A boy's life: 'Donnie Darko' just like he was before he was

Recently, a Seattle International Film Festival audience did its darnedest, in a postfilm discussion, to pigeonhole a challenging French flick by swiftly slapping on easy, familiar, politically correct labels. Trouble is, Catherine Breillat's "Anatomy Is Hell" - an exploration of sex as mystery, ritual, myth, fantasy - is wired to detonate when pressed for unambiguous closure and "message."

Brainwashed by a plethora of dumb movies, we've come to rely on comic-book images and plots to tell us what a movie "means," the accessible summing up that we can carry home in our mental pockets like a good-luck charm-warding off any further thought or discomfort. The movie's over, let's go home, move on to the next distraction.

It's a perfect circle: since most movies are contemptibly simpleminded, audiences learn to consume them not as artform but as infra-dig junkfood. If, our cinematic palate is cattle-prodded only by Big Mac cineplex product, it's unlikely that taste buds are going to go gaga for richer fare like Breillat's plunge into dark, genuinely scary sexual territory.

Still, there's sometimes unexpected feast amid famine. Such is "Donnie Darko," world-premièred at SIFF and now playing in several local theaters. Back in 2001, Richard Kelly's debut film hit screens very briefly, disappeared, then began showing up as a midnight movie all over the country.

Now a cult fave, "Donnie Darko"'s being rereleased, in a director's cut 20 minutes longer than the original, courtesy of Newmarket Films (which recently made box-office history with another wild card, "The Passion of the Christ").

A precociously smart, stylish, funny movie directed by 26-year-old film-school graduate Kelly, "Donnie Darko" simply can't be cookie-cuttered. (Google it to discover the wealth of cyber-analysis that's accrued since the film first appeared.) And it's damnably difficult to market a movie without a tagline that IDs genre or plot hook or demographic appeal.

How to sell a sci-fi/metaphysical-religious/adolescent angst/popculture satire and tragicomedy? Think of an Escher-like narrative that draws on "It's a Wonderful Life," "Rebel Without a Cause," "Back to the Future," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and a good many other alternate movie worlds. How's that for something to chew on?

Watching Jake Gyllenhaal sleepwalk through "The Day after Tomorrow," it's hard to believe he's the same intensely intelligent actor who plays Donnie Darko, a brainy, alienated teen trying to make sense of adult corruption and hypocrisy, first love and sex, God and mortality - and, oh yes, a possible tangent universe into which he may have fallen; his new buddy Frank, a 6-foot prophet in a bunny suit sporting a terrifyingly bug-eyed, many-fanged mask; and the unsettling notion that he - Donnie - may be sliding fast down a rabbit hole into madness.

One night, after Donnie's been lured off by Frank for a nocturnal bike ride, an airplane engine falls out of the sky, wrecking his bedroom but injuring not a soul. No plane anywhere has lost an engine; the object is purest deus ex machina, setting the story in motion until it comes round to where it began, but different.

Donnie's "dodged a bullet," but Frank warns him that the world will end in 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Every event that follows, whether dream, hallucination, time-shifted reality, comic or horrific, is visually pregnant with an awful, growing dread, an apocalyptic shadow that taints even the rich, saturated color of life in the charmed environs of the American Dream.

Gyllenhaal conveys a conflicted, complex soul, equal parts frightened child, horny adolescent, idiot savant - a latterday James Dean too smart by half to buy into the comforting "religions" offered by a New Age guru (wonderfully sleazy Patrick Swayze) or his Wicked Witch of the West gym instructor, who teaches that every experience can be thumbtacked on a lifeline bracketed by "love" and "fear."

But his hero's journey doesn't only take Donnie through cartoonish badlands full of easy targets. He's also touched by a colorful pantheon of sympathetic characters who wish him well and for whose well-being he may finally choose, Christ-like, to sacrifice himself: his soulmate girlfriend (Jena Malone); a progressive English teacher (Drew Barrymore) who wants to teach mind-blowing literature but gets fired for her trouble; a white-maned, ancient recluse named Roberta Sparrow, aka Grandma Death and author of "The Philosophy of Time Travel," Donnie's "Bible" and Baedeker; his psychiatrist (Katharine Ross), whose caring skills can't "shrink" this Holden Caulfield; bright, witty, loving parents (Hodges Osbourne and Mary Mcconnell), helpless to deter Donnie's descent.

Following my own chosen path of cookie crumbs through the time-shifting narrative maze of what might be called "The Temptation of Donnie Darko," I like to see this valuable boy as hapless outcast, gifted with second sight. Traveling our cruelest, most necessary pilgrimage for us, he sometimes returns to tell all, but is forever barred - by too much knowledge - from taking shelter in community.

A Luke Skywalker who quests on quotidian ground for metaphysical significance, Donnie is trapped in his "mansuit" (as bunny-suited Frank sarcastically dubs it). By film's end, on a climactic Halloween, Donnie dresses up in a skeleton costume, all that's left at the end of Everyman's journey.

What pleasure there is in taking off with a director who has the talent and the vision to push the cinematic envelope bigtime, to play with fictional possibilities in the omnivorous style of past masters of film and literary fictions.

In "Donnie Darko," Richard Kelly works soundtrack, cinematography, acting and script to expose the anatomy and fate of a psyche that ultimately remains mystery, recalcitrant in its ambiguities. Kelly's reach exceeds his grasp, but that's the watchword for real artists, who grow handier from film to film, given half a chance.

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