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DONNIE DARKO is one of the many "independent" movies I've seen over the years; ranging enormously in quality from the very bad to the pretty decent. DONNIE DARKO falls in the decent to pretty decent range, though it falls short of excellent. It's a movie that unites the divergent themes of time-travel, causality, death, resurrection, alternate universes, schizophrenia, and love. While largely succeeding, it stumbles a few times in that quest.
DONNIE DARKO is about Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a high school kid with some unique problems. He has schizophrenia that is only partially controlled by medication, since he doesn't always take his medicine. He's somewhat isolated from his family and the other kids at school, as schizophrenia can make you withdraw into your own private world. Donnie also sleepwalks, and that's a problem that shows up right away in the movie; it opens with him sound asleep one morning, in the middle of the road where he had wandered the previous night. He shows no surprise at his location on awakening, and simply gets home as rapidly as possible.
Donnie's family is typical upper middle-class, enthusiastically embracing all that 1980s America (the movie is set in October, 1988) has to offer in terms of materialism. Though you see that Donnie's relationship with his parents is rather strained, they still love him, it's just that they don't know how to tell him this, except to offer him the "cures" of that decade, including one of the perks of affluence, his own psychiatrist (Katharine Ross: THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS, THE STEPFORD WIVES, THE SWARM, THE LEGACY). Like his family, she's a bit distant, not really knowing what's going on, though wanting to help.
And what is going on? That's the central point of the whole movie. One night while sleeping Donnie gets the mental command to "get up", and he obediently shuffles out of bed onto a neighboring golf course. There he meets Frank (James Duval: THE CLOWN AT MIDNIGHT), a black, six-foot tall rabbit with a demon's face, who informs him of the precise time the world will end in days, hours, minutes, and seconds. The end is not far away; it's Halloween.
Donnie's meeting with Frank is not the strangest thing that happens that night; a jet engine from a commercial jetliner falls from the sky through the roof of his house, and into his bedroom. Fortunately, Donnie's on the golf course instead of in bed. The jet engine proves to be a mystery; though its existence is unquestionable it cannot be traced to any known plane, it's like the skies just literally opened and dropped it. As the engine is hauled away by a truck summoned by the FAA, a yin-yang symbol is visible inside the engine housing, branded on the metal.
Donnie doesn't tell his parents about Frank; his nocturnal stroll was just another bout of sleepwalking to them. Still, Donnie broods over the meaning of Frank's words. Strangely, he accepts Frank's existence; a six-foot demon bunny just doesn't seem to bother him much.
The days pass, and the deadline looms, and Donnie tries to find some meaning to Frank's message. Is it allegorical? Metaphorical? No, just literal. Somehow, the world will end by the end of October. But why? Donnie struggles with that through the rest of the story.
Clues are given throughout, including where the jet engine came from, who Frank is, and why the world ends in October. The most important clues are those given by "Grandma Death" (Patience Cleveland: PSYCHO III, ALIEN NATION: Dark Horizon), an elderly woman who once wrote a book on the philosophy of time travel. Surprisingly, it answers many of the questions Donnie has while recounting experiences similar to his.
What is the truth? Actually, it seems there are multiple truths.
The most concrete is time travel to the past is possible. Even so, can you use it to undo things you have done?
Yes... but at a price; there is a final balance that must be maintained, call it destiny if you will, but whatever path you take to reach it, direct or convoluted, you arrive in the same place at the end. And as much as the "world will end" from one person's point of view, it goes on for many others. Thus, a truth is you cannot escape fate. There are other truths too, some just as grim, like the secret "Grandma Death" whispers to Donnie. The truth about life and death is simple, they are flip sides of the same coin, and death for some means others can live.
Don't expect a lot of blood and guts in this movie; there's very little gore, and don't expect a lot of Eastern mysticism either. Special effects are sparse too; Frank the demon rabbit looks like nothing else but a guy in a black bunny suit, and the only computer-generated effects of note in the movie are several notches below what appeared in THE ABYSS. This movie is actually cerebral, but not incomprehensibly clouded with pseuo-intellectual trappings. You may have to watch it several times to figure out everything that's going on, and the clues that are given, but it's not impossible.
I've mentioned before the movie's setting is in 1988, and they do a splendid job of bringing back the waning years of that decade. Whether it's watching George Bush (senior) on television reassure the public that Manuel Noriega can be trusted, or a group of overly coiffed grade school girls dance at a school talent show to the tune "Notorious", the gross and uncaring materialism of the times is there. I'd much rather that it stayed dead and buried, but it works well as a backdrop to the other, "normal" people around Donnie, including a motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze: GHOST), and the church-going leader (Beth Grant: FLATLINERS, CHILD'S PLAY 2, THE DARK HALF) of the girls dancing troupe, Sparkle Motion, who wears a "God is awesome" T-shirt.
The acting in the movie is generally pretty good. Interestingly, Donnie Darko and his sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal: CECIL B. DEMENTED, MONSTER HOUSE, BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT), are played by real life brother and sister, adding a realistic tone to their interactions. The only negative is Drew Barrymore (ALTERED STATES, FIRESTARTER, CAT'S EYE, SCREAM) improbably cast as Donnie's English teacher; that and her "cameo" role expands to nearly equal any of the main characters.
You might want to get the DVD copy of this movie on a five-day rental, so you have a chance to watch it, think about, watch it again, and think.
4 Shriek Girls
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