Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:06 pm 
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Flawed but original first-time movie may be destined for cult status

Richard Kelly, a 26-year-old first-time director, has made an ambitious and offbeat, complex, but, alas, not wholly successful, movie about a 15-year-old at odds with his school, his world, and, as it turns out, reality itself. His parents and sister, in a bit of a change for the coming of age genre, are friendly and helpful. An ominous tall alien 'friend' with silver head, grinning teeth like a skull, and rabbit ears, who pursues Donnie and calls himself Frank, is less helpful. Donnie's sensitivity and brilliance remind one of Salinger's menagerie of precocious teenagers from Holden Caulfield to Seymour Glass, but they didn't engage in time travel or set fire to buildings. They didn't look as normal as Donnie, either, or have a fellow misfit as a girlfriend like Christian Slater in Heathers.

Donnie Darko has too many agendas and tips its hat at too many genres. It sure does deserve credit for keeping you guessing. Donnie is led by Frank to walk by night and hear apocalyptic warnings. At school he simply seems independent minded, outspoken, and bright. Why is he doomed? What's the big piece of a plane that crashes into the Dark house? Why's it such a cheerful family and why does Donnie smile so much, and how's he so high functioning if he's on medication and sees a therapist who hypnotizes him and eventually diagnoses him as schizophrenic? Kelly takes us on a wild ride.

The actor playing Donnie, Jake Gyllenhaal, is talented and has presence. His strange speech under hypnosis is brilliant. He has a knowing, sly, inward quality and his smile has a nice scary edge. Some of the school characters - the gym teacher who preaches a cheap psychobabble cult and the cultist quack leader she promotes to the students, played woodenly by Patrick Swayze, are overdrawn and shrill, but the family and therapist are reasonable, if not great.

Why does the movie, which is so strange, feel so conventional? There's no strong emotional focus for the boy's disarray as there is in Ordinary People. The raw material is hackneyed - the ordinary middle-class white family, the nice private school. They have some amusing, surprising lines toward the beginning, but then the wild spiral toward doomsday cuts off the smart social observation. Drew Barrymore, done up to look like Julianne Moore, does a nice edgy turn as the risk-taking English teacher who gets fired for teaching a Graham Greene story that supposedly inspires kids to a major act of vandalism. The other students, Donnie's pals, his girlfriend, and a pariah fat girl, aren't very well differentiated or amusing. A plethora of special effects including digitalized ectoplasm evoke the teenage horror flick, which doesn't help set Donnie Dark apart from schlock. And that's really too bad, because the movie does have quite a few surprises and some originality. It seems destined for minor cult status. But it's like an American Beauty gone wildly wrong and not sure of the risks it takes: at the end it takes them all back.

August 17, 2002

┬ęChris Knipp 2002

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