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Rabbit Eeriness

Donnie Darko might well be the best David Lynch film that David Lynch didn’t make. Like one of the master’s maddening, morbid movies, Richard Kelly’s strange picture is suffused with bizarre events, frightening images, elegant photography, delicate acting and unexpectedly moving moments. And like many of Lynch’s movies, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Or, to put it more accurately, it subscribes to a kind of otherworldly logic in which apocalyptic prophecies, trips through time and demonic visitations are the norm.

The picture, which just hit video after earning a cult following during a miniscule theatrical release, was brought to the screen by Flower Films, Drew Barrymore’s production company. The Charlie’s Angels star has a small role in the picture, which also features appearances by Noah Wyle, Patrick Swayze and Mary McDonnell. But the leading players actually are Jena Malone, the fast-rising juvenile player from Stepmom, and Jake Gyllenhaal, previously seen in such questionable entertainments as Bubble Boy. As the title character in Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal has a haunted, disquieting quality that recalls Tobey Maguire’s various performances as disturbed teens.

And, man, is Donnie Darko disturbed. Living in an idyllic California suburb in the fall of 1988, Donnie is a brooding sort who’s in therapy because of his past brushes with the law. He’s prone to blackouts, during which he commits acts of vandalism, and he’s got an imaginary friend named Frank—a 6-foot-tall creature who wears a bunny suit with a face like a skull. According to Frank, Donnie has just 28 days to prevent the end of the world, so Donnie is understandably preoccupied.

Writer-director Kelly lights the fuse of the movie’s surreal drama pretty quickly: Shortly after Frank issues his dire warning, a jet engine falls from the sky and crashes through the Darko home. Trouble is, there aren’t any reports of jets missing engines, so it seems as if the falling debris materialized from nowhere. The engine obliterates Donnie’s bedroom, but he avoids injury because he’s out sleepwalking on a golf course.

It gets weirder. Donnie and his pals enjoy watching an aged woman whom they call “Grandma Death” wander aimlessly on the street in front of her house, forever checking and rechecking her mailbox for correspondence that never comes. (Grandma Death also is an ex-nun who wrote a book about time travel and hoards a collection of priceless gems.) Donnie’s new girlfriend is in hiding because her dad tried to kill her mom. And Donnie’s young sister is part of a dance team hoping to get on Star Search with their routine set to Duran Duran’s “Notorious.” Throughout the movie, the mundane and the peculiar are put in close quarters to see what kind of friction will arise.

Talking about whether the story makes sense is an irrelevant exercise, because the real allure of Donnie Darko is its offbeat tone. Composer Michael Andrews loads the score with droning chants and grinding noises, which perfectly complement the stately pace at which Kelly propels the story. And while Kelly’s use of ’80s pop tunes feels intrusive at first—a lengthy montage at the beginning of the picture is set to Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels”—the device works wonders when the Church’s moody “Under the Milky Way” is used to underscore a pivotal scene toward the end.

Even though the narrative of the picture gets mired in a brain-busting morass of supernatural elements, such as premonitions and hallucinations and vividly depicted “wormholes” that allow characters to drift through time, Kelly seems to have given his actors sufficient guidance to craft coherent performances. Wyle, as Donnie’s science teacher, has a great moment in which he distances himself from Donnie’s dementia for fear of losing his job. And McDonnell, as Donnie’s mom, accentuates the tragic feel of the story by investing a simple exchange with palpable emotion: When Donnie asks how it feels to have a “wacko” for a son, she says, “It feels wonderful.” Moments like this one show how Kelly is able to balance subtle parody of the suburban lifestyle (a tired theme, at best) with incisive demonstrations of how familial love can survive in the strangest of circumstances.

It’s Gyllenhaal who holds the whole odd package together, though, whether he’s trying to decipher Frank’s cryptic messages, opening his heart to his girlfriend, or debunking the empty platitudes spewed by Swayze’s character, a motivational speaker with a dark secret. Gyllenhaal makes Donnie’s journey from madness to salvation as believable as it can be, and he grounds this very strange movie in fragile humanity.

—Peter Hanson

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