Darko and the Bunnyman

Acting his age: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Donnie Darko'

You don't need to have come of age in the 1980s to appreciate Donnie Darko, but it doesn't hurt. Sixteen years old in the final month that pipsqueak Michael Dukakis remained our best defense against four more years of Reaganomics, the title character (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a borderline schizoid high school somnambulist who imagines that a six-foot-tall rabbit named Frank has predicted Armageddon to occur within a week of the big election. Donnie, you see, hasn't been taking his meds. But with George Bush preparing to inherit the throne (and George Michael sitting atop the charts), who could blame him for believing that the end is near? Besides, the kid isn't nearly as unstable as his suburban elders, including a sanctimonious New Age guru and his gym-teacher disciple, whose truly deranged blackboard exercise requires students to place various contrived moral dilemmas along a single continuum between "love" and "fear."

Donnie Darko, to its credit, isn't easily situated on any such line. A satiric teen melodrama with sci-fi/horror flourishes and an impeccable post-punk soundtrack, at once brooding and hilarious, poignant and nihilistic, ingenious and overblown, the film is nothing if not unpredictable--and uncannily of its period. The view of piss stains on the white picket fence is pure Blue Velvet; the acid take on how kids are made to internalize the violent absurdity of their institutions follows from Heathers; the presence of Eighties icons Patrick Swayze and Drew Barrymore in the supporting cast mirrors the plot's own unsettling back-to-the-future contortions; the pointedly bipolar tone might have been modeled on the wild mood swings of the Cure's adolescent-apocalypse epic Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me from the white-hot summer of '87.

But if the movie channels late-Eighties pop-cultural gloom as if cramming with CliffsNotes, that's hardly inappropriate to the sensitive teen's habit of filtering the cruel world through, say, his CD collection. The scene in which morose Donnie comes out of his shell to explicate Graham Greene's "The Destructors" in English class perfectly captures the dark sophomore's glee on that rare occasion when the ferocity of fiction in the curriculum matches that of his real fantasies. (Incidentally: Why not let kids study comic books--or movies--in school?) Himself a precocious student of the Spielberg/Cameron/Zemeckis school of cinema, writer-director Richard Kelly endured his own adolescence in suburban Virginia (first learning of Vietnam from Platoon, and of point-of-view shots from David Fincher's "Janie's Got a Gun" video), and was a wee 23 years old when he penned Darko after graduating from USC's film program.

Given the level of detail in the screenplay, which handles time travel and period teen-speak ("You're such a fuck-ass!") with equal acuity, it's surprising to learn that Kelly conceived the thing as a means of landing an agent--which he did. With the resultant blessing of fellow Creative Artists Agency client Barrymore and the co-production skills of a USC frat buddy entrenched at New Line, the wunderkind (now 26) shot his debut feature in widescreen for $4.5 million--a remarkably ample sum for a first-time director, and a remarkably meager one for the number of name actors, special effects, Steadicam shots, and alterna-rock ballads that he managed to snare.

Hyped as the hot ticket at Sundance 2001, Donnie Darko, like Memento, left the festival without a distributor--which seems one measure of its admirable resistance to current marketing dictates. (Kelly, a self-described obsessive, took advantage of the downtime by pounding out his next four screenplays.) That the upstart Newmarket Films gleaned a fortune from Memento but found arthouse chains passing on Darko in droves would be depressing were it not for the bracing reminder that a certain class of corporately neglected Amerindie still exists, and could potentially support some small exhibitor shrewd enough to seize the day. (Indeed, the newly managed Suburban World, which is screening Donnie Darko for a week, could well find its mettle in such marginalia.)

If the movie has been slow to catch on with the money men, it's perhaps no wonder. Frankly, it took me until the third screening to recognize that Kelly is more than P.T. Anderson with a rabbit in his hat instead of frogs. What he has besides overweening ambition is the rare ability to render a character's internal dreamscape as a projection of our own...uh, love and fear, and make it as catchy as a pop hook in late autumn. Which maybe helps to explain why I've been humming Echo and the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" all week.

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