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Oregon Live!

Pay attention to the guy in a dark, soiled bunny outfit

"Donnie Darko" is an intriguing oddity that dodges convention to the point of almost maddening obscurity. And yet, it works.

Directed by first-time filmmaker Richard Kelly, the picture boasts a dark charm that, though flawed, offers a particular, hard-to-describe beauty. Juxtaposing multiple ideas of troubled teendom, time travel, mental problems, the '80s, family life and the institutions of school, psychiatry and self-help, the film flutters all over the proverbial map. But it doesn't lose itself.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie Darko, an upper-class suburban teen-ager who's taking medication for some unspecified psychological problems. His parents are at a loss about what to do with their son, but they're not demons. Wanting the best for Donnie, they simply don't know any alternative to his troubles besides meds and a shrink (played by an almost unrecognizable Katharine Ross).

One night, Donnie sleepwalks (a recurring dilemma) and visits his imaginary friend Frank. Frank is the dark side of Jimmy Stewart's "Harvey" -- he's a man who wears a creepy, dark, soiled bunny suit with large, frighteningly pointy ears. Frank tells Donnie the end of the world is nigh, with only 28 days left. Donnie wakes up on a golf course and walks home, where he discovers part of a plane has crashed into his bedroom. His family is alive and well, and Donnie's lucky he sleepwalked that night.

But he's not off so easy. The bunny returns to remind Donnie of the countdown. And he tells Donnie to do some naughty things, too, though there's an odd sense to Frank's instructions. Meanwhile, Donnie has become interested in time travel and learns that the creepy 100-year-old neighborhood woman published a book on the subject. Her writings match much of what Frank says.

And that's just the half of this tangled picture that touches on what could be best explained as the fear and uncertainty of adolescence. Donnie's a bright kid who's grown insolent in a boring world. But he's also quite charming, able to get a pretty girlfriend and maintain a group of friends (a conversation they have about Smurfs is hilarious).

Though "Donnie Darko" is surreal and some characters are drawn with broad strokes (a terrific Patrick Swayze, for instance), the film has a core of reality. Donnie's not a complete outcast, and not every authoritative figure is a hideous control freak. Kelly isn't issuing an attack, he's up to something more elusive, something you can feel in his cinematography and use of music. This is the kind of movie where Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels" plays in its entirety over a long, fluid shot of the varied denizens of Donnie's high school, and it's perfect.

Gyllenhaal's brooding, vulnerable and funny performance carries the picture's sentiment ideally. Kelly packs a lot of ideas in his film, almost as if he's afraid this will be the only one he'll make. We hope not. Extremely moving, "Donnie Darko" touches on viewer's untapped feelings; the result is both disturbing and heartening.