Donnie Darko, an eerie, heartbreaking portrait of a deeply troubled, perhaps psychotic adolescent, marks the feature debut of 26-year-old writer and director Richard Kelly. As emotionally rich as it is intellectually demanding, the movie succeeds despite several wayward plot developments thanks to Kelly’s firm grasp of his enigmatic and unsettling material and an extraordinary performance by Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky, Bubble Boy) in the title role.
The film takes place in the late ’80s in an unidentified upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood. Donnie, the eldest of three children in a seemingly close-knit and loving family, is a confused, unhappy high-school student whose increasingly hostile behavior toward his parents masks a deep despair about life and his place in it. He curses his mother (a wonderfully maternal Mary McDonnell) and disappears for hours at night, refusing to explain where he goes or what he does. “What happened to my son?” his mother asks.
Donnie hardly recognizes himself: Plagued by fits of sleepwalking and vivid hallucinations of a six-foot-tall metallic rabbit with monstrous teeth, he feels panicked and out of control, unable to decipher what is real or connect with other people.
One morning Donnie wakes up on a golf course after sleepwalking out of his house. Dazed, he returns home to find that during the night a jet engine has fallen from a plane and landed in his bedroom; had he been in bed, he would have been killed. In the days and weeks that follow, Donnie finds his world changing: He falls for a new classmate (Jena Malone) and begins to see inexplicable visions that suggest his near-death experience has left him with supernatural abilities. He begins reading books on time travel and alternate universes.
Frank, the metallic rabbit who invades his dreams, increasingly enters his waking life, warning that the world will end in 28 days. Donnie wonders whether his newfound gifts will enable him to change the course of time and destiny.
The success of the story rests squarely on Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, and he is astonishing in the role, giving one of last year’s best performances. A contemporary Holden Caulfield, he alternates between kindness and cruelty, boldness and fear, hope and despair.
The other performances are good, especially McDonnell. Katharine Ross, unseen on the screen for many years, appears as Donnie’s psychotherapist. Patrick Swayze does a fine job as an inspirational guru who seems to encompass all the hypocrisies Donnie most hates.
Equally chilling and heartrending, Donnie Darko straddles the line between drama and fantasy. Although the film is open to numerous interpretations, viewers who read it as a sci-fi exploration of time travel will have sorely missed the film’s point — as well as its beauty and strength. Working in perfect synch with director Kelly is Steven Poster, whose cinematography captures the mystery and darkness — literal and metaphorical — that pervade one of the exceptional movies of 2001.