written and directed by Richard Kelly with Jake Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Noah Wyle, and Drew Barrymore opens Oct. 26 at Uptown, Varsity, and others
HERE'S THE MOVIE that Hearts in Atlantis meant to be: ominous, unsettling, paranormal, lingeringly sad yet oddly affirmative. Even better, unlike Hearts' hackneyed '60s nostalgia, it's also a period flick where the mundane details support a mood of underlying dread. (The angst-filled '80s soundtrack includes Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, the Church, and—most centrally if improbably—Tears for Fears; cheerful Duran Duran surfaces only to be mocked.) It's 1988, at the attenuated end of the Cold War era, as Dukakis and Bush Sr. are debating on TV. Meanwhile, the close yet sarcastic Darko clan worries about middle child Donnie (Bubble Boy's Jake Gyllenhaal), a Holden Caulfield-like misfit who's apparently a paranoid schizophrenic.
Teenage Donnie hears the voices of an imaginary friend, Frank, whom we also see in his deliberately unconvincing skull-faced bunny suit. One October night, Frank orders Donnie out of the house just before a jet engine actually plummets into his bedroom, and the sullen kid feels he owes his life to Frank. "I have to obey him, or I'll be left all alone," he tells his shrink (Katharine Ross, a long way from The Graduate). But where is Frank leading him? Increasingly belligerent at school, his scorn turning to vandalism, Donnie begins to look like one of those Columbine kids as he Xs off the days on his calendar till Halloween.
Refusing to neatly explain Donnie's trance-like episodes (signaled by a heavy-lidded half-smile out of The Shining), Darko doesn't blame his disturbing behavior on his family. (Grand Canyon's Mary McDonnell is especially affecting as his supportive yet bewildered mother). He clearly isn't alienated for lack of love.
Instead, Darko rather simplistically indicts conservative, Reagan-era middle-American society. Donnie's high school is a hell populated with clich餠goons and stereotypical right-wing nuts. In small supporting roles, Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore play sympathetic teachers, while Patrick Swayze delivers a nice turn as a creepy motivational guru.) In his first feature, 26-year-old Richard Kelly has infused Darko with a vengeful spirit, as if following through on a still-fresh adolescent taunt: "When I'm a famous director, I'm gonna show how stupid and hateful you people are!"
Fortunately, it's not the easy potshots that you remember in Darko. Kelly's visual style favors murky, underlit compositions framed through a disquietingly low, wandering lens. He grabs your attention from the very first scene, even if he later overdoes the variable camera speed effects. He makes Donnie's descent into madness—if that's what it is—harrowingly real, thanks also to Gyllenhaal's ability to shine wit and vulnerability through his character's mental fog. Awkwardly flirting with the new girl on the block (who mentions emotional problems), he blurts out, "I have those, too!" His eagerness is touching, and he'd clearly make any sacrifice for Gretchen.
Hardly a perfect film, Darko serves as a dystopic remix of John Hughes movies and Stephen King novels. It's a dark mirror to the tortures of adolescence, when every kid feels the tug of insanity and the urge to right the world.