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Donnie Darko
DVD, 20th Century Fox

When it comes to male teenage alienation, it's hard to top Catcher in the Rye — whether the background is bebop or hip hop, the emotions are much the same, and the classic still pegs 'em. You have to credit first-time filmmaker Richard Kelly with a degree of maturity for not quite trying to do rewrite Catcher; he approaches Salinger's turf via science fiction, incorporating time travel and six-foot tall malicious rabbit-men into his story. Those are the kind of elements, in addition to the traditional pimples and sexual frenzy, that afflict this strange film's title character; and while we know from the outset that Donnie has some psychological problems, the script never allows us to be sure that what's happening to him is all in his mind.

Whether it is or isn't, actor Jake Gyllenhaal has a take on his character that makes him creepily engaging: It's painful for him to meet another's gaze, he's above his surroundings but incapable of apathy, the ironic amusement on his face is always colored by fear. We can't help but be pleased when a cute new girl in class finds his weirdness appealing, and we hope her presence might curb Donnie's susceptibility to the apparitions who appear at night, encouraging him to do destructive things. It doesn't.

There's such a portentous build-up here, so many little mysteries, that we're expecting quite a revelation at the film's end. Kelly does not quite deliver; you can make sense of the ending, but it feels anti-climactic and cheap. Yet the scenes leading up to it are ample compensation. The film invents a unique tone to convey the weird gloom of adolescence — and the tiny, irrational hopefulness that peppers that gloom — and remains true to its characters, even when they are not quite sure what's true and what's not. — John DeFore

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