America is covered in flakes of scalp right now. It has been since Richard Kelly's headscratcher of a debut, Donnie Darko, revealed itself at Sundance 2001. Some viewers dismissed it. Others proclaimed it a masterpiece. Most huddled protectively on the fence. All, however, agreed on one thing: boy, was it a headfuck.
Set in a suburban anytown in 1988, it follows the eponymous teen (Jake Gyllenhaal, mesmerising) through 28 very strange days. Donnie is troubled. Donnie is on medication. Donnie is seeing a shrink (Katharine Ross). Donnie is also seeing, rather worryingly, a malevolent six-foot-tall rabbit called Frank, who swings by to warn of the world's imminent demise. It's because of one such visit that Master Darko fortuitously eludes death, the baleful bunny luring him out of his house just as a jet engine crashes onto his bed.
Thing is, no one knows where it came from or what happened to the plane that birthed it. And that's just the beginning of this bizarre adventure: Donnie's begun seeing liquid timelines shimmering from people's torsos, pertinent clues suggest that he read up on time travel, and a dotty old woman who's forever checking her mailbox suddenly seems mightily important...
So what is Donnie Darko? Suburban satire? Psychological thriller? High-school flick? Coming-of-age drama? Sci-fi mindb(l)ender? The answer, of course, is all of these, but it also take potent swipes at Reagan's me-me America, as well as touching on spiritual matters and somehow finding time for a moving romance.
It's this spirited refusal to be boxed, married to a befuddling climax that demands a second viewing, that has flummoxed many of our Stateside cousins. Shame, because the conundrum critics should be poking at is how a 26-year-old writer-director nobody can whip up a debut with so many intriguing characters (Patrick Swayze's motivational guru is inspired), so many shifts in tone and so many possible readings - - yet keep it tight, intimate and assured. How can he explore such surreal, fantastical territory - - yet make Donnie a poignantly recognisable screw-up? And how can he extract note-perfect performances from his cast - yet have the technical nous to match his people skills, bolting moody music (Duran Duran, Tears For Fears, Joy Division) to striking images and welding them together with fluid, arresting camerawork.
Of course, nitpickers will point to the various movie references (Harvey, ET, An American Werewolf In London) and occasional bursts of pop culture dialogue (a dissection of The Smurfs) as examples of Kelly being just another geek with a movie camera. And nitpickers may have a point. But nitpickers are an uptight bunch who should sign up for yoga: this is startling filmmaking - - end of story.
Shot in 28 days by a 26-year-old rookie for just $4.5 million, Donnie Darko is a dazzling achievement. It'll have your brain doing exhilarating somersaults.