Donnie Darko

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Cleolinda: ***1/2

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Patrick Swayze, Katharine Ross, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Rated R for language, some drug use and violence.

I held off for so long on writing this review not because I didn’t know what the movie “meant”—that is to say, I formulated my opinion very quickly, but then, I was watching it on DVD with a group of friends, and we had the luxury of discus-sion afterwards (and during, if we felt like it). I held off because I couldn’t imagine how to review it without giving away spoilers.

But I’m also going to insist that you see the movie before you read any spoilers, so I obviously ought to throw you some kind of bone first, to convince you to see it. Donnie Darko is a wonderful movie, made by a first-time writer/director who is only three years older than me, which depresses the hell out of me, but anyway. I might add that Richard Kelly’s hand here is remarkably steady—he mixes subur-ban satire (ca. 1988) with teen angst and coming-of-age, an astonishingly even-handed portrayal of mental illness, time travel, and a Hell Rabbit of Death without ever faltering, without overplaying any one element. (Let me add that the movie is genuinely creepy, something a lot of  filmmakers aim for and fail to achieve. All I’m saying is, between Donnie poking Frank the Satan Bunny in the eye through the mirror with a knife and Frank saying, “Why don’t you take off that man suit?,” I did not sleep well that night.) Imagine American Beauty by way of Run Lola Run, with a shot of Back to the Future and a cameo by Harvey’s evil twin, and you may get an idea of what Donnie Darko is about. At the same time, it will only be the slightest idea—I knew several spoilers beforehand and didn’t even know the tip of the iceberg.

I’d like to mention the cast as well—what particularly impressed me was the Darko family itself, that it was quirky and yet not overbearingly so, or psychotically dysfunctional. You got the feeling that the Darkos were probably a bit unique in the neighborhood, but cheerfully so. The youngest sister is involved in an hysterical dance squad bound for Star Search, but rather than caricature the girls, director Kelly makes their moment in the spotlight simultaneously ridiculous, glamorous, and poignant. (How he does it, I don’t know, but he does.) A quick word about the music, which is great—it’s 1988-appropriate, without overwhelming the film. You get Tears for Fears and Duran Duran, but it never feels like there’s a soundtrack tie-in album (two volumes, of course) looming in your future. But back to the actors. I liked both Jena Malone and Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Donnie’s girlfriend and his sister, respectively; Gyllenhaal is also the actor’s real-life sister). Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore (as married teachers!) make effective appearances without capsizing the movie with their recognizability. And hell, Patrick Swayze as a self-help guru in 1988, roughly the year Dirty Dancing came out, is just a casting coup. But really, the movie belongs to star Jake Gyllenhaal. I remember saying in our very first Movies We Want to See that Donnie Darko had better be good, because he owed us for Bubble Boy. Well, the debt’s paid in full, as far as I’m concerned. Gyllenhaal pulls off a wide emotional range—social-outcast geek, earnest brilliance, gleeful psychosis, loving son and boyfriend—without seeming to bat an eyelash.

Bottom line: Go rent this movie. Or rather, the DVD. Because the movie’s got some great extras, as well as a tie-in movie website, and we’ll discuss those in the spoiler half of the review. So go. Git. Shoo!

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