"Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?"
I've been wanting to rewrite this review for a while, as it was originally created from my notes at Sundance, at a time when the details were fading for me. Perhaps I overstepped a bit by even trying then.
The other reason is the anonymous rebuttal posted a while back. Perhaps "rebuttal" is an overstatement, though - upon removing the personal attacks and a frivolous appeal to popular authority, I find two sentences in response.
As for the film, Donnie Darko unfolds similarly to someone undergoing therapy, which not too coincidentally, our main character is. Donnie is a troubled teen, at odds with a conformist culture that has given him that label. The film hints that Donnie is merely rejecting a society he doesn't understand, and that it's the attempts to "fix" him, especially the medication, which creates the real problem. This is a valid, and interesting, point of view. If they'd stuck with this idea, perhaps something would actually have been communicated by the film.
But no, Donnie Darko is also a time travel film. The idea is even a fairly clever one, presented as a mystery event that gets solved by the ending - except the solution raises more questions than the mystery itself posed. Some can be dismissed by having a specific interpretation of the meaning of time travel, but there is no assertion on what that is, merely hints that it's all too weird to really understand. I would say that the script wimps out on choosing any rules that must be obeyed.
What use does this film have for rules? Perhaps the approach is purposely fuzzy in symbolic sympathy for Donnie's confusion. Much is wrapped up in a giant rabbit named Frank which only Donnie sees, and it advises him on all sorts of things like some kind of deviant oracle. It is in the moments with Frank that we most question Donnie's sanity, but these same moments have the most significance for untangling the time travel mystery.
The characters who lead the community around the Darkos and Donnie's Catholic school are given a lot of screen time. Mainly this is used to good effect to show Donnie's lack of respect or understanding of it all. But these characters are enveloped by intimations of importance which are never delivered upon. Patrick Swayze is a smooth-talking Religious self-help guru who is introducing his program into the school. Drew Barrymore and Noah Wylie are teachers whose understanding and kid-friendly methods are predictably meeting resistance, and it doesn't take long for the threat to their jobs to materialize. Toss in the irrationally exuberant frumpy teacher, stir and simmer... well, it could make for an updated version of Harper Valley PTA, but for a movie with what I'll argue is a main, rather than a central, character, it's too much. We have scenes that linger on these folk like something bigger is coming from them, and it never quite happens. I feel like the notion of "make it bigger" was taken too far - at some point you have to make the idea bigger, rather than just the scenes. Whose film is this really? The film can't quite decide which narrative voice to speak with.
The film seems like a reflection of Donnie's mind, a hodgepodge of what-ifs thrown together, evocative of a modern life torn more than ever between self and community. In that sense, the film is either a misunderstood cry for help or a statement on the search for meaning, but the confused presentation of it leaves me not so much questioning society, but merely unfulfilled.
In the end, I stick by my original criticisms, but I was too harsh - the good in the film, to a certain extent, balances things out. It's not quite enough for me, though. Clarity is not the be-all, end-all for me, but the big mistake is that the movie is not clear about what it's not clear about, which is something much harder to forgive.
And to answer the review from Anonymous here, rather than pull out my GREs, I'll address the only two relevant assertions there: 1) Donnie Darko is an "american cinematic masterpiece", and 2) "if you actually pay attention and try to figure out the complicated plot twist then you wont soon forget this one".
For the first, I'll just assume you are talking about the use of the medium of film for presenting this particular story. I will say the cinematography is actually pretty good here, even clever at times, but I can't call it a masterpiece - the main accomplishment is not letting the low budget conditions get in the way of the story. A real masterpiece will use the camera to underscore the themes of the story. Take a look at The Apartment (a handy one as I've just seen it again) for some examples of thematic shot choices (an even better example would be the over-referenced Citizen Kane, but perhaps that's too obvious a choice). Or did you mean something else by "cinematic"?
As to the plot twist in Donnie Darko - it's not so much a twist as a tangle. I wonder if perhaps it's not meant to be truly undone, much like Mulholland Dr, but by having the definitive ending it has, the film suggests there is a proper set of events that have happened. Not the only problem, but a big one, is determining Frank's timeline? How can you reconcile that the events of the film are erased by Donnie's sacrifice (a cool detail, btw), but that nothing enables Frank to provide his "assistance". It's like a loop has been created that has a definite "end" but no "start". The implications and reality of cause are a little beyond this review, but I'd say that, if the reality of a film is dependent on something advanced or theoretical, there ought to be an indication of just what that is. I really think it comes down to the fact that puzzle plots have had an appeal lately and it's easier to suggest possibilities and evoke certain feelings, than to have a coherent whole film that accomplishes everything that would otherwise just be hinted at. The somewhat bizarre Donnie Darko website seems to present information that can make sense of the film, but to me it reads as justification for the elements the writer wanted in the film, rather than some reasonable reality.
And for the record, here is the original review (at 2 stars out of 10) I had here, dusty now as it is:
(1/19/01) Donnie Darko is a good, well-meaning effort, with outstanding effects for its budget. Unfortunately, the story, having to with time travel, mental stability, and the social order, is too confused to have any sense of resolution at its end. This is a first time effort from the screenwriter/director, and it shows in unconventional decision that don't work, and the aforementioned plot confusion. I commend executive producer Drew Barrymore on giving this a shot. She was able to pull in stars Patrick Swayze and Noah Wylie for bit parts, as well as appearing herself, but couldn't she tell that her character didn't have any motivation for half what she did? If you are curious about the filmmaking process, this is an interesting title for finding out what can and what won't work, but otherwise, stay away from this stinker.
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