What do you call a movie that deals with time travel, God's existence, reality, and has as a central character a six-foot satanic-looking rabbit? Well, Richard Kelly calls it Donnie Darko, and its one of the more interesting movies to come down the pike in this admittedly short millennium.
The film is a first time effort for writer-director Kelly, who attracted the attention of Drew Barrymore and persuaded her not only to appear as a supporting character, but also to serve as Executive Producer. Mr. Kelly succeeds in getting some excellent performances out of his cast, most notably from Mary McDonnell -- in what at first appears to be another overwrought suburban mother role but turns out to be much more subtle and finely nuanced -- and Jake Gyllenhaal as the disturbed, semi-psychotic Donnie. The plot is difficult to describe without giving too much away, but it keeps you guessing until the very end.
Mr. Kelly walks a fine line maintaining the balance between the familiar, upper-middle class suburban world on the surface of his film and the darker, unpredictable currents that seethe beneath everyday life. A troubled boy, Donnie is on medication and seeing a therapist, Dr. Thurman (Katherine Ross). He sleepwalks and wakes up in odd places, which turns out to be fortuitous, as a jet engine crashes through the roof of Donnie's bedroom while he is out on one nocturnal ramble. The next day the FAA can't find the plane the engine came from, and Donnie begins to hear a voice in his head that tells him to do destructive acts -- and that the world will end on Halloween, 1988. The voice belongs to Frank, a giant, malevolent-looking rabbit or rather, somebody in a giant, malevolent-looking rabbit costume. Frank continues to order Donnie to do things, and Donnie is compelled to obey. But Donnie isn't stupid -- in fact he's quite intelligent -- and tries to discover what is happening to him. This leads to a mishmash of time-travel, worm holes, and God's existence, set in the hormonal world of first love and the pack mentality of high school.
Donnie ends up following a course of action that feels like his destiny -- or God's channel as he describes it. Of course countless psychotics, from the Son of Sam to Osama bin Laden, believe they are carrying out the will of a divine power. But Donnie's path of destruction becomes an act of creation and even redemption.
The same distribution company for the indie hit Memento, Newmarket has found another film in which the narrative closure is felt rather than easily explained. Not that the ending isn't there, it is just that the storyline is too complex to elucidate after one viewing. The fun is in following the story to the ending, not in solving the mystery.
A few of the scenes with the young cast dont work as well as those that include a mature presence like Mary McDonnell or Katherine Ross -- chalk that up to life experience. But Kelly gets moments from young cast members that ring completely true and remind viewers of the struggle to be cool while coping with the bewildering hypocrisy of adults that is the very heart of adolescence.
Days before his death, Carl Jung said in an interview, "To this day God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or for worse." In that sense, Donnie Darko is indeed moving in God's channel.