The curious case of the six-foot rabbit

Film - Philip Kerr enjoys a weird but wonderful debut by a young American director

Recently I was on a book tour of Germany, where the question most frequently asked of your correspondent by the peace-minded Germans was not the quotidian "Where do you get your ideas from?", but "Why is Tony Blair so keen to ally himself with the warmongering Dubbya?" Like most Labour sympathisers outside the cabinet, I was at a loss for a reply - at least one that didn't include the use of a four-letter word. But now that I've watched an excellent little movie - easily the most original and adventurous American indie I've seen this year - called Donnie Darko, finally an answer presents itself, albeit one in which few people other than some lunatic Tories will take much comfort.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie, a handsome, very intelligent high school student, whose periodically eccentric behaviour is generally prompted by the suggestions of his friend Frank, a six-foot rabbit with the glassy eyes and pretty teeth of a Bugsy-looking killer. And I found myself wondering if, like Donnie, Tony "Starko" has a sinister leveret friend of his own who tells him to do strange and apparently unjustifiable things? For there is much in Tony's recent behaviour that makes sense only if this apparently fantastic scenario is allowed to exist.

For example, it would certainly explain Tony's opposition to hunting: rabbits are in favour of a ban. But more importantly it would also explain how it is that Tony continues to be almost the only western leader who supports the greater insanities of the Mad Hatter currently occupying the White House.

Of course, neither Tony nor Donnie would be the first nice guy to have a giant rabbit as a friend. In Harvey (1950), Jimmy Stewart gave one of his best performances as Elwood P Dowd, just about the nicest guy you could meet, but who drank a little more than he should, and had an invisible companion in the shape of a six-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey. And, of course, Alice, when visiting Wonderland met a similarly hued, chronologically challenged rabbit in Lewis Carroll's classic story. Curious how rabbits have always been associated with madness.

The movie is set in October 1988 when George Bush Sr was running against the Democratic hopeful Michael Dukakis. In truth, there seems at first to be no apparently good reason for this; after all, this was hardly the most portentous of times unless you count the Gulf war as some kind of catastrophe. Dukakis lost, of course, to Bush, which wasn't exactly the end of the world. Indeed, it's only when you see the son - living proof that having put a chimp in space, it was only a matter of time before Americans decided to launch one into the White House - that you realise how capable the father actually was, by comparison.

A sitcom family mealtime discussion quickly leads to the revelation that Donnie is off his medication, and receiving messages from outer space. Signs of a parallel universe abound, but Donnie's shrink, played by Katherine (Butch Cassidy) Ross is working on the assumption that her patient is borderline schizophrenic, rather than the witness to a phenomenon first described by Stephen Hawking. Wherein lies the true significance of the movie's initially puzzling time period, for September 1988 was when Hawking's book A Brief History of Time was published, and in which he described the possibility of time travel through worm holes. Indeed, it has been suggested elsewhere that the possibility of time travel can only logically exist once the possibility has been logically described. And, on closer inspection, it turns out that Hawking provides the whole raison d'etre for this teenage angst movie. Which is, I think, a wonderful collision of worlds.

Returning home after a night of sleepwalking, Donnie discovers that he has narrowly escaped death after a commercial jet-engine falls, inexplicably, from the sky and crashes through his bedroom ceiling. Donnie's lucky escape is of little comfort to him, however, as Frank informs Donnie that the world will end in just 28 days. And gee, you know that something just has to be wrong in the fabric of the universe from the way the clouds gather in the sky above the small, X Files-style town, as if especially choreographed for a Steven Spielberg movie, or even one by Tobe Hooper. Movie fans will find and enjoy many such knowing references to ET, Magnolia and Back to the Future. All of which adds up to a very promising start for the 26-year-old writer and director, Richard Kelly. His film is never predictable, often amusing, and occasionally weird enough - almost as weird as Tony Blair chumming up with an American president who enjoys the unique distinction of having been compared to both Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler - to justify its release so close to Halloween.

Donnie Darko (15) is on general release