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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 23rd 2003:

[Continuing a lengthy and somewhat dubious account-stroke-metaphor from a previous review…]

I did my best to atone for the sticky toffee pudding by going for a long walk round the local marina where the family yacht, the Rampant Laddie, is currently having fresh barnacles applied. But how to do penance for The Transporter? Well, there was only one thing for it, make the trip out to the local (in the broadest possible sense of the word) art-house cinema and spend some time absorbing serious culture.

As luck would have it, this week’s film turned out to be Donnie Darko, which attentive masochists will recall was on last year’s list of films I was annoyed at having missed. (This week’s Senior Citizens pic, I noticed with interest, was the axe-murderer horror movie Frailty. Hmmm.) The debut picture from writer-director Richard Kelly, this really is one for the ‘how in hell did this ever get made?!?’ file as it’s certainly the most comprehensively weird movie to get a major release since Being John Malkovich.

It’s the tale of the eponymous teenager, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Donnie is a brilliant but disturbed young man living in the quiet suburban community of Middlesex with his parents and sisters. Already seeing medicated and seeing a psychiatrist (Katharine Ross) following an undetailed incidence of arson, Donnie’s life gets even more peculiar when he receives a visitation from the mysterious Frank, a seemingly-demonic presence in the shape of a man in a bunny-rabbit suit. Frank saves Donnie’s life when a jet engine falls out of an empty sky through his bedroom ceiling, and slowly begins to exert a strange influence over Donnie’s actions…

A simple synopsis can’t do justice to the sheer scope and range of Kelly’s incredibly eclectic script, which slides easily from John Hughes-style high school comedy-drama, to bizarre, unsettling fantasy. There are also echoes of Heathers in the film’s black humour and dark tone. Kelly runs the pop-culture gamut from the Smurfs to The Evil Dead to the work of Graham Greene, and quite happily shifts from a hilarious scenes such as Donnie’s haranguing a worthless motivational speaker (a surprisingly good Patrick Swayze) to mind bending discussions of destiny and the nature of the universe, and strange dream-like fantasy sequences.

This is a massively, deceptively complex story, and probably a film you need to see twice to even begin to fully understand. Is it about time travel, parallel universes, the nature of fate, or something else entirely? Personally I found the conclusion – where all is not quite made clear – to be bleakly romantic, but I think everyone seeing the film will come away from it with their own idea of what it actually means (and there are some very detailed explanations of some of the theories out there in cyberspace).

The cast do it full justice – as well as the previously mentioned performers, there are great turns from Jena Malone as Donnie’s girlfriend, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his sister, Drew Barrymore (who exec-produced and whom we therefore should probably thank for the film being made at all), Mary McDonnell, and Beth Grant, to name but a few. There’s a terrific 80s soundtrack, too.

Apart from the fact that it’s one of many current movies and TV shows that mention child abuse in such a way as to simply devalue the seriousness of the crime, there’s not much I can find wrong with Donnie Darko. It’s a film that entertains and amuses at the same time that it’s prying your subconscious open and inserting a lot of very strange material indeed. I saw the lunchtime showing and for the rest of the day images and concepts from the film kept erupting, seemingly at random, into my mind’s eye, a rather peculiar and distracting experience. Donnie Darko probably shouldn’t work at all, let alone as well as it does. But Kelly pulls it off, and has made one of the most distinctive and absorbing films of recent years. Recommended.

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