Film Review: Donnie Darko (2001)

Release Date: January 19th, 2001 (Sundance)
Directed by: Richard Kelly
Written by: Richard Kelly
Music by: Michael Andrews
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Duval, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Daveigh Chase, Arthur Taxier, David St. James, Jazzie Mahannah, Jolene Purdy, Stuart Stone, Gary Lundy, Alex Greenwald, Seth Rogen, Beth Grant, David Moreland, Ashley Tisdale, Jerry Trainor

Adam Fields Productions, Flower Films, Pandora Cinema, 113 Minutes, 134 Minutes (Director’s Cut)

Review:

“I hope that when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.” – Donnie

This movie had a profound effect on me when I saw it in a movie theater, alone, in 2001. Once it was released on VHS and DVD, I had a copy of both. In fact, I had a version of the VHS that was released in blue plastic, as opposed to the traditional black.

Once I owned the movie, I watched it a lot. Mainly because it was so damn good and I was so damn intrigued by the vague concepts and ideas in it. There was this whole deep, mystical yet science-y mystery, which captivated my psyche.

Beyond that, the film connected with me in a way no other film has. I think that has a lot to do with my age, at the time, and because the title character and myself had similar issues. I liked seeing this character and how he was portrayed, as it felt genuine as hell and like it came from a real place from someone with similar experiences. I’m not saying that Richard Kelly is as “fucked up” as Donnie Darko but it’s clear that he knew what he was writing quite well.

I also liked how this sort of critiqued the Americana lifestyle and was set in the late ’80s, a time where American ideals seemed like they were winning and the middle class were relishing in a time of affordable opulence. Not that any of that is specifically negative, I just thought that this film looked at and examined it in an interesting way.

This is the first time I have watched the movie in probably a decade. I used to watch it so much, it was pretty much burned into my brain. Having that much time away from it, though, allowed me to see it with somewhat fresh eyes and in fact, I was a bit apprehensive about it, as I thought it might not stand up to the test of time and play as well.

Luckily, that apprehension was quickly absolved because this was just as good as I remembered it. Also, in some way, it was like rediscovering it because there were some neat details and nuance that I had forgotten about. I mean, I am starting to get old.

The film is pretty close to perfect and it is so well acted that you get ensnared by it. It’s beautiful visually and narratively and it certainly deserves more recognition than it gets, even if it did establish cult status and a slew of fans over time.

In recent years, though, it feels like it’s being forgotten, as new generations come along and prefer movies with less heart and simplistic, rapid storytelling that deliver constant gratification while moving so fast that nothing in a film older than fifteen minutes seems to matter. Look at the ninth Star Wars saga film and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s sad that Donnie Darko sort of feels like a relic now. At the time, I had hoped it was a bright beacon at the beginning of a new millennium that would help inspire smarter, more original movies but the Michael Bays and J. J. Abramses won out.

And sadly, Richard Kelly tried but was never able to capture the magic he had here with his feature length debut.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: this is pretty unusual but I’d say Richard Kelly’s other films: Southland Tales and The Box.