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'Donnie Darko': Darker Than Ever

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2004; Page WE42

IN A SENSE, "Donnie Darko" never went away. Richard Kelly's darkly delicious fable about a young, medicated and alienated twenty-something kid (Jake Gyllenhaal), who might just be a world-saving prophet, has long been a midnight-movie classic. (It has played for months at Visions Bar Noir as such.) But now, cultish energy has spawned a director's rerelease.

Opening Friday at Visions (1927 Florida Ave. NW), "Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut" contains about 10 additional minutes and is as fabulous and enjoyable as ever. To be honest, I didn't even notice the new material, having not seen the original film since its 2001 release. I just saw a film that works beautifully and has held together well. There's something immediately quaint and timely about the movie's 1988 setting: the heyday of the Michael S. Dukakis-George H.W. Bush presidential election, as well as a sort of post-"Blue Velvet" perspective on suburban existence, book-burning parents and self-help evangelism.

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To recap, Donnie Darko is the detached, disaffected son in a fairly average suburban family: his somewhat arch mother, Rose (Mary McDonnell); her goofy husband, Eddie (Holmes Osborne); and Donnie's sisters, Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Samantha (Daveigh Chase).

There's someone else in his life, too, and this is where the movie's dark center derives. It is a tall, upright, somewhat demonic bunny with a grim-reaper expression. This specter, which only Donnie can see, has spellbinding power over him, ordering him to take all kinds of strange, destructive actions. Donnie, who seems permanently addled under a cocktail of medication, obeys the rabbit's every command in his sleep. He's a sleepwalker on a mission. But what is that mission?

The result of his semiconscious servitude include a flooded high school and an ax buried deep into the skull of the school mascot statue. The morning after his somnambulant misdeeds, Donnie's as shocked as anyone else to see what he (or the malevolent bunny) hath wrought.

But there's more than psychotropically induced pranks to this story. Donnie, who has impulse-control problems and whose intelligence is intimidating, believes he's caught in a world where time portals lead to a parallel universe and where time travel is entirely possible.

His only allies are a new student named Gretchen (Jena Malone), whose shadowy home life makes her a guaranteed soul mate; a couple of sensitive teachers (Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle); and a mysterious former schoolteacher, nicknamed Grandma Death (Joan M. Blair), who has written a book about time travel. It is the last who provides possible answers to the roiling questions in his head, including this head-scratcher: What are those weird transparent worms that seem to spring from everyone's chest?

Written and directed by Kelly, "Donnie Darko" is a new generation's "The Graduate," a film about suburban angst that doesn't provide easy answers to its own conundrums. But it does offer a mythically circular story, in which Donnie gets the opportunity to redress some fatal mistakes. That transformation is surprisingly affecting, and the movie, in a sense, becomes your new imaginary friend for life.

For more information, call 202-667-0090 or visit www.visionsdc.com.

-- Desson Thomson


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