Written and directed by Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko is a 2001 science fiction psychological thriller, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, James Duval, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Stu Stone, and Daveigh Chase. Seth Rogan even makes an appearance.
The film premiered on January 19, 2001 at the Sundance Film Festival, followed by a limited theatrical release on October 26. Because the film’s advertising featured a crashing plane and the September 11 attacks had occurred a month and a half before, it was scarcely advertised, which affected its box office performance; it grossed just $517,375 in its initial run. Donnie Darko received positive reviews and was listed No. 2 in Empire‘s “50 Greatest Independent Films of All Time”, and No. 53 in Empire‘s “500 Greatest Movies of All Time”. After reissues, it went on to gross $7.5 million worldwide. The film went on earning more than $10 million in US home video sales and gained a cult following. Kelly released Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut in 2004. The film was adapted into a stage production in 2007 and a sequel, S. Darko, followed in 2009 without Kelly’s involvement. In 2021, he announced that work on a new sequel is in progress.
Director: Richard Kelly
Writer: Richard Kelly
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, James Duval
Release Date: October 26, 2001
Run time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
On October 2, 1988, in Middlesex, Virginia, Donald J. “Donnie” Darko, a teenager, who has been experiencing bouts of sleepwalking, wakes up on a road before cycling home. That night, he follows the directions of a mysterious voice while he is sleeping and leaves his home. Outside, he meets a man in a horrifying rabbit costume, Frank, a monstrous reimagining of the rabbit-guide idea born in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. When Donnie wakes up, he is on a golf course. When he returns home, he learns that a jet engine has crashed through the roof of his home and into his bedroom. His family tells him that the authorities do not know where the engine came from.
Donnie continues to see Frank, the man in the rabbit monster costume, including during times when he is awake. His parents speak with Donnie’s psychiatrist, Dr. Thurman, who tells them that she thinks he is having “daylight hallucinations” due to paranoid schizophrenia. Frank begins to give Donnie instructions, which he obeys, including that he should flood his high school by breaking through a water main with an axe.
At school, Donnie meets a girl named Gretchen Ross, a new student who moved to town, and changed her legal name, to escape her dangerous stepfather. Dr. Thurman, Donnie’s psychiatrist, begins using hypnosis on Donnie. This leads to him telling her about his sexual fantasies. Some time later, Donnie shoots bottles with some of his friends while they friends discuss the sex lives of Smurfs. Suddenly they notice an old woman not far away, standing in the road in front of her house, repeatedly checking her mail. She is almost run over and Donnie is reminded that his father Eddie also almost ran over this woman, in the same circumstances, a few days prior. In the incident with his father, Donnie had stepped out of the car to check on the old woman, and she whispered into his ear that “every living creature on Earth dies alone”. At a subsequent appointment with Dr. Thurman, Donnie tells her about this and confesses that he doesn’t want to be alone.
At the school, Donnie’s Christian fundamentalist gym teacher, Kitty Farmer, blames the vandalism at the school on a short story ,The Destructors, assigned to Donnie’s class by his English teacher Karen Pomeroy. Kitty begins teaching “attitude lessons” to her gym classes, taken from local motivational speaker Jim Cunningham. Donnie protests these lessons, causing tension between Kitty and Donnie’s mother, Rose. Kitty’s daughter and Donnie’s youngest sister are in a dance group together called Sparkle Motion.
After being asked by Frank about time travel, Donnie aks his science teacher, Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff about the topic. Monnitoff tells Donnie what he knows, but will not say as much as he would like, due to a fear over losing his job. However, he gives Donnie The Philosophy of Time Travel, and Donnie is astonished to learn that the book’s author, a former nun named Roberta Sparrow, is one and the same person as
“Grandma Death,” the old woman who stands out in the middle of the road by her mailbox.
After this conversation, while at home, Donnie begins to see tunnels emerging from the chests of people around him, which seem to indicate the direction the person will move. These tunnels match illustrations from Sparrow’s book. Donnie sees a tunnel on his own chest and follows it to his parents’ closet, where he finds and takes a gun.
Kitty Farmer, the gym teacher, has the motivational speaker Jim Cunningham speak to the students at the school. During a question and answer session, Donnie insults Jim and offers his own advice to his classmates.
Later, Donnie finds Cunningham’s wallet lying on a sidewalk and thus discovers the man’s address. During a date with Gretchen Ross, she falls asleep during a showing of Evil Dead. Donnie sees a vision of Frank sitting next to them and tells him to take off his mask. Frank complies and we see the man beneath has a serious facial wound, including a missing eye. Frank tells Donnie to burn down Cunningham’s house, so Donnie leaves Gretchen, sneaks out to Cunningham’s house, and burns it down. When the firefighters put out the fire, they discover child pornography, which then leads to Cunningham’s arrest.
Kitty the gym teacher believes that there is a conspiracy against Cunningham, and she wants to organize his defense, so she asks Donnie’s mother Rose to take her place as chaperone for their daughters’ dance trip to Los Angeles, where they are slated to appear on Star Search.
While their mother and their little sister gone, and their father also gone on a business tirp, Donnie and his older sister Elizabeth host a Halloween party. Some of the justification for the celebration is that Elizabeth was recently accepted to attend Harvard. Gretchen shows up to the party, very upset, and tells Donnie that her mother has gone missing. She assumes that her violent stepfather is involved. Before they go, Donnie and Gretchen have sex for the first time.
Donnie realizes that Frank’s prophesied end of the world is only hours away, so he takes Gretchen and two other friends to find Roberta Sparrow, the former nun who wrote the book on time travel. At her house, they find two kids form their school, Seth and Ricky, robbing the old woman’s home. A fight ensues between Donnie and the two robbers. As they fight, an oncoming car runs over Gretchen, killing her. The driver is the boyfriend of Donnie’s sister Elizabeth, Frank Anderson, wearing the same rabbit costume from Donnie’s visions. Donnie shoots Frank in the eye, with the gun he stole from his parents closet, and then he walks home carrying Gretchen’s body.
As Donnie returns home, a vortex forms in the sky over his house. He takes a car from his house, loads Gretchen’s body into it, and drives to a ridge that overlooks town. From there he sees the plane carrying his mom and his sister’s dance team home from Los Angeles, get caught in the vortex, ripping off one of its engines.
Events of the previous 28 days rewind. Donnie wakes up in his bedroom, recognizes that the date is October 2, and laughs as he is crushed by the jet engine. All over time, the people whose lives would have been touched by Donnie wake up from bad dreams. Gretchen, who has not yet met Donnie, rides a bike by the Darko home the next morning. She talks to Donnie’s young neighbor and learns about his death. Gretchen and Donnie’s mother exchange looks before waving, as if they know each other but are not sure how.
As an aside, and as a confession, I fell down into an online conspiracy theory rabbit hole concerning this movie, and that is what spurred my interest in this re-watch. I do not endorse the linked conspiracy (as a rule, I almost never endorse anything), but I always find connections of that sort to be fascinating. Is there really something secret happening around us? Is it that our minds are beautiful in their ability to create connections between unrelated things? Is it both? I don’t know though I suspect it probably depends on the circumstances. Anyway, on to the review…
This is a dark, confusing, sometimes funny, and highly enjoyable film.
Despite being one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s earliest roles, his interpretation of Donnie Darko is also some of his best work. Donnie is clearly brilliant, deeply troubled, rebellious, nervous, occasionally scary, and also tragically heroic. He not only acts to save lives at the film’s end, he also looks out for people along the way, too. Gretchen tells him that he has a superhero’s name, and in a sense he acts as one in the film. This movie would not have worked with a lesser performance and Gyllenhaal carries the film to what is now a cult following. A lot of credit should be given to Richard Kelly’, too, for a really well written and directed film.
Time travel stories are notoriously difficult to tell. Donnie Darko is no exception and even includes a companion book to better explain its own rules. The long and short of what happens here is that a “tangent universe” is created when Donnie wakes up on a golf course and avoids his own death via jet engine. Tangent universes are – according to the rules set out within the movie – limited in duration to a few weeks. After a few weeks, a tangent universe is destroyed. As a result, “Frank” tells Donnie accurately that he has just over 28 days until the world ends. We see the universe destroying black hole form above Donnie’s house at the time. As the movie comes to a confusing and emotionally impactful close, Donnie travels back in time to October 2, when the movie begins, and chooses to stay in his bed and die via jet engine in order that the universe not be destroyed and so that Gretchen, his mom, and his sister would live.
This ending of course leaves the viewer with a lot of big questions which are then fun to speculate upon. The jet engine from the tangent universe still crash lands in the primary universe. How did it get there? Who is “Frank” and how was he conversing with Donnie? Is he the same Frank that Donnie murders in the tangent universe – complete with the wound given to him by Donnie in the shooting? Frank from the primary universe is still alive and unharmed. What happens in the primary universe with Jim Cunningham? We see him wake up from a dream as the film ends and he appears to be having a breakdown. What happens with Gretchen Ross and her mother? How did Roberta Sparrow end up an expert on this topic?
All of those questions, left unanswered, do not detract from the film, because the story’s primary plot was satisfying. Even if we do not quite understand how or why it happens, Donnie’s overall arc, and his eventual self-sacrifice, gives an emotional and tragic punch.
The film does a fine job balancing its dark elements with dark humor. The suburban setting is a satire of the 1980s, but it utilizes enough restraint to avoid being over-done. The group conversation, among Donnie and his friends, about the Smurfs was particularly memorable. Donnie’s efforts to tell off both his gym teacher, and Jim Cunningham, were funny (and in some ways, heroic) enough to distract from the increasingly dark undercurrents which drove Donnie’s character to a point wherein he is willing to do this. The net result was a film that feels balanced.
One small thing I really liked about Donnie Darko is the interaction between real life siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Their banter was realistic and their on-screen chemistry, as real life brother and sister, too, was palpably authentic.
I really enjoyed Donnie Darko and plan to give the recently hinted at sequel an opportunity, too, if it ever comes to fruition.
2 thoughts on “Donnie Darko (2001)”
Thank you for this intriguing review. The exploration of ‘tangent universes’ in the movie, even with all its unanswered questions drew me in – so much so that I will probably have a look at this movie.
You’re welcome and I hope you enjoy it!
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