Donnie Darko, the first feature by 26-year-old writer-director Richard Kelly, is a wondrous, moodily self-involved piece of work that employs X-Files magic realism to galvanize what might have been a routine tale of suburban teen angst—OK, borderline schizophrenia. Part comic book, part case study, this is certainly the most original and venturesome American indie I’ve seen this year.
Kelly begins fiddling with normality from the opening scene, the evening of the 1988 presidential debate, wherein a sitcom family—tense mom, supercilious dad, two smirking teens, and an annoying little sister—gathers in the dining room to partake of a delivered pizza. “I’m voting for Dukakis,” the oldest Darko sister announces, mainly to cause her father to choke on his slice. A discussion regarding the candidates’ respective economic policies quickly degenerates into vulgar abortion jokes and the revelation that middle child Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is off his medication and receiving messages from outer space.
Clearly we are dealing with an advanced life form. The mysterious forces of the universe demonstrate their power most vividly in the snoozy aftermath of the Bush-Dukakis dustup, when Donnie is summoned from his bedroom out into the night. Waking the next morning somewhere in the middle of the local golf course, he returns home to discover that a plane engine has inexplicably fallen from the sky and crashed through his bedroom ceiling. Convinced that the world will end in 28 days, Donnie continues to experience alien visitations in the form of a monstrous toothy rabbit named Frank.
Signs of a parallel universe abound. An unhappy fat girl roams through Donnie’s high school, an institution fronted by a bronze statue of a squatting mastiff. His gym class impassively watches a videotape on “fear management.” A beatnik English teacher assigns her students to read “The Destructors,” Graham Greene’s jaundiced story of teenage nihilism. Smiling and mumbling to himself, socially maladroit Donnie manages to hook up with a new girl (Jena Malone) who has the Grimm name of Gretchen and a lurid family story to match. “You’re weird,” she tells him. “That was a compliment.” Meanwhile the town suffers a few curious plagues: the school is flooded, a home burns down. Donnie’s shrink ups his meds and embarks on a regimen of hypnosis. (The first session comes to an abrupt end when the spellbound patient begins fondling his crotch.)
With Drew Barrymore as Donnie’s English teacher, Patrick Swayze as a demonic motivational speaker, and Katharine Ross as Donnie’s therapist, the movie’s casting is both showy and inspired. Holmes Osborne is a sympathetically smooth and spineless Darko paterfamilias; Mary McDonnell, his wife, full of false cheer, carries hilarious intimations of early 1991 and the Gulf War, through her status as Dances With Wolves’s righteous mate, Stands With a Fist. But the movie rests on the hunched shoulders of its spaced-out protagonist. Jake Gyllenhaal refuses to make direct contact with the camera. At once goofy and poignant, frozen and shambolic, he convincingly portrays Donnie’s eccentric genius—riffing on the sex life of the Smurfs, arguing with his science teacher on the nature of time travel. Gyllenhaal’s sidelong performance allows him to take spectacular delusion in stride—he tries to kill Frank when he appears in his malleable bathroom mirror and hallucinates ectoplasm extravagantly emanating from his father’s chest.
Although the big influence on Kelly would seem to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s wildly ambitious and similarly apocalyptic Magnolia, Donnie Darko is steeped in ’80s pop culture. The movie’s metaphysics are largely derived from Back to the Future, there’s a particularly strange and funny allusion to E.T., and in one of the most haunting scenes, Donnie and Gretchen watch Evil Dead in an empty theater. The sub-Toni Basil routine performed by Donnie’s kid sister and her dance group, Sparkle Motion, has been as lovingly choreographed as the soundtrack has been assembled.
Shown last January at Sundance, Donnie Darko received a mixed response. Amy Taubin praised it in the Voice as her favorite film of the festival. Others appeared to resent its ostentation (big stars and special effects) or complained about its hubristic shifts in register. No less than Donnie, the movie has its awkward moments. Kelly makes too much of Beth Grant’s uptight New Age gym teacher, and there are more than enough sinister cloud formations racing across the sky. But the writer-director has a surefooted sense of his own narrative, skillfully guiding the movie through its climactic Walpurgisnacht—or, should we say, carnival of souls.
The events of September 11 have rendered most movies inconsequential; the heartbreaking Donnie Darko, by contrast, feels weirdly consoling. Period piece though it is, Kelly’s high-school gothic seems perfectly attuned to the present moment. This would be a splendid debut under any circumstances; released for Halloween 2001, it has uncanny gravitas.
The Town Is Quiet, the latest and most elaborate feature by Marseilles’s resident chronicler Robert Guédiguian, is a sad story set in a sunny clime. Shown last spring in the Walter Reade’s “Rendez-vous With French Cinema,” the movie has been hailed as a masterpiece, but it’s not exactly a buoyant one. This clumsily schematic cross-section of France’s second city is less prismatic than plodding.
Michèle (Guédiguian axiom Ariane Ascaride) works nights in the fish market to support an unemployed, alcoholic husband, their teenage junkie daughter, Fiona (Julie-Marie Parmentier), and Fiona’s infant child. Fiona sells herself to maintain her habit, and desperate Michèle is likewise driven to the streets once she decides to become Fiona’s connection, buying heroin from an enigmatic old boyfriend, Gérard (Gérard Meylan). Michèle’s path intersects with that of the feckless dockworker-turned-cabbie Paul (Jean-Pierre Darroussin); added to the mix are a pretentious architect and his disillusioned wife, a music therapist who becomes involved with a sensitive ex-con. That the lover is African allows Guédiguian to sample Marseilles’s simmering ethnic stew. Indeed, the movie is rife with all manner of racists, nationalists, and fascists.
Although an inordinately long 132 minutes, The Town Is Quiet fails to make its connections clear. The story meanders, stalls, and then unexpectedly comes together just as Michèle’s world falls apart. The last-minute combination of Greek tragedy and Janis Joplin is so genuinely startling that, had the movie been shorted by a third, it might have turned everything around.
Marseilles’s depressed hooker strip—beneath the highway, across from a filling station—is Club Med compared to the Victorian London sleaze district in From Hell. Or maybe it’s vice versa. From Hell is nothing if not a quaintly cobblestoned, gaslit theme park. Habitués of a big set dripping with atmosphere, whores colorfully known as “pinchpricks” or “bangbums” are shrouded in a dank miasma ‘neath a flaming sky as they ply their threepenny trade—and are slaughtered, one by one, by Jack the Ripper.
Directed by the brothers Hughes from the well-regarded graphic novel-cum-conspiracy theory by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell scuttles between London’s open-air charnel house, various mental hospitals and morgues, and the opium den frequented by psychic detective Johnny Depp. Self-medicating his secret sorrow, Depp chases his nightly pipe with an absinthe-laudanum cocktail, thus insuring that the movie will be enlivened by a regular supply of expressionist nightmares, more than a few revolving around Heather Graham’s lovely Mary Kelly. (With her peaches-and-cream complexion and glorious mane of enhanced red hair, Graham is the prettiest whore in Whitechapel—she never seems to turn a trick but she’s regularly upstaged by her bodice.)
From Hell presents itself as a sort of prequel to Se7en and Hannibal, and the Hughes brothers have cannily described it as a “ghetto film,” thus linking this vision of women being brutalized, gutted, and lobotomized with the ‘hood movies that made their reputation. Certainly their most accomplished film, From Hell traffics in violence more suggested than shown—there’s even a dubiously comic bit that concerns a gaggle of puking morgue workers. The original graphic novel was better written than visualized; the opposite is true of the necessarily streamlined, at times almost rhapsodic, adaptation. Superbly shot around Prague and in the studio by Peter Deming (also responsible for Mulholland Drive), From Hell is even more stylish than gruesome—it has the lush decrepitude of an autumn compost heap or an old Hammer werewolf flick.
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Dennis Lim’s profile of Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly.