Thrillers and horror flicks seem more appropriate when actually set in October, and “Donnie Darko” proves no exception. Of course, this gem of a film is frankly amazing period. The convoluted narrative provides an extremely engaging story, and it’s of the rare breed of movie that demands multiple viewings. Surreal, simmering, and riveting, “Donnie Darko” radiates a delectably eerie Halloween atmosphere.
The titular Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on the evening of October 2, 1998. Walking outside, he meets Frank, a large grotesque rabbit. Frank the rabbit explains that the world will end in 28 days. While out of bed, a jet engine crashes through the roof of Donnie’s bedroom. Mysteriously, there’s no record of the plane.
It’s clear from the onset that Donnie is troubled, especially from visits with his therapist Dr. Thurman (Katherine Ross). They discuss Frank’s appearances, and eventually Donnie begins following Frank’s orders. He floods his high school, and burns down the house of motivational speaker Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). Although diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Donnie’s visions and speculations have a disturbing clarity and rationality, which cause him to seek out Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland), retired science teacher and author of The Philosophy of Time Travel.
A glance at the cast list reveals a ludicrously talented roster. Jake Gyllenhaal is the perfect Donnie, presenting a tortured, angst-ridden teen. Gyllenhaal throws in the closest imitator to the Kubrick stare a few times, which is pretty impressive. Interestingly, Jake’s sister Maggie plays Donnie’s sister Elizabeth, and their natural chemistry plays a huge part in the movie’s smooth flow. Jena Malone is great as the new girl in town who becomes Donnie’s girlfriend. Drew Barrymore has a solid role as English teacher Karen Pomeroy, though she doesn’t get quite enough screen time. A superb performance comes from Patrick Swayze as Cunningham, and Swayze sharply conveys charisma with sleaze, a tough combination.
“Donnie Darko” is a lasting film because of the complicated plot. Time travel isn’t the easiest of topics to convey, and this isn’t as straightforward as “Back to the Future.” The end throws in a surprising twist, and theories abound as to the events that transpire. It’s not until the second viewing that you really get the film, armed now with the knowledge of coming events. Additionally there are some neat Halloween nuggets. Most obvious is the Halloween party near the end, partly in celebration of Elizabeth getting into Harvard. There’s also a cool scene where Donnie attends a screening of “The Evil Dead,” paying homage to another cult classic. Nightmarish, with a slow boil that burst into fruition in the finale, “Donnie Darko” is the kind of movie that will leave you in silence as the credits roll, tempted to re-watch the entire film immediately.