Donnie Darko

Synopsis: Jake Gyllenhaal leads a star-filled cast – with Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, Jena Malone, Patrick Swayze and Mary McDonnell – as a delusional high school student visited by a demonic rabbit with eerie visions of the past . . . and deadly predictions of the future. This gripping nail-biter will keep you on the edge of your seat – then “knock you flat” (Newsday).
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Donnie Darko 9.0

While the name was intriguing to me, here’s a movie that I would have skipped if not for the lavish praise that this film received at the local HMV. This was many years ago, and all the store’s staff were in love with this film (to an extent that they even endorsed it with a personal note to customers!). Combined with a then-low price of 9.99$ (DVDs were consistently twice the price back in the day), I took the leap.

My blind faith was completely rewarded.

Donnie Darko is the name of the lead character (played here by Jake Gyllenhall), a confused teenager who is having difficulty coping with his school, home and personal life. The problem is, he is starting to have visions, sometimes blanks out, and loses his tenuous grip on reality.

Or does he?

The beauty of this film is in trying to figure out if Darko is slowly going insane, or if he’s privy to a reality that everyone else is oblivious to. As we start our journey into the twisted recesses of his mind, all we know is that his life is changing dramatically, and that none of his regular trips to the psychiatrist are helping him regain a more ‘normal’ perspective.

For me, it was a twofold experience: there is the teenage angst and coming of age story that I find alluring, as always (especially with a portrayal as eerie and earnest as Gyllenhall’s – it would be hard for me to imagine him in any other role at this point). And then, as noted above, there is the sheer pleasure of trying to figure out what exactly is happening. While the film has nothing of the structural complexity of a Christopher Nolan film, its somewhat surrealist nature means that everything is on the table and convention can conveniently be thrown out the window; anything goes, so resolving the mystery isn’t as obvious as one might imagine.

Fun times.

One flaw that stood out on this second viewing (the first was so long ago, that I don’t remember if I had noticed way back when), however, is that the film is slightly sketchy in its construction. It sometimes felt as though we were watching a TV movie – it gave the impression that, as certain scenes faded away, we’d be going to commercials. That was a bit odd and slightly off-putting, because it drew me out of its otherwise carefully constructed fantasy.

This slight blemish aside, I find that the film tackles teen angst in a very (darkly) funny and poignant fashion. You can feel all the self-doubt, self-loathing, insecurities, anger and emotional pain of many of the characters, as they try to survive their teen years. It’s so easy to see that they’re trying as best as they can, but they don’t know how to manage and flail miserably in their attempts to feel okay and be happy with their lives. I couldn’t help but relate or empathize with many of them.

Also on the plus side, ‘Donnie Darko’ is weird in exactly the way I like it, with unexpected behaviour and happenings being thrown at us semi-regularly – enough so as to tickle the brain, but not so much that it becomes incoherent (speaking of the unexpected, the ending is what seals the deal and made -for me, anyway- the movie jump from 8.5 to 9.0).

Thankfully, it isn’t strange in a Lynchian sense – it is unusual, but hardly sinister (which, had it been, would certainly have made the film feel mean instead of playful). It’s also not like Buñuel’s surrealism, in that it isn’t cryptic and satirical – in Darko all abstractions and odd bits serve the film directly in the end. It’s just not necessarily obvious at first glance.

‘Donnie Darko’, although not exactly a heavy film, is the closest thing to an anti-“after school special” as one can get: it’s cynical, dark and mischievous. And, while the tale it tells has a heart and it does offer a form of redemption for many characters, what it doesn’t do is sugar-coat anything.

Basically, to enjoy this film, one has to be capable of appreciating the quirks, angst, and black humour that are part and parcel with this ride. With ‘Donnie Darko’, life is messy, messed up and it can be unfair – but, if you manage to hold on and peel away the layers, there is beauty and magic too.

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