Donnie Darko (2001) – Richard Kelly

The final recommendation from this visit to the Family genre in the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book is Kelly’s cult film Donnie Darko. While not necessarily suitable for younger viewers, it does involve family and a young troubled boy.

This one was one of those films that while I was in the video store business, was mentioned and talked about, recommended and suggested as one to check out if you were looking for something different. Something that played with expectations, reality, and was just plain intriguing.

So after a number of years, I was looking forward to seeing this one again.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the titular character, a brilliantly smart, young teen who doesn’t seem to get along with anyone. He fights constantly with everyone, his family, any and all, except for his girlfriend, Gretchen (Jena Malone). 

A number of events seem to swirl around him, including a man-sized rabbit named Frank (James Duval) that only he can see, who pushes him to commit crimes; an airplane engine that falls from the sky and destroys his bedroom, and some pontification on the nature of time, fate, and reality.

Frank warns him of the imminent end of the world, and Donnie’s life begins to unfurl. Kelly wrote and directed this film, and I, quite honestly, really enjoy it. The melding of everyday suburban reality with seemingly supernatural events, as well as temporal manipulation fascinates me.


The film is set in October, 1988, so, as such, it has some great tunes, and has lots of pop culture references that recall a lot of my youth. That nostalgia, coupled with the ruminations on time travel, with the strange appearances and influences of Frank the Rabbit, make this one, for me, a smart, mindbending ride.

The production is filled with a solid cast, including Jake’s sister, Maggie (playing his sister), Patrick Swayze (as a motivational speaker), Drew Barrymore (his English teacher), Noah Wylie (his science teacher), Katharine Ross (his therapist), Seth Rogen (a fellow student) and Mary McDonnell (his mom). Using all of these actors, the film is filled with some wonderful character moments.

The film is moody, dances along the edge of confusion (in a wonderful, teasing way), aided by a throbbing, ominous score. The revelations towards the end of the film, bring forth the questions of Donnie’s reality.

Fifteen years on, and it’s easily been a decade since I last saw this one, I still found it engaging, and loved the way the film played with the story, and like some of the classic 80s films, featured odd occurrences in suburbia.

Suburbia is the most common precept of modern reality, and therefore a common touchstone to the viewer. It allows a buy-in from the audience right away, and then when strange things begin to occur, they are willing to follow down the paths the films leads to their stunning conclusions.



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