Donnie Darko (2001)
For many film fans, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko remains Gyllenhaal’s early calling card – even after such great later roles. While October Sky demonstrated his ability to be a lead actor, Donnie Darko provided the opportunity to flex the deepest of dramatic muscles, within a lead role, in a movie that is almost nebulous in nature.
Donnie Darko (Gyllenhaal) is regarded by his family and peers as ‘deeply troubled.’ He is frequently awakened by a man in a demonic rabbit costume, named Frank, who leads him to various spots around town and, on one occasion, explains to him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.
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Arriving home to find that a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom and destroyed the family house, he hears from his sister (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) that authorities have no explanation as to where it came from. Frank continues to influence Donnie’s actions as the young man tries to make sense of the doomsday prediction he appears to have received.
What follows is an artfully woven tale of time travel, fate and youthful curiosity, led by an actor that completely fills every frame he appears in. When we look at Donnie Darko, we can almost see the swirling tempest of energy and emotion that threatens to burst from him at any given moment, which is testament to the way in which Gyllenhaal uses every tool in his kit – from movement to voice to emotional impact – to build a fully realized character.