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Fifteen Years of Donnie Darko

Fifteen years after its original release, Director Richard Kelly’s enigmatic cult favourite Donnie Darko returns to screens, complete with a brand new 4K facelift. Here, HOME’s Artistic Director of Film Jason Wood reflects on the film’s impact…

A startlingly original debut from a then 26-year-old writer-director who was fresh out of film school, Donnie Darko is consistently intelligent, esoteric, dreamlike and downright perplexing. A disparate generic cocktail that thrillingly comprises elements common to science fiction, high-school satire, horror and tales of suburban dissatisfaction, it’s similarly liberally sprinkled with a multiplicity of filmic allusions. Most prominent examples include: Harvey (1950), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Carrie (1976) and Back to the Future (1985). Imbued with the general other-worldliness of David Lynch, that the finished product should still be so confident and tonally assured is little short of remarkable.

The eighties-set film concerns troubled teen Donnie Darko, Jake Gyllenhaal in a magnetic, star-making performance, whose recent psychiatric treatment for what appears to be a form of paranoid schizophrenia has caused escalating degrees of conflict amongst his uptight parents. Whilst sleepwalking Donnie meets Frank, a menacing 6 ft figure sporting a fake-fur suit and disturbing rabbit mask who informs him that the world will end in precisely 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Donnie returns home from his reverie to see a jet engine being lifted from his bedroom; had he been there it would have killed him. Any hopes of normality following the forming of a relationship with Gretchen (Jena Malone, recently used to great effect in Refn’s The Neon Demon), a new arrival at Donnie’s conservative school are crushed by further visitations from Frank who compels Donnie to commit a series of rebellious crimes.

Initially for the most part concerned with making incisive comments about personal and familial dysfunction, teenage introspection, the moral Right and the charlatanism of new age self-help guru’s (in the insightful original US DVD commentary Kelly described Donnie as ‘a spiritual superhero’), the blackly comic film then moves into darker, phantasmagoric territory as the central character’s hallucinatory episodes increase and eventually take over. The previously dry and acutely observed if off-kilter depiction of suburban life gradually recedes to be replaced with a frequent and dizzying use of slow and fast motion photography and disjunctive use of sound and image to depict the wormholes in time and alternate realities with which Donnie becomes increasingly and portentously fascinated. It is during these latter stages that Donnie Darko with its overtones of universal interconnectedness arguably teeters on the brink of collapse, compelled by its astringent sense of ambition, twisted logic and desire to uncork a myriad of unexplainable enigmas and mysteries.

Richard Kelly’s subsequent career has the whiff of unfulfilled potential. There are those that cite Southland Tales as a work of unrecognised genius. It remains the only film I have ever had to queue to leave in Cannes. Not that that’s any real signifier. It’s a muddled work for sure, but it certainly has something and repays repeated viewings. I can’t say the same of The Box. Donnie Darko may well remain the director’s most fully realized statement. Though originally falling foul of distrbution problems, it quickly achieved a sizeable cult status. Retrospectively pitched by Kelly as ‘The Catcher in the Rye as told by Philip K. Dick’ it is presented here in a sparkling new 4K restoration.

Words by Jason Wood, Artistic Director of Film.

Donnie Darko screens from Fri 23 Dec. To find out more and book tickets head here.

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