The year is 1988. The titular character (Jake Gyllenhaal) in writer-director Richard Kelly's debut feature Donnie Darko is haunted by an imaginary figure that dresses in a demented bunny costume. During one of Donnie's habitual sleepwalking journeys, Frank, the demonic bunny, explains that the world will end in exactly 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds--precisely on Halloween. It is at this point in the film that Kelly takes what appears to be a common high-school drama and fashions an intelligent rethinking of the genre by mixing fantasy, horror and metaphysical discourse. Like a child anxiously awaiting the hallowed celebration, the film counts down the days until the apocalyptic end, infecting the story with a gripping sense of doom as Donnie struggles to comprehend his distressing thoughts and visions.
The morning after Donnie's somnambulistic excursion, he wakes up on a golf course and returns home to find that a jet engine inexplicably crashed into his bedroom in the middle of the night. A very confused FAA puts the Darko family up in a motel, as Donnie continues to attend his private school. In English class, Donnie meets the new girl in town, Gretchen (Jena Malone), whose father is in jail for the attempted murder of her mother. Sharing the emotional scars of their troubled lives, the two begin an innocent romance.
As Donnie navigates the difficult terrain of high school, his paranormal hallucinations take control of his life, which even his therapist (Katharine Ross) cannot fully understand. Frank continues to trouble Donnie's mind, forcing him to carry out acts of violence. When Frank plants the idea of time travel in his head, Donnie pieces together a series of clues that lead him to believe such a thing is possible. But is any of this real? The film questions whether the forces that haunt Donnie actually exist or whether it's all a figment of his deranged imagination.
Blending time travel, teenage rebellion, social commentary and '80s nostalgia, Donnie Darko feels a little overstuffed, but Kelly's careful balancing of tones keeps the film engaging. The story's disparate themes are also bolstered by strong performances. Gyllenhaal skillfully plays the underdog hero grappling with what seems like paranoid schizophrenia. The adults, who look and talk like actual parents and teachers, are not the cardboard cutouts you find in most high school movies, although Drew Barrymore is wholly unconvincing as a teacher. The casting of the '80s child star as an instructor seems as much a nostalgic gesture as a gratuitous role for the film's executive producer. Patrick Swayze, the dirty-dancing icon of the '80s, will surprise audiences with his role as a deceptive motivational speaker.
The most thought-provoking aspect of Donnie Darko is its handling of prickly issues that are more relevant to today's teenagers than they were to teens of the '80s. By looking at the way community, family, school and psychology cope with violent and unstable behavior in a teenager, the film examines some of the issues most filmmakers are too cautious to touch in this period of post-Columbine trepidation in Hollywood.