Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Writer-director Richard Kelly’s somber, unsettling, funny, overwrought, bizarre October-set Sci-Fi freak out is just as hypnotic and baffling as it was when it was released in 2001. At that time (minus the unfortunate timing given the release of the film a month after September 11th), Kelly seemed poised to become a new powerhouse filmmaker of the 21st century, alongside other genre darlings with huge debuts like M. Night Shyamalan and Christopher Nolan. Unlike those filmmakers, Kelly had to wait about a year before Donnie Darko exploded, becoming a cult phenomenon worldwide and a massive financial success overseas. Like the works of Nolan, Primer’s Shane Carruth, and (more recently) Resolution’s Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, Kelly’s work holds an internal logic that often feels impenetrable. Watching one of his films, one often can’t articulate what is happening or how, but one can feel that deep down, there’s an explanation. All one needs is a thread to pull, to allow everything to unravel. 

Watching Donnie all these years later, it’s remarkable to reflect on how it is Kelly’s most accessible film of the mere three he’s written and directed. Southland Tales (‘06) and The Box (‘09) have just as much if not more emotional depth and resonance as Donnie does, but their labyrinthine plots don’t quite allow every dot to be connected. Donnie, on the other hand, has a logic that reveals itself with a modicum of attention paid, and help from Kelly’s supplemental “The Philosophy Of Time Travel” text (being the fictional book that Jake Gyllenhaal’s Donnie reads in the film). Kelly’s own Director’s Cut (‘04) makes this text explicit, and recontextualizes the film from a more ambiguous experience into an explicitly science-fiction story. Being a big fan of the Theatrical Cut (I bought the DVD blindly when it was released while I was in college, and like many people my age at that time, became quickly obsessed with it), I initially rejected the Director’s Cut as too literal minded, that Kelly had cut out all the mystery from his beguiling film and replaced it with a less compelling finality. Watching the DC again, I found it to be less weighed down, and instead simply laser focused on its intent. It’s still the weaker of the two versions, as its shuffling of Michael Andrews’ wonderful score and the excellently chosen ‘80s needle drops makes the entire experience a clunkier one (not to mention the couldn’t-help-but-be-awkward insertion of pages from the “Time Travel” book on screen). Kelly can’t help but be intriguing, however, as the added material deepens the characters as well as the subtext of the film (even opening up a whole new element to speculate about with the addition of eerie transmissions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the start and end of the film). 

No matter which cut of Donnie Darko you happen to watch, it remains a crystallized portrait of teen/young adult angst, with Donnie himself being a Gary Stu in some scenes and in the next a troubled, potentially untrustworthy outcast. Gyllenhaal’s work in this film put him on the path to stardom, and with good reason: he’s absolutely fantastic in the role, bringing the ambiguity and likeable uneasiness to the character that he’d employ again in Zodiac (‘07) and Nightcrawler (‘14). He carries the film in such a way as to allow Donnie to be both Messianic superhero and tragic fool. 

The film could be read as a long form dream of a mentally ill person, especially in the Theatrical Cut, but not only was this not Kelly’s intention, but even there, there’s no good explanation for the existence of the jet engine at the end (unless you say the entire film is a dream including that epilogue, and there’s hardly basis for that). Donnie brings up questions of philosophy (as in fate vs free will) and theology (as in the person sending him messages about the Tangent Universe might be a higher power) and can be interpreted in numerous ways. For myself, especially upon this recent rewatch, I see the film as an encapsulation of the young adult experience (with a dash of sly satire of political and social tropes that still haven’t changed much since the ‘80s) and a story about a boy who learns to value all life, his own included, before succumbing to tragedy. “Some people are just born with tragedy in their blood” says Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), and the existence of the jet engine and the “Tangent Universe” is Kelly’s time-travel drenched version of a natural disaster. This event has been predicted, if we’re to believe Roberta Sparrow and her “Time Travel” book, written in the ‘40s. It’s a disaster not unlike an earthquake or tsunami, and as with those acts of God (or are they?), there will be casualties. Donnie, being chosen through fate or circumstance (maybe his sleepwalking disorder made him the most susceptible to communication and influence from “Frank”), is able to save every life from this tragedy except his own, but finds a way to mentally accept his fate. As with any person who experiences tragedy, whether it’s a cataclysmic event or simply the pain of growing up, Donnie is able to reconcile his lot in life and navigate through it. It’s very heroic, and in that way, we are all Donnie.

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