“Has he ever told you about his friend Frank, the giant bunny rabbit?”
—Dr. Lilian Thurman
“Every living creature on earth dies alone.”
Donnie Darko, a period piece set during a time I remember quite well—October 1988, the second full month of my college freshman year and the height of the Bush-Dukakis presidential election—has a great moody soundtrack that includes the likes of Tears for Fears, Joy Division, the Church, Duran Duran, and of course Echo and the Bunnymen. Even if it would have stuck out like a sore thumb, a song more fitting with the theme would have been Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
October 2, 1988: troubled and highly medicated loner Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a middle class teen in suburban Middlesex, Virginia, sleepwalks outside of his house and meets Frank (James Duval), a new “friend.” Frank is a guy in a creepy rabbit suit—he looks like he was plucked from the cover of a heavy metal album. Frank tells Donnie that the world is coming to an end—in exactly 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds.
Thus begins the apocalyptic timewarping adventure of Donnie Darko. After being rudely awakened on a golf course the next morning, Donnie lumbers home in a daze to discover that a jet engine fell from the sky and crashed into his bedroom. His family, obviously already having assumed the worst, is shocked but relieved to see him approaching from the street—except maybe his mother (Mary McDonnell). Federal investigators can’t trace where the engine came from.
At school, a new student, Gretchen (Jena Malone), interrupts Donnie’s English class—taught by the young and snarky Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore). They’re discussing their reading assignment, Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors.” Gretchen asks where she should sit, and Ms. Pomeroy directs her “next to the boy you think is the cutest.” Gretchen sits next to Donnie. Duh!
Donnie and Gretchen dig each other, which is a ray of light to his psychiatrist, Dr. Thurman (Katharine Ross). The doctor has been concerned about Donnie’s “hallucinations” of Frank, as well as some of his erratic behavior. Donnie is growing more and more obsessed with a senile elderly neighbor he and his friends nicknamed “Grandma Death” (Patience Cleveland) and a book about time travel. Everything comes to a head at a party Donnie and his sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) throw while their parents are out of town on Halloween—which is 28 days from where this all started.
Simultaneously funny, foreboding, weird, and utterly thought-provoking, I can see why Donnie Darko has the following it does. Director and screenwriter Richard Kelly comes up with something unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. It’s a winning mix of teen comedy, science fiction, and fantasy. I caught an anniversary screening with my nephew, and this film is as fresh as when I first saw it in 2002. Loaded with indelible imagery, symbolism, ’80s pop cultural references, and clever narrative loopbacks, I find Donnie Darko‘s greatest asset to be its open-ended mystery; what exactly happens is left for the viewer to figure out. A quick Google search pulls up ample musings of the meaning of this film. I’ve seen this a few times, and I’m not sure.
Aside from the plot, the characters and the casting are terrific. Both Gyllenhaals are great, and you can actually see they’re both destined for more. Patrick Swayze is awesome as motivational speaker Jim Cunningham, but Beth Grant takes the cake here as passive-aggressive bitch Kitty Farmer. Oh yeah, this is also Seth Rogen’s first onscreen role—see if you can spot him.
Side note: Frank’s rabbit suit was designed by April Ferry, who went on to work for Game of Thrones (http://ew.com/movies/2017/03/31/donnie-darko-bunny-suit-frank-untold-stories/). I was hoping to catch the director’s cut, but this wasn’t it.
With Holmes Osborne, Daveigh Chase, Noah Wyle, Stuart Stone, Gary Lundy, Alex Greenwald, Jolene Purdy, Ashley Tisdale
Production: Flower Films
Distribution: Pandora Cinema, Newmarket Films
(Capitol Theatre) B+