First Impressions: Donnie Darko (2002)

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The Independent Culture

Like Jimmy Stewart in Harvey, teenage dreamer Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds an imaginary companion in a man-sized rabbit, only this one is called Frank, wears a scary devil-mask and says that the world will end in 28 days. Not a happy bunny, in short.

Director Richard Kelly has a knack for making the oddball seem ordinary, and vice versa. Scene by scene the film is engrossing, kept on its toes by Gyllenhaal's performance as the mercurial Donnie. There's no telling from his blandly agreeable expression what he has in mind, one moment coolly denouncing a celebrity motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze), the next confessing to his analyst (Katharine Ross) that he's burnt down his enemy's house, egged on by the voices in his head.

Yet I hope it's not patronising to suggest that Donnie Darko also feels like the work of a first-time film-maker, inasmuch as his ideas outrun his willingness to make them coherent. You never quite know where the film will go next, and, less reassuringly, you don't feel convinced that the film-makers know either.

Once you begin to really investigate Donnie Darko there seems to be rather less to it than meets the eye. Is it not just the story of a boy who feels too much in a world that understands too little?

As new girl Gretchen (Jena Malone) remarks: "What kind of a name is Donnie Darko anyway? Sounds like some kind of superhero." "How do you know I'm not?" he asks. You couldn't fault this boy for ambition, or the film. Richard Kelly shows great potential for a debut film-maker, but he's not quite the full superhero yet.

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