23 May 2002 | lwjoslin
the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had
"Harvey" meets "The Mothman Prophecies," as a troubled teen starts hallucinating a horrific 6-foot-tall bunny rabbit that brings him dark forebodings about death and disaster in the very near future. A streak of "Heathers" is mixed in as well, with trenchant satirical observations of high-school life in the late '80s (story set in Oct. 1988), involving a priggish teacher, a self-help guru (Patrick Swayze!), and a put-upon fat girl at the fringes of the herd. Finally, a whiff of "Back to the Future," in the form of a local eccentric who just may have discovered the secret of time travel, but a secret that has more to do with spirituality than technology.
A lot goes on here. There's a meditation on the possible overlap between madness and the ability to perceive the divine. There's a demonstration of why, in the Bible, angelic messengers (if that's what "Frank" can be taken to be) are often so terrifying that they have to start by saying "Fear not." There's an enlistment of what martial artists refer to as the "ki" (or personal energy, emanating from a person's midsection) in the type of time travel depicted here (the term "ki" is never used in the flick, but the term "path," another word for Tao or "Way," is). Quantum physics theory about wormholes is tied to the Fortean phenomenon of things falling unexplained from the sky, in a way that's more pivotal, and therefore more interesting, than the gratuitous rain of frogs in "Magnolia."
Time travel paradoxes and ironies enter the picture as well. One character (no spoiler!), whose life is saved by Donnie's ultimate trip back in time, wouldn't have died in the first place if he hadn't dragged her along to the opening of the wormhole. Another character (again, no spoiler!), whose truly terrible secret comes to light in the wake of an arson investigation, must go unexposed as a result of that same time reversal, since the arson now won't happen. Surely that's no oversight on the part of the screenwriter; it must be an acknowledgment of the choices and trade-offs in life, as well as of a confidence that no such terrible secret can remain hidden forever.
Somehow this pastiche works, largely on the strength of good performances. Jake Gyllenhaal is appropriately moody and, also appropriately, not always likeable in the title role. Drew Barrymore, who executive produced, appears as a frustrated first-year teacher. The movie's often dreamlike atmosphere is enhanced by the cinematography, the subdued but effective special effects, and the choice of the music on the soundtrack, which includes '80's pop tunes, of course, and a haunting original song (over the end credits) titled "Mad World."
Not for all tastes, but better, stranger, and more complex than I expected.