Directed by Richard Kelly starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Catherine Ross, Holmes Osborne.
A teenager with psychiatric problems, his first love, a fascination with time travel and a warning from a giant rabbit called Frank that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours and 42 minutes. It flopped in the US but just months after its release Kelly's debut is rapidly rising to the status of cult legend. And you're either going to pay to see it twice or wonder what all the fuss is about.
With the type of performance that always leads to bigger things, Jake Gyllenhaal plays the titular hero. Summoned in his sleep to get the doomsday countdown, he cheats death when a jet engine crashes through the roof of his bedroom at the same moment. Returning to anxious parents the morning after, he starts to wonder if everything is all part of a bigger plan and tries to find the answer before it's all too late…
Kelly's talent is apparent from the opening minutes when Donnie wakes up on an empty back road and then cycles home in his PJs to the sound of Echo and the Bunnymen's 'Killing Time'. And it's moments like these (Tears for Fears and Joy Division also pop up) which make 'Donnie Darko' so watchable - even when the plot loses the run of itself towards the close. In between, it throws together elements of coming of age flicks, sci-fi and comedy and ensures that - like 'River's Edge' and 'Blue Velvet' - it will be passed from generation to generation during free houses and marathon movie sessions in the years to come.
With an approach that constantly recalls David Lynch, Kelly conjures up a vision of suburbia where menace is always just about to boil over. Should Drew Barrymore's high school teacher be so nasty? Is Patrick Swayze's self-help guru on the level? What does the old lady nicknamed 'Grandma Death' know that others don't? And will Donnie make a go of his relationship with new classmate Grechen (Malone) or will his Frank-endorsed mission get in the way of romance?
The answers of course only lead to more questions about a plot which pulls you from one genre to the next. But while Kelly deserves praise for such an audacious script it's one that comes with a premonition of failure. And that disappointment duly arrives with the ending. He may fit the pieces into the puzzle but the close is more mundane than magic and throws a shadow on much of the flawed but fascinating work which preceded it. Just don't expect to be able to think up a better one while you're watching it.