Donnie Darko

“I hope that when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.”

Note: although most of my reviews are spoiler-free, this one does have some spoilers. Read at your own risk! Also, this film has been featured on my podcast, Peculiar Picture Show. Listen to the podcast episode on Donnie Darko here!

I was in college when Donnie Darko came out. Just about everyone around my age had that one friend who would not shut up about this film, how it was deep and mysterious. I didn’t get around to watching this film until the end of 2016, 15 years after its release. I’ll admit, on my first viewing, I wasn’t that impressed. There seemed to be too many loose ends and unexplained mysteries for me to take it seriously. I’m revising my review after a second viewing, not because I’ve figured out the many mysteries here, but because I think I’ve figured out why they’re in there. Is this a great film? I won’t say it’s one of the best on my list, but it’s unique and thought-provoking, to say the least.

Written and directed by Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, this is an independent sci-fi film that takes some serious risks. Some of them pay off, and some of them don’t, but this is markedly different than most other films out there, sci-fi or otherwise. There’s also a lot of depth lurking underneath the surface of this film, although some of it is buried a little too deep to make sense of. Is it brilliant? Is it nonsense? I think that’s really open to interpretation. That said, I’ll give you my take on it.

The film opens with teen Donnie Darko waking up in a strange place—something he’s been doing more of lately. He begins having visions of a man in a creepy bunny rabbit costume who tells him to do things. He slowly unravels a deeper plot involving time travel, mysterious beings from the future, and several conspiracies that work to keep the truth from coming out. In the midst of all this, we learn that Donnie probably has schizophrenia. Donnie eventually discovers that he has to save the future by doing things to prevent a great and mysterious tragedy from occurring. Will he succeed? Is it real? Does the director give us enough clues to figure it out? Those are things that have been hotly debated since the film’s release, and I don’t think we’ll ever have a definitive answer.

And what if you could go back in time and take all those hours of pain and darkness and replace them with something better?

After watching this, the most pressing question on my mind was, what the hell was Donnie Darko about? Is it about aliens altering things on earth? Is it about people from the future trying to prevent a tragedy? Is it about Donnie suffering from schizophrenia? Well, I have a theory. The first time I watched this, I assumed there was some underlying mystery and put all of my effort into solving the mystery. I quickly discovered that many of the mysterious elements in the film did not have resolutions or a great explanation, and my opinion of the film plummeted. On the second viewing, I went in with a different thought: what does this film have to say about Donnie’s schizophrenia? Through this lens, I saw a very different film, and one that made much more sense to me.

I don’t think this film merely features a schizophrenic character; I think it tries to show us what it feels like to have schizophrenia. Donnie sees conspiracies unfolding, he hears voices giving him some master plan that he doesn’t understand, he feels it’s his responsibility to tell the truth about everything that’s happening and save the world. These are all common experiences with schizophrenia and actually explain the events of this film better than any convoluted time travel story does. So, that said, my theory is that Donnie had something crash through his room and gravely injure him. As he lay there dying, he imagines the plot of this film as a way to give meaning not only to his death, but to his life as well. Numerous quotes in the film reference this, such as repeated lines about Donnie not wanting to die alone, and Gretchen’s line about replacing hours of darkness (as Donnie lies there in the rubble dying) with something better. Now, I fully admit that there are probably some holes that can be poked in this theory—it probably needs more fleshing out—but the theory really helped me understand and appreciate this film a little more.

Donnie Darko was a bit of a pioneer in creating a viral internet campaign that aided in the understanding of the film. The film itself references a book written by one of the characters: The Philosophy of Time Travel. This is a fake book, of course, but excerpts of the book that helped explain the plot of the film were posted on the movie’s website. These excerpts were also added the the director’s cut of the film, so if you’ve seen that version, which had some shots of excerpts from the book, that’s where they came from. These excerpts explain a plot of time travel that put forth Donnie as a savior-type character. Are they the real plot, or are they imaginings of Donnie as he tries to add some meaning to his life and death? Well, we don’t really know. But I don’t know of another film that did something like that—at least, not before this came out. Whether it was effective or not, it certainly was innovative.

Donnie Darko
To be fair, this is probably what I would have said to a motivational speaker at that age.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance—his breakout role—is pretty amazing, especially when you consider that he himself didn’t really know what the movie was about. At the wrap party, he and Seth Rogen admitted to each other that neither of them knew what it was about. But Jake was committed to his role and did an excellent job. The sibling fight between him and his actual sister Maggie Gyllenhaal was particularly well done, and undoubtedly based on their own experiences growing up together. Donnie Darko was a truly troubled character, not just in a cliche sense, and Gyllenhaal did an amazing job making that real.

Overall, I still can’t make up my mind about this film. There are parts of it, either in the idea or the execution, that are brilliant, but there are also some bits that are clumsily handled and fall short of the mystery the film imagines itself to be. Despite the film’s flaws, this is one I quite enjoyed thinking about and digging into, especially on a second viewing. Is it for everyone? Well, no, definitely not. But for those looking for a deep sci-fi film with some teenage angst and a lot going on beneath the surface, this might be right up your alley.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: theatrical, 1:53; director’s cut, 2:13

Director: Richard Kelly

Year: 2001

Genres: indie, sci-fi, teen

Rating: R

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