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The 2001 psychological drama "Donnie Darko" is often called a cult classic, but it is a cult to which I never belonged.
I was in the room specifically, the auditorium at the Park City Library when writer-director Richard Kelly's debut film premiered at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. But while I was intrigued by the story of a troubled teen navigating high-school life, family pressures, his psychiatrist's prodding and new love, all while seeing visions of the future and a man in a macabre bunny suit, Kelly's nightmarish visions seemed too remote to be truly gripping.
Watching it again as movie fans can do this weekend, when a 4K digital restoration of the film opens at the Tower Theatre I found myself again admiring Kelly's work, but not being moved by it.
Jake Gyllenhaal was 19 when he filmed "Donnie Darko," in which he plays the title character, a teen in suburbia, in October 1988. Donnie has a habit of sleepwalking outside at night and waking up in odd places like on the local golf course. His parents, Eddie (Holmes Osborne) and Rose (Mary McDonnell), have him seeing a shrink, Dr. Thurman (Katharine Ross), whom he tells of Frank, the man in the bunny suit, who may or may not exist.
Donnie's sleepwalking actually saves his life early in the movie, as he's away from the house one night when an engine from a 747 falls into his bedroom. The FAA is puzzled, because no jets report losing an engine in flight. And Donnie woke up with a series of numbers on his arm, which seem to indicate something earth-shattering will happen in 28 days, the day before Halloween.
Answers are not forthcoming at his school. His English teacher, Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), lectures on the metaphors of Graham Greene's short story "The Destructors." His gym teacher, Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), plays motivational tapes from a local self-help guru, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). His science teacher, Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), gives him a book about time travel written years ago by Rebecca Sparrow (Patience Cleveland), whom Donnie now knows as "Grandma Death," the crazy old lady whose daily mailbox trips have become a road hazard for passing motorists.
But it's at school where Donnie meets Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), a new student with sad eyes and an even sadder backstory. They start going out and even kiss in a movie theater but that bit of normal teen living isn't enough to fend off the demons Donnie is battling.
Kelly's juxtaposition of suburban surface perfection and Donnie's dark fantasy world is jarring, as if David Lynch directed "Ordinary People." He draws a wrenching performance out of Gyllenhaal, who goes from tortured kid to apparent psychopath with disturbing ease. (Among other things, Gyllenhaal gives the Kubrick stare head lowered, eyes up better than anyone.)
There are sly surprises throughout "Donnie Darko," particularly when seen years later. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake's big sister, has a small but effective turn here as Donnie's big sis Elizabeth. Swayze gave one of his last great performances as the hyperconfident motivational speaker. And it's a small shock to see 18-year-old Seth Rogen, in his first movie role, as one of Donnie's classroom bullies.
But there's an obvious strain to "Donnie Darko," as Kelly labors to make the movie as important as he clearly feels it must be. The result is a disjointed drama whose intense elements never truly connect with the viewer.
Filmmaker Richard Kelly's 2001 cult classic, about a teen experiencing disturbing visions of the future, returns in a restored digital print.
Where • Tower Theatre.
When • Opens Friday, April 14.
Rating • R for language, some drug use and violence.
Running time • 113 minutes.