39. Donnie Darko (2001)

Director: Richard Kelly

Starring; Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Holmes Osborne, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Beth Grant, James Duval, Noah Wylie, Daveigh Chase, Alex Greenwald, Seth Rogen

Our teenage years are a time filled with mystery and confusion. This is a time when we are just beginning to understand who we are as people, taking a step outside our own personal bubble and generally taking notice of all the insanity that goes on in the world. We are both excited and frightened by what we see. Sometimes we find a guiding hand to show us the way, and sometimes we must find our path on our own. The more we look, the more we come to find that the world isn’t painted in black and white. Indeed, there are shades of grey within everything, including ourselves, and it’s the darker parts that we have the most trouble reconciling and revealing/explaining to others.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled but brilliant young man living in the repressed suburban town of Middlesex, Virginia in the year 1988. Donnie suffers from schizophrenia, is seeing a psychiatrist/hypnotherapist (Katharine Ross), and is on heavy medication. Donnie also frequently sleepwalks. On the night of October 2nd, he is led out of the house by a man-sized rabbit named Frank who tells him, “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minues, 12 seconds… That is when the world will end.” Without any information other than this, Donnie is obviously confused (as are we all). He wakes up the next morning on a golf course with the numbers Frank gave him written in ink on his arm. Donnie walks home to find that a jet engine from an airplane has fallen through the house, right in the spot where his room used to be. The trouble is that no one seems to know anything regarding the origin of the jet engine.

At school, Donnie has teachers whose classes he enjoys (Drew Barrymore and Noah Wylie), teachers who frustrate him enough to tell them where to stick their lesson plan (Beth Grant), and the usual miscreants among his peers (Alex Greenwald and Seth Rogen, in his debut film). Donnie also meets the new girl in school, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), and there is instant attraction between them. What I really like about the character of Gretchen is that she is given a troubled past of her own. This allows us to see that she is attracted to Donnie for a much deeper reason than simply because he is “the cutest boy in the class.”

As more visits from Frank take place, each is accompanied by seemingly random acts of destruction which Donnie comes to realize he, under Frank’s instruction, is responsible for. One of these acts exposes the hypocrisies of a self-help guru named Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). Cunningham’s subsequent arraignment hearing means that Donnie’s mother (Mary McDonnell) must chaperone Donnie’s younger sister (Daveigh Chase) and her friends as their dance team makes an appearance on “Star Search.” At the same time, Donnie is attempting to uncover the mystery behind his visions of Frank, solve the riddle posed by a book on time travel authored by the reclusive old woman whom everyone in town knows as “Grandma Death,” and figure out how it is all connected before the stroke of midnight on Halloween.

This science-fiction cult classic has the dubious distinction of being given one of the most untimely release dates in the history of film (less than a month after 9/11). As a result, the movie had to wait until being released to DVD to obtain the following it deserves. There is a Director’s Cut, but it’s an inferior product. It goes out of its way to provide answers to the lingering questions left by the film’s original version, answers which are as needless as being told the true nature of the Force in the “Star Wars” prequels. The “28 days” countdown presented in the movie is accompanied by the fact that the movie itself took 28 days to complete. Its other significance is in its relation to the lunar cycle: By either adding or subtracting 1 from each number, 28 days/6 hours/42 minutes/12 seconds becomes 27 days/7 hours/43 minutes/11 seconds, or exactly the length of one lunar month.

One mystery that isn’t explained by either version of “Donnie Darko” is why it is set in 1988. I think there are two possible answers: Either it is because this allows the social climate of the town to best reflect the way the country was during the Reagan era, or it is simply because this was when the director would have been at or around Donnie’s age. Either way, it  allows for some great 80’s pop music tunes to be included in the soundtrack such as “Head Over Heels” by Tears for Fears, “The Killing Moon” by Echo & the Bunnymen, “Notorious” by Duran Duran, “Under the Milky Way” by The Church, and even a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” by Gary Jules.

Among the cast, other than the excellent Jake Gyllenhaal, my favorites are Patrick Swayze and Beth Grant as the self-help guru and the very Michele Bachmann-like gym teacher who worships the ground he walks on. Beth Grant in particular has always been great at playing characters who are either downright evil or so annoying (by design) that you can’t wait for them to be put in their place. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake’s real-life sister, is also great as Donnie’s older sister, Elizabeth. Their scenes together make me wonder how much comes from the script and how much comes from their own personal brother/sister relationship. On that note, if you like movies which explain everything in detail, watch the Director’s Cut. However, if you prefer open endings which allow for individual interpretation and inspire endless debate, then the theatrical cut is for you and is NOT to be missed.


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