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Donnie Darko
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      Is there yet time to shuffle my 2001 Ten Best Films list? I'm desperate to create room at the top, up there with Waking Life, for the remarkable Donnie Darko, a dystopic sci-fi teen movie set in the American suburban 80s: Back to the Future meets Rebel Without a Cause. This 2001 latecomer to Boston plays-grab some tickets! - only one January weekend. I second the rave review of my Village Voice colleague, J. Hoberman, who called it in October, "?certainly the most original and venturesome American indie I've seen this year."

     For me, this precociously accomplished first feature by USC film school grad Richard Kelly, 26, succeeds well beyond Mullholland Drive, which cleaned up on Best Picture awards from the New York, Boston, and the National Society of Film Critics. Donnie Darko certainly has more than a pinch of Lynch-style surrealism in its conception: cheery middle-class America reconfigured as a rotted, demonic dreamscape. If its maelstrom of swirling nightmares-within-nightmares is as dense as in Lynch's picture, at least there's a payoff. Whereas Mulholland Drive swerves off the lost highway with its frustratingly impenetrable third act, Donnie Darko - more moving, even creepier - is capable of being cracked. Maybe. At least after several intense, head-scratching viewings!

     It's Fall 1988, and Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), 16, lives at home in the snug middle-class town of Middlesex, where his Republican parents (Mary McDonnell, Homes Osbourne) argue over the dinner table about the upcoming presidential election. Donnie's haughty Harvard-bound sister, Elizabeth favors Dukakis, the parents swear by George Bush, the elder. But Donnie is locked in a deeper struggle, to get through each anguished day, with the aid of an attentive therapist (Katharine Ross), and with ever-increasing medication. (It's the laissez-faire Reaganite 80s, when mood-altering drugs were administered freely.)

     The pill-popping backfires. Donnie, droopy-eyed and increasingly anti-social, is plagued by disquieting visions. He's beckoned out of his bed by a shivery apparition: a suited six-foot talking rabbit with a skull-face and a mouthful of carnivore teeth. This frightful bunny is called Frank, and he's allegedly from outer space and from the future. He's come to inform Donnie that the world is ending soon, in November, 1988. While Frank's here, in Dr. Caligari fashion, he pushes a somnambulist Donnie to destructive tasks: flooding the high school which Donnie attends, burning down the mansion of a devious self-help guru (Patrick Swayze), and axing the statue of the school mascot.

     Might Frank be Donnie's projection, the sly invention of an angry schizophrenic talking to himself? Why else would the big rabbit order him to perilous acts so consistent with his nihilist desires? Rationalists who crave logical explanations and closure are thrown a bone. Eventually, Frank's being is tied to a real person in the film with that very name, and to a suppressed violent memory of Donnie's from the non-sci-fi world: What Happened that Fateful Halloween.

     But each perhaps-answered question in Donnie Darko leaves more enigmas standing. Other meta-mysteries include perplexing objects dropping from the sky, a wild-haired old lady, Grandma Death, checking her mailbox incessantly for a missive of mystical import, and a narrative seemingly shuttling backwards and forwards in time, in line with the thinking of cosmologist Stephen Hawking, whose speculative theories Donnie has been contemplating.

     At the beginning of this piece I mentioned Rebel Without a Cause as a source, that great 1950s movie which first took seriously the pain and torment of being a sensitive American teenager. Rebel's James Dean time-travels in Donnie Darko and into Jake Gyllehaal's heartfelt, heart-heavy, wonderfully nuanced performance. Is it going too far to see his Donnie as a kind of teenage American Jesus, taking on himself - so Bressonian - the sadness and aloneness and estrangement of those whose path he crosses? (All of us?) Such a spiritual reading of Donnie Darko helps us to fathom the sacrificial downer ending, the fatalist working through of director-writer Kelly's most profound line: "I think some people are born with tragedy in their blood."

(January, 2002)

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