Donnie Darko 15th Anniversary 4K Restoration FILM REVIEW
Writer/director: Richard Kelly
Release: 23 December
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnel, Jena Malone, Patrick Swayze, Holmes Osborne, Beth Grant, Katharine Ross, Cholene Purdy, Alex Greenwald, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, Seth Rogen (yes, really, he’s in this)
It’s 1988. In suburban Virginia, Donnie Darko is woken up and given a message: the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.
Frank, the bunny-suit wearing messenger, is not lying. And he isn’t close to done with Donnie.
Donnie Darko is 15 years old and the years are sitting very lightly on the movie. Although made in 2001 it’s set in 1988 (this was the original Stranger Things) around the time of the Bush/Dukakis election it’s a film set in a liminal point in history. Everyone is waiting for something to happen whether it’s the election, adolescence, losing their virginity or Donnie finally breaking and going mad.
No one is going to have to wait for long.
This was a breakout movie for both Jake Gyllenhaal and sister Maggie playing Donnie’s sister, Elizabeth and it’s easy to see why. The film’s heart lies in the Darko family and their cheerfully profane, untidy, grumpy interactions. In a film that defines itself by a sense of suspended, unconscious hyper reality, they are the single element whose feet are on the ground. Mary McDonnell as their mother is especially great, bringing that combination of deadpan humour and pained, focused compassion that she does so well to every scene.
But while the Darko family is the heart of the movie, Donnie is the star. Gyllenhaal has never been better than he is here. His Donnie is mercurial, a sullen dead-eyed teen one moment and a hyper articulate champion of his generation the next. That could read as bad writing but it’s not; it’s brilliant, deliberate writing and a note-perfect performance. Donnie is all too aware of the changes he’s going through, is supremely clever and very bored of no one trusting him. The films best scenes see Donnie clash with the establishment, especially the late, great Patrick Swayze as Jim Cunningham. Swayze is the movie’s dark horse – all ’90s suits, vests, can-do attitude and slightly too-fixed smiles. His role here is pivotal and the film’s subtle subversion of its own reality begins and ends with Jim and it’s one of the best performances of Swayze’s career. If Donnie is a superhero, and he is, then Jim is his nemesis. Although both are far more complex, monstrous and tragic than those labels suggest.
As is the film itself. The version being rereleased is the director’s cut, which includes several voiceovers emphasising certain plots and, interestingly, cuts some small but important grace notes. There’s a moment of reconciliation between Donnie and his mom in the original, the absence of which here gives the film added poignancy for example. This is the darkest possible version of the movie and given the subject matter that’s quite an achievement.
And what about that subject matter? Donnie Darko changes genre, and tone, almost on a whim. The film’s base is a look at the horrors of adolescence and the stigmatisation of mental health issues but there’s so much more built on top of that. It touches on the collision between religion and science, the horrific damage done to education by self-help charlatans, the relationship between students and teachers, forteana and time travel. Any film would collapse under the weight of these things and Donnie Darko is no exception. However, its moment of collapse is also its climax and the ending remains one of the greatest moments of 21st century cinema to date.
For all that, first-time viewers are going to struggle in places. Kelly is a writer and director who refuses to give you easy answers and that’s definitely true here. Even with the director’s cut, the film plays like a joke we’re not quite in on. That massively heightens the sense of unease but it will also drive some viewers away. Persevere, read up if you have to and come back. Because for all its wilful awkwardness, magnificently on-the-nose soundtrack and over-caffeinated focus, this really is a very, very special piece of cinema. Happy birthday, Donnie. There is still, we’re delighted to say, so much to look forward to.
Review by Alasdair Stuart