Unsettling and audacious, Richard Kelly’s debut feature Donnie Darko is, without question, this year’s best apocalyptic time travel movie featuring a malevolent giant bunny.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie, a teenage schizophrenic with a history of arson. One night in October 1988 he wakes to a rasping whisper. He stumbles out of bed and into the street, where Frank is waiting for him. Donnie’s always had imaginary friends, but Frank is a singularly terrifying apparition. A nightmare version of James Stewart’s Harvey, he is a six foot rabbit with a gleaming silver face cast in a menacing, feral stare. He’s there to tell Donnie that the world will end in 28 days.
It’s a silly but uncanny image: Bugs Bunny as the Terminator, or one of Jeff Koons’ metallic rabbit sculptures turned predatory prophet. Frank is doubly frightening because he looks so ridiculous: no one expects the harbinger of doom to be dressed as a bunny. Kelly invites laughter but complicates it by playing Frank’s scenes mainly off of Donnie’s disturbed reactions. Slackjawed, eyes rolling upward, barely able to stand, he is so obviously in thrall to this weird phantom that our uncomfortable giggles give way to clammy dread.
It turns out to be an eventful night. While Donnie and Frank discuss Armageddon, a jet engine falls through the Darko’s roof, crushing Donnie’s empty bed. When he straggles home the next morning, he finds a horde of investigators and his distraught parents. The FAA is at a loss to explain the accident, as no jets seem to have been in the air at the time.
With each new day a step closer to world’s end, the mundane suburban dramas of Donnie’s life – a flirtation with a pretty new girl at school (Jena Malone), run-ins with a Dr. Feelgood charlatan (Patrick Swayze), sessions with his therapist (Katharine Ross) – take on a dire urgency, particularly as he keeps waking up outdoors after increasingly frightening conversations with Frank. His life begins to seem more and more like a nightmare he can’t quite shake, let alone explain.
Kelly is covering territory already explored by David Lynch in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks (Frank takes his name and his heavy breathing from Dennis Hopper’s gas-huffing psychopath), but the similarities are more thematic than formal. Frank aside, Kelly builds his dreamscape not by creating strange images (there’s not a dwarf in sight) but instead by following the drifting, elusive illogic of dreams, making the everyday strange through simple juxtaposition. The best sequences – there’s a dazzler here built around the precociously sexualized performance of an elementary school dance troupe headed for "Star Search" – pit two events against one another in suggestive montages that imply a core of sickness and barely contained hysteria without making the point too explicit.
There’s nothing here as galvanizing as Lynch’s best moments – the horrifying intensity of Blue Velvet‘s sex scenes is nowhere to be found – and the ending is so calculated that its neatness somewhat compromises the messy sprawl that precedes it. And while the cast is mostly superb (Gyllenhaal manages the difficult trick of seeming both blandly normal and profoundly disturbed, often within the same scene), the worst moments belong to the best known actors. As a teacher embroiled in a struggle with parents over the books she assigns to her classes, Drew Barrymore puts on airs, aping intelligence by adopting a knowing expression. Swayze is too broad by half, never pushing his parody of a new age gladhander further than a joke.
These are minor quibbles in a film this accomplished. Donnie Darko works on two fronts, both as homey surrealism and as a satire of the Reagan era (the hard, pouting stares of the dancing little girls catches the chilly nastiness of that time perfectly), and largely succeeds at both. This is an astonishing debut, so confident in its technique and ambitious in its conception that its few awkward moments and unsatisfying conclusion are almost reassuring, evidence that Kelly has the potential to get even better.