Nov 7, 2010

Movie Review #4 - Donnie Darko (2001)

"28 days... 6 hours... 42 minutes... 12 seconds. That... is when the world... will end." 

Two years ago, I watched the cult classic "Donnie Darko" for the first time. Though I didn't think it was bad, I wasn't exactly blown over by it. I didn't understand it, truth be told. Two years later, having heard enough praise for this little movie to drive me to my grave, I decided to give it another chance. I impulsively purchased an inexpensive Blu-ray copy of this film at Best Buy the other day, and watched the original theatrical version last night. I had a feeling that it would soon become one of my favorites, and my senses didn't let me down. I'm not sure whether my inability to comprehend it the first time was due to my age or if it's just one of those movies that requires a second viewing, but I LOVED it either way. It's a funny thing, rediscovering and falling in love with a movie that didn't impress you the first time around. But with "Donnie Darko", it's understandable. What isn't there to love?

"Donnie Darko" is a bizarre psychological thriller named after its protagonist, Donnie Darko, a paranoid schizophrenic teenager whose life is saved by his imaginary friend-- a large bunny rabbit named Frank-- when an airplane engine falls from the sky and destroys his bedroom. After this strange event, Donnie's visions only become more and more recurring, and he begins to commit a series of crimes in response to Frank's requests, renewing his violent past. He also develops an obsession with time travel and seeks answers regarding what lies ahead, after being told by Frank how many days remain before the end of the world. Angst-ridden, the only person who Donnie is truly able to connect with is Gretchen Ross, a girl in his class who claims to have been born with tragedy in her blood. As the story progresses, so do the weird, supernatural, freaky, and thrilling elements.

Written and directed by 25-year-old Richard Kelly, "Donnie Darko" stands next to "American Beauty" as one of the greatest debut feature films of all time. It's hard to believe that Kelly only received $9,000 to write and direct the film, when it had a budget of 4.5 million dollars. This frustrates me. With a very limited release, "Donnie Darko" only grossed roughly 4.1 million dollars, meaning that it only profited from its DVD sales. This is precisely why it's considered a "cult classic" (on top of not getting nominated for a single Academy Award). Luckily, many people know about the movie today, and it seems that it's on its way to becoming a classic. All it needs is a little bit of time to ferment.

"Donnie Darko" is so well written that it was nearly a crime to deny this movie of a nomination in the Best Original Screenplay category. The smallest bits of dialogue spoken and the most meticulous details presented are perfectly incorporated to the film's fascinating storyline. Every puzzle piece fits together so well, but there are still some pieces missing in the end. After watching this film again, I was speechless. The second it was over, I felt like watching it once more (maybe the director's cut this time), but it was getting late, so I was off to bed. I don't believe anyone will ever fully comprehend this film. So many questions are left unanswered in the end, and so much is left to self-interpretation and analysis. In this sense, I like to compare it to "2001: A Space Odyssey".

The direction and cinematography are both outstanding. Richard Kelly uses interesting camera angles and movements to make it more of a jaw-dropping experience, visually. It's beautifully shot and very stylistic.

The one thing that sets this film apart from any other is the mood it creates. Never before have I felt the same way while watching a movie. It evokes sadness, confusion, reflexion, laughter, and joy-- all at the same time. It's quite difficult to explain what the result is; it's something you must experience for yourself. The film's music definitely came into play with the mood and atmosphere. On top of Michael Andrews' delicate (and sometimes frightening) score, the film has a soundtrack that consists of dreamy 80s music (e.g. Tears for Fears). The song choices are perfect, and the lyrics complement the story appropriately (I love the use of the song "Mad World" towards the end of the movie).

I know what you're thinking: "All of this blah-blah, and he still hasn't said a word about the acting!". Well, give me a second! I thought I would save that for last!

Donnie Darko is played by the one and only Jake Gyllenhaal, following his breakout performance in the critically-acclaimed film "October Sky". At 20 years old, I believe he was the perfect choice!  I particularly liked him in the scenes were he argued with his authorities, because I could see a bit of myself in him. Seeing his performance in this film is like looking through a crystal ball. Judging by his talent, you just know that the kid is going to have a successful career later on. Now I'm going to have trouble seeing him in anything else, because I'll always associate him with Donnie Darko. In my head, they are the same person. Playing Donnie Darko's older sister is... Jake Gyllenhaal's older sister. What a relief. Maggie Gyllenhaal also has a praiseworthy performance. Other honorable mentions out of the wonderful cast: Patrick Swayze (R.I.P.), Mary McDonnell, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Katharine Ross, Beth Grant, and Noah Wyle. Seth Rogen also appears in this film as one of Donnie Darko's classmates, a minor character. This was his first performance in a feature film.

In conclusion, though "Donnie Darko" may be a very strange, surrealistic film, it manages to play with the viewer's emotions in a unprecedented way. Its underlying themes of human existence, complexity, fear, and hope are deep and resonant, and its important motifs remind us of the film's message. Interpretation differs from person to person, and this film gives room for it. Personally, I believe that the following quote has a great amount of meaning, both to the story and to real life: "I promise, that one day, everything's going to be better for you." (Donnie says this to his classmate Cherita Chen). If you haven't seen this film, it's high time that you did. And if you have only seen it once, watch it again! "Donnie Darko" is a mesmerizing film that deserves at least two viewings! It's another addition to my list of favorites...
Lastly, I feel it necessary to say that I admire Richard Kelly for making such a passionate and unique masterpiece. I don't think it matters whether or not he will make a film that even comes close to this one (his recent efforts disappointed many). Even though he received a very menial salary and very few awards for "Donnie Darko", he should feel accomplished, knowing that he crafted what will go down as a classic, decades from now. My life would be complete if, in the future, I could make a single film just half as good as his.  

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