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DONNIE DARKO (director/writer: Richard Kelly; screenwriter: story “The Destructors” by Graham Greene; cinematographer: Steven B. Poster; editors: Sam Bauer/Eric Strand; music: Michael Andrews; cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), Holmes Osborne (Eddie Darko), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Elizabeth Darko), Daveigh Chase (Samantha Darko), Mary McDonnell (Rose Darko), James Duval (Frank), Arthur Taxier (Dr. Fisher), Patrick Swayze (Jim Cunningham), Katharine Ross (Dr. Thurman), Drew Barrymore (Karen Pomeroy), Beth Grant (Kittie Farmer), Jena Malone (Gretchen Ross), Jolene Purdy (Cherita Chen), Pateience Cleveland (Grandma Death/Roberta Sparrow), David Moreland (Principal Cole); Runtime: 112; Newmarket Films; 2001)
The film was weird, but I mean that as a compliment.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A fine debut otherworld film for 26-year-old Richard Kelly as director and writer. It’s about a mentally troubled teenager in a suburban California community, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is caught up in time travel and converses with an imaginary evil 6-foot rabbit called Frank who gives him orders to do violence. It’s a creepy tale covering an assortment of horrors that befalls Donnie: a therapist who gives him the wrong therapy, a school that hinders instead of helps his learning process, and parents who are clueless. In this coming-of-age tale, satire and melodramatics are thrown together at random as the story goes all over the map.

In the opening scene we are introduced to Donnie’ sitcom-like family, which consists of his successful but disdainful businessman father, his baffled mother who takes her son’s schizophrenia in a false good-natured way as her burden in life, his Dukakis voting older sister who is about to enter Harvard and loves to get under the skin of her father and brother, and his bratty younger sister who is adjusted to the pop culture world that rules suburbia.

In the film’s messy plot lines, a jet engine crashes in Donnie’s room in early October of 1988. It’s a mystery to the FBI investigators since no such engine was reported missing. It was also lucky for Donnie that he was sleepwalking once again and slept out in the golf course.

The troubled youth is marking off the calendar days, as he believes the end of the world will correspond with the last day of October. Frank told him this, so it must be true.

Donnie is a very bright boy and can be polite, but he has an antagonistic relationship with those he believes are intolerant. Donnie is turned on by the following: a sympathetic English teacher (Barrymore) whose lessons are from Graham Greene’s nihilistic short story “The Destructors,” a story he is the only one in class to grasp; a science teacher with whom he discusses theoretical physics until the teacher curtails the conversation because he’s afraid he will lose his job by talking about this controversial subject; a recluse, Roberta Sparrow, whom he has nicknamed Grandma Death — a former teacher who wrote a book called “The Philosophy of Time Travel” but now only stumbles out to her mailbox waiting for mail that never comes; and, Donnie has become smitten with a new classmate Gretchen (Malone), who comes from a dysfunctional family — her father stabbed her mother and disappeared. The two share a sensitive nature and a dislike for the school bullies and oppressive teachers.

The therapy sessions with Dr. Thurman (Ross) run into trouble when Donnie is put under hypnosis and free associates with sex fantasies, as this topic makes the therapist nervous. Thurman prescribes pills as a way to control his detached behavior from reality, but the medication seems to make Donnie hallucinate even more.

The disturbed youngster gets hostile over an evil motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who is interested only in selling his books and could care less that he’s feeding his school audience a pack of lies. An uptight gym teacher (Grant) who in her ignorance wants to ban a book and also teaches a lesson about Fear and Love being the only two emotions that count. She has the students place an x on an imaginary lifeline, as she has them read something they must respond to. Donnie gets suspended when he tells her “to shove the lifeline up her ass.” Donnie is also disturbed at a politically motivated principal (Moreland) who marginalizes education and is afraid to take risks — catering exclusively to the powers who hired him.

When Frank speaks, Donnie listens. As a result Donnie floods the school and burns down a pervert’s house.

Donnie is able to visualize bubbly tunnels coming out of people’s midsections and therefore he’s able to tune into different time periods and use these visions to do some time travel. The film moves haphazardly from comedy and social satire to being a sci-fi film, and becomes confusing at times. But the film makes up for that with an insightful handling of Donnie’s mental problems. It could have just been another suburban troubled teen film but it instead takes risks, offers surprises in its plot, sets a very realistically disturbing mood, and offers an ending that is so unclear that you might as well make up your own. But to ape what Gretchen says to Donnie when they first meet and she calls him weird in a complimentary way: let me say that the film was weird, but I mean that as a compliment.

REVIEWED ON 5/18/2002 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”