It's rare for a period piece to cover an era that wasn't defined by some epochal event, and it's even rarer for a film to bring that era to life with any kind of vividness and specificity. Writer-director Richard Kelly was just coming into adolescence in October 1988, the timeframe for his audacious and frighteningly assured debut Donnie Darko, and his memories have been processed in an offbeat and distinctly personal vision, somewhere between coming-of-age and science fiction. Informed in equal measure by Back To The Future, E.T., and Blue Velvet, Kelly's portrait of late-'80s suburbia is bound in pop-culture references, yet they're not cheap signposts, but a genuine reflection of what it was like to grow up in that time and place. Steeped in Reagan's America, to the point where the film's first line ("I'm voting for Dukakis!") is a conversation-stopper at the dinner table, Donnie Darko takes place in a squeaky-clean Virginia community that slathers its dysfunction in conservative rhetoric and quick-fix New Age cures. Jake Gyllenhaal is an outcast in this environment. His rebellious impulses are quelled by medication and hypnotherapy, which only fuel his frightening delusions, guided by a deranged nightmare version of the rabbit from Alice In Wonderland. On the night of Oct. 2, a 747 jet engine descends from the sky and crashes through his bedroom, an event the rabbit warns is a harbinger of the apocalypse, which will arrive at the end of the month. In the remaining 28 days, Gyllenhaal investigates alternate universes and "wormholes" for time travel, all the while questioning (and, in many cases, destroying) the hypocrisies around him. Kelly fills out his world with a savagely funny depiction of a whitewashed private high school where real educators (Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle) risk losing the curriculum to New Age guru Patrick Swayze, who promotes a system in which all human emotion is reduced to love or fear. A dense and wonderfully stylized amalgam of genres and influences, Donnie Darko resists any clear definition, which is perhaps its most appealing quality. Is it the flip side of Blue Velvet, a blistering satire of Reagan-warped suburbia? Or is it an anarchic, Fight Club-style punk film about the impulse to tear down a corrupt world in order to build a new one? Is it mind-bending science fiction? An adolescent romance? Catcher In The Rye? At one point in Donnie Darko, a movie screen morphs into a portal that splits through the barriers of time and space. Even if he occasionally falls prey to outsized ambition, Kelly sees a cinema of possibilities.
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