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Donnie Darko


One of my favorite films of all time, 2001's DONNIE DARKO has just been released in a 4K restoration anniversary print. Revisiting the film after 15 years, I found I liked it even more than I did at the time of its original release.

In one of his first roles. Jake Gyllenhaal is haunting as teenager Donnie, plagued by disturbing dreams of the end of the world.

The fact that these eerie messages of doom are delivered by a man size rabbit named Frank are just one early indication of how twisted a journey that writer/director Richard Kelly is going to unfold.

As Kelly's camera swoops and glides behind Donnie, we see him as a popular but disturbed teen at his high school, where he's admired by some but bullied by several, including a very young Seth Rogan in his film debut.

We see Donnie with his therapist Dr. Thurman, played by Katherine Ross (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Graduate) in her return to film after many years away. Donnie tells her everything, baring his soul to us at the same time as his visions countdown to the end.

Drew Barrymore is a daring English teacher who pushes the student's boundaries of sexuality and understanding, while Beth Grant (No Country for Old Men) attempts to repress every bit of independence and adult thinking as a hilariously repressed gym teacher named Kitty Farmer.

Kitty is convinced that all the students (and the world) would be better off if they all followed the spiritual self help guidance of a very sleazy Jim Cunningham, played with intentional 80's cheese by Patrick Swayze.

Jenna Malone is Donnie's girlfriend Gretchen, Mary McDonnell is his mother and real life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Donnie's sister Elizabeth.

Donnie's world begins to fracture as the visions of Frank grow more intrusive, with the clock constantly ticking down to the end of the world.

When Donnie's dream states become something much more, with him unconsciously acting out attacks on the places or people that have wronged him or others, the film grows darker.

Kiley's brilliance is that he finds the perfect blend of humor, drama, laugh out loud moments and spooky horror in his story.

You'll love watching some very bad folks get their comeuppance, while growing more concerned for Donnie's fate.

Released just post 9/11, key story elements were even more disturbing at the time. As he does in all his films, Kiley sets the film in an election year, this time in 1988. He's said that he feels election years are more tangible to us and become key markers in time for him to root his stories.

I've seen the film at least 5 times over 15 years, and I'm still not sure exactly what the film means, or what the ending unfolds.

Watching the Director's cut last night for the first time, I could see Kiley fleshing out the story by twenty additional minutes. They are mostly quiet family moments that deepen the love and frustration between the family members as they all feel the ripple effects of Donnie's state.

DONNIE DARKO is many things at once.

It's a powerful and disturbing leap down the proverbial rabbit hole (Frank's?) of mental illness.

It's a look at the angst, upheaval and struggles of adolescence and emerging sexuality.

It's a sci-fi tinged time-travel story.

At it's core, it's a doomed love story.

For me, its brilliance is that it's all those things at once and a perfect balance of light and dark that makes me laugh while it makes me think.

I'll be damned if I understand it, but I know I love it.

I've never seen a better merge of music and film than the closing moments set to "Mad World".

Like the film, the music is haunting and sticks with you long after the credits roll.

DONNIE DARKO is a masterpiece of strange cinema that gets an A+.

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