SPOILERS AHEAD: Donnie Darko celebrated its 20th anniversary on January 19th so we’ve looked back at one of the weirdest movies ever.
You never got your first time as they say. This is certainly true of when you first discover Donnie Darko. Mysterious, elusive, terrifying, thrilling, it took you by the hand and led you down an unforgettable rabbit hole.
The movie premiered to a shocked Sundance on January 19th, 2001, but box office success didn’t follow. $7.5 million was a paltry sum but Donnie Darko‘s true success lies in its cult status. Empire would eventually call it one of the greatest American independent movies of all time.
Director Richard Kelly was a wunderkind, aged just 23 at the time, perhaps the most youthful filmmaker to impress at this level with his first movie since Orson Welles and Citizen Kane.
It was also his first script, shot in a mere 28 days. That this was the same amount of days that count down to Donnie’s death is one of those astounding coincidences that just seems fated; that Kelly never found similar success after his debut only adds to the mythos.
There were so many intriguing elements that came together to make it work. True 80’s classics filled the soundtrack, including the likes of ‘Head Over Heels’ by Tears for Fears and ‘The Killing Moon’ by Echo & the Bunnymen.
The most memorable track though was ‘Mad World’; That final sequence accompanied by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews’ haunting cover version remains profoundly moving.
The movie launched the careers of the Gyllenhaal siblings. Maggie provided able support as Donnie’s annoying sister (her next movie incidentally would be the almost-as-shocking Secretary) but it was Jake as the titular character that stole the show. Brooding, dark, existential, he wholly embodied the mentally ill and troubled Donnie.
The supporting cast was also strong: Patrick Swayze was perfect as smarmy motivational speaker Jim Cunningham and Drew Barrymore was never better as disillusioned English teacher Karen Pomeroy.
Check out Donnie’s Jim Cunningham rant:
The story though. Holy shit, the story.
Without revealing too much, the basic plot concerns the titular Donnie, a mentally ill and misunderstood teenager. When a jet engine crashes right into his bedroom, he is saved at exactly the right moment by a huge deformed bunny rabbit called Frank who tells him that the world is going to end in just under a month.
Is Donnie living in a parallel universe, is he just suffering from severe mental illness and is the world really ending? No easy answers are given.
It’s why the movie is whatever you want it to be: a sci-fi movie with talk of wormholes and a stalking monster; a study of coming-of-age while attempting to deal with debilitating mental illness; a metaphysical examination of time travel (real ideas of theoretical physics were impressively included, such as world lines); a searing psychological horror. There’s even political commentary in its condemnation of enervating middle class American suburbia.
Kelly makes Donnie an anti-hero to add to the ethical dilemma of viewing the character. He may burn down a man’s house but it’s later revealed that the man was a paedophile with a child pornography collection. Everything in Kelly’s world is open to interpretation, always challenging.
There can be no definitive statement on its meaning and if one existed, the movie would feel lesser, reduced of its power. In the age of Marvel movies where everything is handed and explained to the viewer on a silver platter, the layered and elusive Donnie Darko story feels like it came from another world.
Check out the final scene (‘Mad World’):
The movie is not entirely unproblematic though. Debate has raged about its polarising philosophical elements and narrative structure for years. The portrayal of mental illness won’t be to everyone’s taste. The female characters are woefully underserved. It’s overstuffed with ideas and story threads.
Despite all of this, it’s still able to transcend all the chatter. Donnie Darko is a true one-off, a one-of-a-kind nightmarish artifact never to be repeated. As a moving piece on mortality, mental illness, and the supernatural, Donnie Darko is timeless. It’s strange, awe-inspiring, frustrating, and weird. It’ll still be talked about in another 20 years’ time.
Perhaps the scene that sums up the movie best is this: Just as his psychologist seems to be about to make real breakthrough into his troubled psyche, Donnie begins to masturbate furiously; realism meets mysticism, the mundane and the psychological together.
Kelly discussed the possibility of a sequel in 2017 but it just doesn’t feel right. Donnie Darko is too much of an original to give any sequel the chance to ruin the mystique.
No one put it better than Gyllenhaal himself this week as he got nostalgic about Donnie Darko on the movie’s 20th anniversary on Instagram: “Thank you to all the fans who’ve come up to me over the years with that confused look on their faces and asked me: ‘what the f**k is Donnie Darko about??’ Happy 20th Donnie! Let’s keep confusing people. Here’s to 20 more.”