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Donnie Darko (2001) Movie Retro Review by Stephen McLaughlin

DONNIE DARKO

Director: Richard Kelly
Writer: Richard Kelly
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal,  Jena Malone,  Mary McDonnell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Patrick Swayze

Donnie Darko is possibly one of my all time favourite movies and on it’s initial release here in the UK in 2002 I had already got wind of this weird complex film about a troubled sleepwalking teenage boy and his supposed imaginary 6 foot bunny rabbit friend named Frank who warns Donnie the end of the world is nigh.

When I got round to viewing the Richard Kelly film it was on a recommendation from a work colleague who insisted I watch Donnie Darko for one reason only. That reason? it has a killer soundtrack. Now as crazy as that sounds, the soundtrack to this movie is phenomenal and captures the mood of the era that Donnie Darko is set in (mid to late 80’s)

The style of the movie is really what drew me in though. In 2002, I hadn’t heard of Jake or Maggie Gyllenhaal at this point. In fact, the only cast member I recall back then was Patrick Swayze (who I will get back to along with the other cast members. It was the style of the movie that I liked. It had a blend of a classic 80’s teen movie mixed with science fiction and believe it or not a little of the horror aspect was in there too.

The main character Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) who suffers from sleepwalking and is on medication is visited in visions by Frank who actually saves Donnie’s life at the beginning of the movie whilst Donnie is in his bed sleeping, Frank tells him to get up and it’s in his sleepwalking state that Donnie leaves the house only to wake up the next morning on a golf course in his pyjamas.

During the night as Donnie discovers on his way home from the golf course there has been an accident at his house that saw an aeroplane engine land and impact the area of the house where Donnie’s bedroom was (talk about luck eh? or was it fate?)

This incident sets up a chain of events in which as the movie progresses I recall thinking is it Donnie’s medication or state of mind that is taking him down a darker path or is Frank actually real and trying to help Donnie. It appears that Frank is directing Donnie to perform some stunts like flooding the school and there are other actions throughout the movie that really makes you think of what Frank’s agenda is and why he is “making” Donnie do these things.

There are some really stand out and funny moments in the movie and in particular with either motivational nut Kitty Farmer who tries to define life on joy and fear and lump into two categories which Donnie is having none of that and tears strips off her. Jake Gyllenhaal was only 21 at the time and really showed maturity in this role although he was playing a school kid managed to nail the personality of the troubled boy who was seeking guidance on what to do with his life and this scene always stood out to me along with another scene that showed Donnie’s self assurance and how fearless he was against the establishment. The other scene I mention is probably one of the best scenes I have ever viewed in my cinematic history and that is his confrontation with Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze)

Patrick Swayze at this point was a mixed bag to me, I first saw him as Johnny Castle in 1987’s Dirty Dancing that although is now regarded as a classic was not my cup of tea as an eleven year old boy at the time. Although having some credibility in films like Road House (1989) and Point Break (1991) I was never a massive fan of the late actor who sadly passed away at the age of 57 in 2009. When I saw his performance in Donnie Darko I have to admit that he was probably the best thing outside the lead actor and his portrayal of Jim Cunningham a motivational and positive mind speaker really was a highlight of the film and his scene (confrontational scene) with Donnie is in my book one of the greatest, funniest and powerful scenes you will ever see in a film.

There are other snippets of brilliance and comedy throughout the movie with the Darko family with Holmes Osborne playing the Dad, Mary McDonnell portraying the Mum and playing Donnie’s sisters Elizabeth and Samantha are real life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal and Daveigh Chase in a brilliantly written dining scene and also a great “Smurf” outburst from Donnie with his friends Ronald Fisher (Stuart Stone) and Sean Smith (Gary Lundy) that had me in tears of laughter.

Visually the movie is rather dark and mostly set at night giving the movie a real cynical feel to it and some of the sequences in the movie (particularly the directors cut) are very fast images that add a little suspense and may I say a kind of horror value to it. Possibly the most visual scene in the movie is the scene in the house when Donnie and his Dad as some of the other guys are watching a football game and this weird transparent “blob” begins to direct Donnie in his actions. I remember thinking when I saw this for the first time “is this Donnie seeing the future, as the people around Donnie seem to be following the path of this strange Abyss like gloopy thing” and to tell you the truth I still think that what that scene was trying to tell us, that Donnie sees things before they happen.

I have to admit that it was a pretty unique way of showing the audience this and although kinda weird and cool in a way it really does confuse the hell out of you.

The conclusion of the movie although I won’t go to much into that and how it plays out is really sad in a way and when things begin to go wrong in Donnie’s life, he begins to realise there is only one way to fix all of these things from ever happening. One thing I did manage to take away from this movie was I was able to go back to my colleague and say to him that it was an awesome soundtrack but I got more out of it than just that.

Admittedly this movie is confusing the first few time in watching it and reviewing a multi layered and complex film like Donnie Darko is a tough gig. But what keeps me going back and watching this movie every once in a while is for those stand out scenes and with every viewing you manage to pick something else up that you may not have noticed before and that is why I recommend Donnie Darko to anyone out there who hasn’t watched the movie yet.

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