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.