Donnie Darko

Year: 2001
Production Co: Pandora Cinema/Flower Films
Director: Richard Kelly
Producer: Drew Barrymore
Writer: Richard Kelly
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, James Duval, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore, Seth Rogen, Katharine Ross

Since I watched this on DVD not long after it came out it's always bothered me that I didn't like it when so many others seem to consider it such a classic.

So now, almost a decade later in 2010, I've finally watched it again. And like I did with Unbreakable, I have to remind myself how the life of a film can shift and evolve in one's mind. I didn't like that film either until I put myself in a different frame of mind to receive it (after hearing Quentin Tarantino describe it as a movie about Superman if he didn't know who he was).

Since first seeing Donnie Darko I'd read a lot about how the backers toned down the sci-fi element because they wanted the retro 80s love story and characters to be the focus. Consequently the cinema release had almost nothing about the old woman and former science teacher (that made sense) or the book she wrote about time travel.

It was just the story of a lonely, depressed kid (Gyllenhaal in his breakout role) embarking on a tentative relationship with new girl in town Gretchen (Malone), a motivational speaker with a dark secret (Swayze) and a dedicated teacher trying to hold it together (Barrymore, who bankrolled it).

Some of the sci-fi trappings they did leave in (like the long, Abyss-like snakes of supercharged air extending from the characters chests) ended up nonsensical and ridiculous, with no context in the rest of the story. They were the anchors missing the premise they were supposed to be holding together.

But now I've seen it the way Kelly intended, with the entire time travel theory undercurrent, I can finally see the brilliance. With the mythology of Grandma Death's theories of time travel and the figures that enable it like the Manipulated Living, the Manipulated Dead, etc, everything from Gretchen (Malone) to Frank the bunny (Duval) makes sense instead of – in the latter case – just being cool visuals.

In fact, the more cohesive story gives Kelly's dark, imaginative visuals much more emotional heft. Scenes like the one of Donnie tapping the knife against the bedroom mirror are scarily, moodily lit, the ominous sound effects completing the sense of menace and drawing you right in.

I'm sure if you sat down and plotted everything from the appearance of the plane engine to the reveal about Frank's origins you'd find holes like you would any time travel story. But like Primer, you have a good sense the pieces work.

The plot (if you don't know) is as simple as it is endlessly complex. It's the late 80s, and when a plane loses its engine mid-flight it falls through a sort of portal into the past, landing in the bedroom of troubled teen Donnie. Donnie isn't in his room at the time, because a phantom voice has called him out to the backyard, a mysterious figure in a bunny costume that has the face of an evil demon. The bunny's whispered voice tells Donnie the world will end in 28 days.

What you don't know is that Donnie should have been in his room. That he wasn't is both the cause and effect of the rift in time that saves him, creating an alternate reality that will destroy the world unless he can undo it in time and put things back to rights. The theatrical version didn't even hint at such a protagonist's journey.

It would have been a cool enough time travel story in itself, but Kelly's such a great visualist he puts it in a unique and realistic period setting rather than jokey, slapstick 80s of Hot Tub Time Machine, and he has a solid grasp on the dark and moody.

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