene-stealing role as a loony motivational speaker, while Drew Barrymore plays the English teacher as the high-school our protagonists attend.  And if you’re going to make a film with a narrative story as non-conventional as Donnie Darko‘s, you better have the visual goods to back it up and the cinematography, the production design, the lighting, everything looks perfect and fitting. Oh yeah, it sounds pretty good too. Perhaps one of the best elements in Donnie Darko is the plethora of perfectly chosen ’80s songs, ranging from Tears for Fears and Duran Duran – not to mention the brilliant use of “Mad World” at the end. Brilliantly adding to the moody atmosphere without making the whole movie seem like a stylized music video, this soundtrack is one of the best I’ve yet heard.

I’ll be the first the admit, the ending of Donnie Darko confused the hell out of me. And this is coming from someone who completely understood Inception‘s nifty still-a-dream-or-not finale right from the get-go, in case you wanna know. But nope, this one eluded me somewhat frustatingly, prompting a pause (“…Hold on what was that? Huh!?!”) and a quick scramble to the always reliable Internet (“Ahhh! Where’s my Wikipedia!”) to sort things out.  As  Donnie kept going on his inevitably doomed downward spiral into more and more hallucinatory madness, you know that the ending has got to be totally crazy and unexpected, and no one can deny it doesn’t live up to that expectation. And the weirdest thing is, even if my brain didn’t catch the hook at the end, it doesn’t downgrade my opinion on the film. Instead, it just makes me respect it more.

Donnie Darko: A-

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