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Heroes of the Zeroes: Donnie Darko

by on March 29, 2010

Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

“Donnie Darko”
Rated R

Maybe Richard Kelly’s fate is to be the cult circuit’s Michael Cimino — forever admired for one great film amid subsequent missteps, including a director’s cut of the same movie.

Kelly has yet to match the mysterious mood or magnitude of his filmmaking debut, 2001’s “Donnie Darko” — a collision of time-travel sci-fi, commentary on ’80s Reaganomics malaise and teen angst that’s simultaneously witty and poignant.

Non-Darkolytes should start with the enigmatic theatrical cut and proceed further if curious. Kelly’s cut nicely richens the titular teen’s family bond but literalizes the ending to excess. (Both preserve a solid soundtrack with scenes set to “Head Over Heels,” “The Killing Moon,” “Under the Milky Way” and “Notorious.”)

Jake Gyllenhaal is Donnie, a sleepwalking teen told the world will end in 28 days — news given him on a night he escapes death after a plane engine falls into his room. As visions of a demonic rabbit named Frank persist, Donnie must decide if this apocalypse is a delusion or destiny.

Kelly’s labor of love included his sharpest cast — Noah Wyle, Beth Grant, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Patrick Swayze, Jena Malone and Gyllenhaal himself, strikingly sensitive to the persecution of others for a lack of adherence to “normalcy.”

And what works as nervy comedy also foreshadows Donnie’s burden and reinforces Kelly’s thematic idea that teens can be capable of amazing, world-changing things. Concluding with compassionate nobility and an unforgettable epilogue, “Donnie Darko” represented the one moment when Kelly’s eccentricities weren’t extraneous and ambition matched his grasp.