A rabbit-headed figure, Frank, informs American teen Donnie Darko that the world is coming to an end. School hysteria is also proving to be dangerously life-threatening.
On a shadowy, non-existent street in Weirdsville, USA, first-time writer-director Richard Kelly lives next door to David Lynch and Greg Araki. In order to keep up with the neighbours, he has crafted his own magnificently bizarre hybrid of suburban paranoia and apocalyptic teen angst.
Of course, there could be a 'logical' explanation for the disturbing nightmares and time-travelling episodes that central-character Donnie undergoes. He's a sharply intelligent but world-weary boy, and the fact that he avoids taking his medication hints that what we're seeing including his imaginary giant rabbit friend is the by-product of some form of schizophrenia.
But Kelly leaves plenty of room for dark and playful ambiguity, and it's the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal that makes these bold moves succeed. A black sheep triplet to Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood, Gyllenhaal's exquisite comic timing and laidback personality create a wonderful tension with the odd events surrounding Donnie. Donnie is a walking storm of complex human emotions, trapped in a world where teachers, parents and other adults want to simplify everything into twin extremes fear and love, right and wrong, Republicans and Democrats.
If the New Age gurus and grown-ups in the film who try to ban books do so because they want everyone to conform, then Donnie is a rebel with a cause and Gyllenhaal a pin-up star for the 'Doom Generation'. Even the name Donnie Darko sounds like a comic book superhero and, in a beautifully twisted way, he might be the only one who can save the world.
Kelly deftly tickles the eye and the ear, particularly during Donnie's visual and aural hallucinations. He also makes great use of a 1980s soundtrack. When the camera pans, Magnolia-style, across the cast to a version of Tears For Fears' Mad World, the lyrics perfectly sum up Donnie's gloriously skewed state of mind: "The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had."
Although this feature debut is a little lighter and less artfully obscure than David Lynch's best work, Donnie Darko is nevertheless a mini-masterpiece that marks the arrival of brave new talents in Gyllenhaal and Kelly. Cult glory beckons.