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“Donnie Darko” gives Halloween a hare scare

By Billy Lux Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday October 25, 2001

The shifting moods of terror and grief in today’s headlines have a lot of people wondering how Halloween 2001 will unfold. In an attempt to be sensitive to current events (or perhaps just to salvage the box office), Hollywood has delayed the release of some of its more violent fare. Flying in the face of that sensitivity comes “Donnie Darko,” an independent film that is not only a chilling movie in a scary time, but one which involves the crashing of a jet engine into a suburban home.  

“Donnie Darko” is not about terrorists, however, and it is by no means sensationalistic. This debut film from 26-year-old writer-director Richard Kelly mostly flies in the face of genre constraints: It is simultaneously a complex teen flick, a wistful horror movie, a dark comedy, and a romantic sci-fi tale involving time travel. The novice director perhaps bites off a bit more than he can chew, but he, in turn, refuses to offer his audience regurgitated baby food and on the whole succeeds in creating a rewarding brain-bender of a movie. 

In the middle of an October night in 1988, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), an unhappy adolescent in a psychotropic stupor, escapes death when a giant, talking rabbit named Frank beckons him from his bedroom just before it is decimated by a falling turbine. In the wake of this event, the constantly slumped-over Donnie makes a halfhearted attempt to return to his quotidian existence, perking up only when he meets Gretchen (Jena Malone), the new girl in his English class who has a troubled past of her own.  

Adults struggle to understand the troubled Donnie, but he doesn’t much care for their approval, preferring rather to point out their hypocrisies. His therapist (Katharine Ross) drugs and hypnotizes him. His science teacher (Noah Wyle) refuses to discuss God for fear of losing his job, and his gym teacher forces him to listen to the blather of a self-help guru (Patrick Swayze). The most sympathetic of Donnie’s elders is his sexy English teacher (Drew Barrymore, who also executive-produced). She tries to assuage the pain of puberty by having her students read Graham Greene’s “The Destructors.”  

Apropos of destruction, Frank the spooky rabbit continues to reappear, giving Donnie instructions to create chaos around town. Donnie is beholden to the creature for saving his life and so he commits the brazen acts. In time, he learns that the madness has method, and after a sweet moment of lovemaking at a Halloween party, Donnie embarks on a cosmic journey to alter time and fate, a journey from which he won’t return. 

Other movies echo loudly in “Donnie Darko:” The giant rabbit that only Donnie sees and hears invokes “Harvey;” the self-help charlatan appropriates the Tom Cruise character in “Magnolia;” and the suburban-underbelly exposure points back to “American Beauty,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Nightmare on Elm Street,” among others. But director Kelly doesn’t resort to these references out of laziness. He’s inspired by them and wants to build on them. His voice manages to emerge original and his movie unique. In fact, the director’s will is so strong, he doesn’t leave much maneuvering room for his large cast. They all turn in fine performances, especially Gyllenhaal whose subtle display of teen angst is all muted fury, but they don’t get to sprawl out and make the kind of organic choices you might see in a Robert Altman film. It’s really a director’s picture. 

Fans of 1980s music will be happy to hear INXS, Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, and Echo & the Bunnymen on the soundtrack. Just don’t get the idea that “Donnie Darko” is a nostalgia trip to the greed decade. It is about time travel, but it’s also timeless.