Newest Reviews:

New Movies -  

The Tunnel


The Tall Man

Mama Africa





Brownian Movement

Last Ride

[Rec]³: Genesis

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Indie Game: The Movie

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Old Movies -

Touki Bouki: The Journey of the Hyena

Drums Along the Mohawk

The Chase

The Heiress

Show People

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry



Miracle Mile

The Great Flamarion

Dark Habits

Archives -

Recap: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 , 2005, 2006, 2007 , 2008 , 2009 , 2010 , 2011 , 2012

All reviews alphabetically

All reviews by star rating

All reviews by release year


Screening Log



E-mail me




Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly) 2001 

Just last week, in my review of her Riding in Cars With Boys, I suggested Drew Barrymore’s overpowering presence in a film was roughly equivalent to the creative castration of all involved. Now, upon viewing Donnie Darko, which was partially produced by Barrymore’s production company, Flower Films, I find myself eating crow. Here is a film that not only examines a subject matter light years away from that of Barrymore’s recent work, but it also finds Drew cast against type as part of an ensemble. So, kudos to Ms. Barrymore, and kudos to Flower Films, for having the sense to remain just a small part of Richard Kelly’s ambitious first feature.

The name Donnie Darko applies to both the film and its insular, mentally unstable teen protagonist. He resents that his parents make him see a therapist that has prescribed medicine that supposedly helps to control his mood swings. Whatever he’s on, it’s not working as Donnie often wakes up in the middle of the night and is visited by a giant humanoid skull-bunny. The scenes in which he converses with this bunny (named Frank) are truly eerie. Frank tells Donnie on October 2, 1988 that the world is going to end in a little over twenty-eight days. The rest of the film is spent counting down to this doomsday.  The film adeptly explains that Donnie feels compelled to listen to this specter because he feels it has saved his life, placing the audience closer to Donnie than me might be if we merely thought he was insane. This is an intriguing setup, and the film manages to create an aura of unpredictability that carries it a great distance.

I won’t spoil in what directions the film spins off from here, but I will say that it takes on far more than it can handle. Within a half hour, the scenes begin to collapse under the film’s collective weight. It continues piling on themes and characters until the picture’s focus enlarges and it all becomes about much more than just Donnie. The film’s millennial tensions and ensemble angst feel lifted from P.T. Anderson’s masterpiece Magnolia, but the similarities don’t end there. The plot structure, the ominous intertitles, the motivational speaker, the musical commentary on the action (including a scene that feels like a blatant copy of Magnolia’s “Wise Up” sequence), and an ending that precipitates into the miraculous all feel cribbed. Still, there is a ton of originality in the film. Donnie Darko can get away with copying that much of its material since Kelly throws way more than that at us.

That’s really where the problems begin, though. There are at least a dozen developed characters condensed into the two hour running time. The film, which is set just prior to the 1988 election, also tries to present Donnie’s doomsday as a sort of death of America. I don’t quite understand what the director was trying to accomplish with this aspect, though I did note the flag that hangs over Donnie’s bed and the freedom of speech issues raised at Donnie’s school. I have no clue if the director wanted us to mourn the end of the Regan years or celebrate their ending. The ending of the film also presents a twist that effectively erases the catharses that the film’s events have caused several of the more prominent characters to undergo. After much effort in making these characters see the light, it all appears to have been for nothing.

A bigger problem, however, is the cast itself. Much of the casting is well done, but many of the scenes are not well acted. Magnolia, whatever its inadequacies, was clearly an actors’ showcase. Nearly every performance in that film was a powerhouse and it demonstrated Anderson was a truly great actor’s director. Donnie Darko’s performances are closer to adequate. Many scenes are effective, but an equal number of them are stilted. Only Mary McDonnell and Drew Barrymore seem consistently good. Still, despite all of this, there is a consistency of an odd, melancholy tone that is admirable in the film. One scene, set to Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels”, which introduces us to the characters in Donnie’s high school varies the film speed to capture the song’s rhythm, and creates such a delirious blend of nostalgia, detachment, and pure filmmaking gusto, that it’s catapulted onto my shortlist of the year’s best scenes. The film is filled with enough originality and unpredictability to make me recommend it over any of its flaws. Clearly, Richard Kelly is a director to watch.


October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman