by Dan Wilson
Donnie Darko appeared on the festival circuit in 2001 to critical acclaim, and was picked up for limited theatrical distribution shortly thereafter. Typically playing in art houses and college theaters, the film played Milwaukee for two nights as part of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s Spring 2002 screening series. Through word of mouth, the film has developed a cult following, and movie-lovers across the country are counting it among their favorite films. A debut feature for the then 28-year-old writer/director, Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko is a brilliantly conceived film that is simultaneously a rich character drama and a surprisingly innovative science fiction film. The film takes place in 1988. From dead-on art direction and wardrobe design to sparkly dance troupes and cheesy motivational speakers (Patrick Swayze), the film does an excellent job of transporting us to another time and place. The first line spoken in the film is from Elizabeth Darko (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who blurts, “I’m voting for Dukakis” at the dinner table. A lively political discussion quickly disintegrates into family bickering and effectively establishes the dynamics in the Darko household. We’re introduced to Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a troubled high-schooler with a penchant for sleepwalking and visitations from Frank, a pretty creepy looking giant rabbit, who warns him about the impending end of the world. During one of Donnie’s midnight escapades, a jet engine falls into his room. He returns home in the morning, surprising his family who had assumed he’d been crushed. Federal agents abound; it turns out that no one knows where the engine came from. We begin to suspect we’re in for an interesting ride that goes beyond Donnie’s internal struggles. In his quest to understand what’s going on, Donnie’s therapist (Katharine Ross) subjects him to regression. A teacher (Noah Wylie) surreptitiously gives him a forgotten book called The Philosophy of Time Travel. Donnie realizes that the author is a local woman nicknamed “Grandma Death,” regarded by many as the local kook. Frank’s visitations grow more frequent and more intense. Donnie continues to sleepwalk and get into trouble at school. All of his searching and discovery culminates in a surprise ending where Donnie must make the ultimate sacrifice for love. The brother/sister chemistry between the real-life brother and sister Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal adds a refreshingly wonderful dynamic to the film, and appearances by Drew Barrymore as Donnie’s English teacher is a fabulous addition to the ensemble cast including Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, and Beth Grant. The film features a killer soundtrack of Eighties standards including Duran Duran, The Church and Echo & the Bunnymen. For those of you with access to the web, check out http://www.donniedarko.com. Going beyond the typical promotional website, the site plays like a video game, allowing you to discover conspiracy theories, character backgrounds, and additional pieces of the story we never see on screen. Donnie Darko is available on VHS and DVD at area video stores and the Milwaukee Public Library. The DVD features page-by-page images of Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel if you wish to learn more about the topic.