An eerie sci-fi tale steeped in dark atmosphere & schizophrenic idiosyncrasy with demented prophecy-rabbits, synthy distortion in score + stylistic VFX, complex themes, starmaking Gyllenhaal lead, & one of the most cryptic plots ever scripted. 9.1/10.
Plot Synopsis: During the presidential election of 1988, a teenager named Donnie Darko sleepwalks out of his house one night and sees a giant, demonic-looking rabbit named Frank, who tells him the world will end in 28 days. When Donnie returns home, he finds that a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom. Is Donnie living in a parallel universe, is he suffering from mental illness – or will the world really end?
*Possible spoilers ahead*
Review: The end of the world. Four horseman, skies opening up, and.. rabbits? Richard Kelly’s strikingly-original and visionary foray into sci-fi and horror beguiled audiences when it first released at the turn of the century. Coming fresh off Y2K paranoia, the dark fantasy adventure couldn’t have hit at a better time in history likely scaring the ‘sh*t’ out of people then – and now even years or decades after without even need for social context. An eerie sci-fi tale steeped in dark atmosphere & schizophrenic idiosyncrasy with demented prophecy-rabbits, synthy distortion in score + stylistic VFX, complex themes, star-making Gyllenhaal lead, & tons of Spielsberg-ian touches, Donnie Darko is an acid-trip in cinematic form and one of the greatest films of the ’90’s – and 20th century as a whole.
The plot structure. Donnie Darko is one of the most complex and idiosyncratic films ever made in how trippily its events are laid out. It’s damn near impossible to piece together a coherent, logical, straightforward line of events especially after the ending – and that’s the film’s greatest strength. Following a troubled Middlesex high school kid of clear paranoid schizophrenic delusions so wildly out-of-touch with reality, he finds solace in a demented prophet in a black rabbit costume – it makes perfect sense that the story would be as bent out of shape as a mind with that kind of inconherency in thought process medically as narrator would be. The entire film can be read as a scarficial heroism story, time travel/alternate universe scenario, schizophrenic delusion, and others. There are arguments for all these interpretations of the meaning of this canvas – with touches, inclusions, deletions, and symbolism that don’t quite match-up or singularly fit any one version. Reminiscent of the great psychological thrillers and expressionist dreamscapes, the film is like one dark fantasy-riddled drug trip – something I’ve rarely seen in such a beautifully-challenging, psychologically-advanced screenplay Kelly should find career accolade by.
The atmosphere. The picture breathes immaculate sci-fi atmosphere, with some horror twinges and Spielsberg-ian touches (kids on bikes, young adult framings, coming-of-age story, self-worth themes, vividly imaginative world-building, etc.) for one of the freshest – bludgenoningly-dark mixes of its era. The spectacular VFX and camera stylism makes for an incredibly-disorientating swirl of distortive fervor – from slow-mo to fast-forwarding to revolving shots to tilts to jump cuts to liquid sphere and everything in between visually as fascinating as its Leporidaen antagonist. The score mirrors this drug-infused wonderland trip in ominous orchestral chants transitioned into melancholic Chopin melodies to heavy classical chorded sequences to synthy cascading minor-keyed arpeggios creating a thick, heavy soundtrack aiding the creation of such a dark atmosphere for a story with these kinds of themes.
The performances. Darko is filled to the brim with strong performances by a star-studded cast in the early or first stages of their careers. Jake Gyllenhaal is absolutely show-stealing as troubled middle child schizophrenic narrator whose fascination is just as much in off-screen blanks questionable in morality as his sociologically-complex diatribes on society and the human experience Donnie, in what was rightfully a career-launcher into superstardom and far-and-away his best work showing he had serious thespian acting chops – supported well by other castmates his sister Maggie also playing his sister in the film for that realist chemistry, Seth Rogan as a bully, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore as his one liked teacher, and Jena Malone as his love interest given a surprisingly-strong romance arc amidst all the apocalyptic warnings. Frank’s design is absolutely bone-chilling in dark-hued, skull-masked rabbit suit whose make-up/costume design alone is easily the best of its year as Academy Award-worthy – only made even more unforgettable by his vocorder-bizarre voice modulation and manner of talking.
The complexity of themes. Donnie Darko is simply one of the most complex and heavy movies of the ’90’s in terms of themes tackled. Loneliness, mental illness, search for god, apocalyptic forewarning, legacy, the nature of reality, fear vs. love, spectrum of human emotion. authority, capitalism, physics, space-time continuum, violence, teen spirit, child bullying, family institutions, freaking freudian iceberg psychological theory, etc. are all juggled masterfully by one Richard Kelly’s unbelievably-ambitious, ballsy screenplay that is decades ahead of its time and might take that long to be fully understood in references/nuance. Sensationally-intellectual cinema of the highest pedigree – and thus one of our favorite films of the decade and All-Time.
Flaws are lightly centered around the extreme complexity and ambiguity of the plot. While it’s praisably ballsy to have a film wherein there’s not even a clear line of events or payoff at the end, it does take a little of the oomph out of the final zing requiring another viewing to understand what the f*ck just happened. Did the events of the plot happen or not? What was Frank’s role in all this considering his final revelation? Same with Grandma Death? etc. for a plot that’s fantastically-challenging – though a bit maddeningly-unclear with tons of quiestions left unanswered (perhaps too many so) and blank spaces you need answered (but debates are still raging on decades later devoid of clear-cut answers) for satisfying closure.
Overall, Donnie Darko is one of the best (and most strikingly-original/visionary) films of the ’90’s – and 20th century cinema for that matter. Despite an ambiguous ending leaving more questions than answers for a maddening canvas requiring multiple viewings and cult mappings to even understand & piece together, Richard Kelly’s pièce-de-resistance is a quantum leap for sci-fi that feels like it got caught in a wormhole or hitched a ride with Frank to get here. An eerie sci-fi tale steeped in dark atmosphere & schizophrenic idiosyncrasy with demented prophecy-rabbits, synthy distortion in score + stylistic VFX, complex themes, star-making Gyllenhaal lead, & tons of Spielsberg-ian touches, Donnie Darko is an acid-trip in cinematic form.
Official CLC Score: 9.1/10