This week marks the ten-year anniversary of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. In the time since its inauspicious, post-9/11 release, it has become my favorite movie ever. At the height of my obsession with it, I attended a midnight screening of the director’s cut at The Egyptian Theatre in Seattle. During the trivia contest that preceded the movie, I was asked to sit out due to my answering all of the questions. The movie struck something in me, and I am certainly not alone. As Kelly himself put it, “I think you are challenged by things that are slightly beyond your grasp” (p. xiv). So, this is not another “twenty-five things you didn’t know” or “fifty reasons why it’s the best” (the internet loves this movie), but there are some things about it that I think make it so engaging, endearing, and enduring.
Donnie Darko is set in a Virginia high school 1988. I was in high school during the time, so that connects the film to my life in several ways: The soundtrack, the angst, and the nerdy struggle are all very familiar to me. One of my friends once derided Donnie, saying he was, “so emo he can travel through time,” and I can see how Donnie’s whiney approach to therapy could wear on one, but it’s a minor flaw in a major piece of myth-making.
Like its lauded indie debut cousin Reservoir Dogs, Donnie Darko starts with a conversation scene set over a meal, a scene in which we meet most of the main characters of the film. It’s an elegant and efficient way to establish not only the characters but also their social dynamic. In Reservoir Dogs, the scene revolves around Mr. Blue’s Madonna monologue (which one assumes at this point was written by Roger Avery and not by Quinten Tarantino, who delivers it in the movie), Joe’s address book, and Mr. Pink’s refusal to tip. In Donnie Darko, it revolves around his sister Elizabeth’s (played by his sister Maggie Gyllenhaal) politics, Donnie’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) apparent refusal to take his meds, and their use of foul language at the dinner table. In each, the trio of topics reveals just enough about the characters’ attitudes and how they play together.
Aside from Donnie and Elizabeth (played by the the real-life siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal), the Darko family consists of father Eddie (the inimitable Holmes Osborne), mother Rose (the fabulous Mary McDonnell), and kid sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase, the only original Darko defector to the abortive sequel S. Darko). Other stellar performances are turned in by Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), Kitty “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” Farmer (Beth Grant), Jim Cunnigham (Patrick Swayze, R.I.P.), Ronald Fisher (Stuart Stone), Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), Ricky Danforth (Seth Rogan, in his big-screen debut), Seth Devlin (Alex Greenwald), and, of course, Frank (James Duvall).
Though he’s never formally acknowledged it, Kelly’s Frank the Rabbit character can be interpreted as a play on the pookah legend, which Robert Anton Wilson (1991) explained as follows:
The pookah takes many forms, but is most famous when he appears as a giant, six-foot white rabbit — which is the form most Americans know from the play and film, Harvey. Whatever form the pookah takes, he retains the special ability of his species, which is like that of Thoth in Egyptian legend, Coyote in Native American myth, or Hanuman the Divine Monkey in Hindu lore — he can move us from one universe, or Belief System, into another, and he likes to play games with our ideas about “reality” (p. 29).
Frank is from the future and he mentors Donnie through the film with cryptic guidance and disjointed advice. Like the overall feeling of the film, Frank’s ambiguity keeps Donnie and us wondering exactly what’s in store.
The iconography of Donnie Darko starts with Frank. He is as distinctive a symbol for a movie as there has ever been. The setting and surroundings of Halloween, as well as the late-night bike-ride nod to E.T., are also endemic to this movie. For example, take the music video for “What’s a Girl to Do?” by Bat for Lashes [runtime: 2:59]. Nothing here directly refers to the movie, but the cumulative homage is obvious.
The references to other movies in Donnie Darko are as subtle as the soundtrack is. Like Tarantino, Kelly uses music to add another element to the film. It’s a different approach to soundtracking than many movies use. For instance, I always wonder what the music in True Romance would’ve entailed had Tarantino ended up directing it as well (Tony Scott did a fine job, but the music is, well, lacking). The music in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction adds so much to the overall feel of the films. Kelly pulled off the same added element with Donnie Darko‘s soundtrack, saying, “there were opportunities in this story to put a musical code on the character’s experience within this era. Picking those songs was, on our part, not to do with making it campy and mocking of the 1980s… We wanted the music to be sincere” (p. xxvii). To wit, the feeling and lyrics of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon,” INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart,” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” as well as Michael Andrews’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” all play with the complex themes of the story.
Somehow in the midst of the musings of a confused, possibly schizophrenic teenage boy, Kelly puts no less than the future of humanity at stake. Drawing from Graham Greene’s “The Destructors,” Richard Adams’ Watership Down (the inspiration for Frank, according to Kelly), and The Last Temptation of Christ (what is Donnie Darko if not a teen angst-ridden, sci-fi version of the Christ narrative?), he carries us to the absolute brink on All Hallow’s Eve. The meaning of all of this is never fully explained, but whatever it means remains important to us. It’s not enough to just like the characters and to wonder. We have to care. As Stephen Jay Gould explained:
But we also need the possibility of cataclysm, so that, when situations seem hopeless, and beyond the power of any natural force to amend, we may still anticipate salvation from a messiah, a conquering hero, a deus ex machina, or some other agent with power to fracture the unsupportable and institute the unobtainable (p. 58).
The official story consists of a rogue alternate universe that must be resolved through a comic-book logic involving Manipulated Living, Manipulated Dead, The Living Receiver (all explained in Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel), and others, but one of the enduring features of Donnie Darko is that even given an “official story,” one can draw many meanings. This is essential to its proven shelf-life.
My favorite scene in the movie is a short snatch of conversation between Donnie’s teachers Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) and Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore). He’s grading papers and she’s eating lunch, presumably in the teacher’s lounge at Middlesex High School. Monnitoff mentions Donnie, chuckling incredulously, and she laughs, agreeing. The scene is so brief as to be missable, but it indicates that they’re in on something, that they know the answer. As Christopher Nolan said of Inception, there is an answer. That the answer doesn’t impede further speculation or meaning-mining is one of the things that makes Donnie Darko so tenacious. As Jake Gyllenhaal says, “What does it mean to you?” (p. viii)
If you haven’t seen the film (and of course I think you should), here’s the trailer [runtime: 2:23]:
Gould, Stephen Jay (1999). Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown. New York: Crown.
Kelly, Richard. (2003). The Donnie Darko Book. London: faber and faber.
Wilson, Robert Anton. (1991). Cosmic Trigger, Volume II: Down to Earth. Las Vegas, NV: New Falcon.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).