It is hard to describe the plot of 'Donnie Darko' without making the movie seem repellant. 'Donnie Darko' is purposely ambivalent, and the causality of bizarre events is intriguing from the very start. The journal development is a retro trip in itself. Using footage of the Dukakis and Bush (I) debates before the 1988 election, the movie authenticates its setting of a high school near the end of the eighties. How they manage to mix nostalgia with an eerie tale and dark manifestations is a mystery, but they pull it off. Uniquely enigmatic with the memories they elicit, the movie has the effect of being a 'Twilight Zone' manifestation of 'Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion.' (Aptly, the soundtrack draws from "Tears for Fears" instead of "Bow Wow Wow".)
Now about the story. Our titled tortured protagonist (Jake Gyllenhaal in another talented role) is undergoing psychiatric care complete with medication. The first hint we have that things aren't going well is when an ominous voice summons Donnie out of bed to meet him somewhere in the dark. What we discover there on a golf green is a six-foot rabbit, who, if his processed voice weren't so menacing, could only be dismissed with chuckles. (One can only describe the creature as a rabid or demonic 'Harvey'.) And, indeed, our best evidence of a demonic presence is when Donnie asks him later, "Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?" To which the voice quickly replies, "Why are you wearing that stupid human suit?") Here he announces to the disturbed adolescent that the world is going to end in approximately a month--Halloween 1988--to be exact. After that we get varying degrees of maladjustment with some foreboding events. Upon his return home he discovers he narrowly escaped death when an airplane part fell through his bedroom, leveling much of the house. A grateful Donnie will do anything for "Frank," who saved him from the debacle. From there a series of inexplicable events take place that leave one glued to the screen with magnetic interest.
'Donnie Darko' is a mysterious and disturbing alternative movie. Some of the draw comes with the acting. Keeping it real is no short order. The scenes of hypnosis are mesmerizing with Dr. Therman (played with expert delicacy by Katherine Ross) who tries to uncover Donnie's pathology. But it isn't that easy. In the meanwhile, Donnie, himself, seeks a teacher at his private school and an elderly woman down the road who has written a book about time travel. Dabbling with penetrating thoughts about predestination and the occult, Donnie's predicament is fascinating. Drew Barrymore, whose mere presence could singularly bring flashbacks of the eighties, is the producer and plays lively English teacher, Karen Pomeroy, a character who provides a pivotal place for social commentary. (Besides a mysterious mood piece, some satire is accessible.) On the staff is stalwart moral zealot, Mrs. Farmer, who is almost painted in clown white during her ignorant tirades. There's also preacher-like motivational speaker, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze who makes his character creepy enough) who has a few skeletons in his own closet.
'Donnie Darko' deserves accolades for being so original. With effective performances that include the delicious novelty of having Donnie's sister played by real-life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal, the elements speak for themselves. Nevertheless, the overall effect is not as satisying as the creativity, and the story leaves some gaping holes that, while like real life, are unsettling nonetheless. 'Donnie Darko' will fill a black hole for teenagers who will relate to some of Donnie's difficulties that beg for meaning. (Recommended for a different sort of movie adventure.)