‘Donnie Darko’ At 20: A Timeless Suburban Gothic That Happens To Have Some Time Travel

One easy way to start an argument among movie lovers: Is Donnie Darko underrated, overrated, or accurately rated? It’s one of those movies that naturally seems to polarize people, which may disguise a more salient phenomenon: that everyone seems to remember it.

This seems borderline miraculous, given the circumstances. Released in October 2001, Donnie Darko is one of a handful of films that had their box office chances decimated by 9/11. Without overstating the impact of world events, October 2001 was a time when radio stations had banned songs as seemingly innocuous as “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys” and “Ticket To Ride” by the Beatles, so terrified were they of accidentally reminding people of 9/11. Into this paranoid morass bumbled Donnie Darko, whose trailer, executive producer Aaron Ryder noted, “featured a jet plane engine falling through a roof.”

If “Ticket To Ride” was too soon, you can imagine how that went over. Donnie Darko had premiered at Sundance, that January. Landing at a lesser distributor, Newmarket, Darko‘s rights holders had to be coaxed and cajoled into giving the film any theatrical release at all. Finally giving in, they set it for a release in late October, the same time of year the film takes place, and inadvertently ended up having to market a movie about a plane engine crushing a house in the aftermath of a world-shattering airplane attack.

Not surprisingly, the film didn’t get much support. It earned just over $500,000 in a release that spanned 58 theaters at its widest (2,000-3,000 theaters was standard for a major release at the time). Yet for evidence of Donnie Darko‘s outsized impact, one need only mention the major releases it was was up against in its first weekend: the Kevin Spacey alien comedy K-Pax and the tragically-named Thir13en Ghosts. The latter of which somehow went on to earn almost $42 million in the US alone. Heard any good fan theories about Thir13en Ghosts lately?

You know the story: Donnie Darko eventually found its audience and took off. It became a massive hit on DVD and went on to inspire countless explainer posts on Tumblr. This despite having arguably some of the worst DVD box art of all time:


Its proper place in the canon aside, it’s easy to forget that Donnie Darko‘s writer/director Richard Kelly was just 24 when he sold the script; 26 when it was released. He had to fight to be able to direct it, fight to be able to shoot it anamorphic (without getting deep into the technical weeds, it’s a way of shooting in widescreen without losing vertical resolution), fight for his preferred cast, and fight to get it released theatrically. None of those fights are entirely unique to Donnie Darko, but the final product does feel particularly defined by a filmmaker who resisted being talked out of things. Every film is inevitably a nexus of almost infinite alternate timelines, different ways it could’ve turned out if one actor hadn’t had a scheduling conflict or another hadn’t been vetoed by a producer. Yet perhaps my all-time favorite bit of film trivia is that Mark Wahlberg was approached about playing Donnie Darko but didn’t work out because he insisted on playing him with a lisp.

Above all, virtually every frame, every acting choice, every musical cue — feel like at least one person cared deeply about just this one little thing. It’s a quality that’s so lacking in today’s world of endless streaming that it’s almost jarring to watch. Donnie Darko is so visually dynamic and witty that watching it now almost makes me giddy. The gloriously goofy, slightly macabre, scary-but-perfect-sight-gag bunny mask at the center of it is Donnie Darko‘s visual sensibility in a nutshell. It’s almost impossible not to scream why doesn’t anyone make movies like this anymore?! at the TV when you watch it, even when you know it’s the cinematic equivalent of demanding the neighbor kids stay off your lawn. Truth is though, they barely made movies like this then.

Described by Kelly as “Catcher in the Rye as retold by Philip K. Dick” (with a tagline that slick, you can see how he sold it so fast) Donnie Darko is the story of an angsty, emotionally disturbed teenager and his nearly month-long holiday from consequences (an “unreliable narrator,” say). In a way, it’s also Office Space, with the hypnotist recast as an imaginary friend in a giant bunny costume. “Frank,” who ultimately turns out not to be imaginary, saves Donnie from a falling plane engine, gets him to bust a water main at his school (an unconventional and ultimately successful ploy to get a girlfriend), and set a fire at a pompous self-help guru’s house to expose the man as a pederast. These are all the kinds of moments adult contemporary premium cable shows dream of.

In the beginning of the film, Frank lures Donnie out of his house and sets the time parameters of the film, telling Donnie he has “28 days, six hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds” before it all ends. Donnie’s sleep walk (he wakes up at the local golf course) ends up saving him from a falling plane engine that landed in his bedroom. Initially, the authorities don’t know where the engine came from. It’s only 28 days (etc) later that Donnie learns the truth: that the engine came from a plane, which encountered a worm hole, sucking one of its engines into a time-space portal landing it 28 days (etc) into the past, crushing Donnie’s bedroom. Did I mention Donnie’s mom and sister were on the plane? Luckily Frank hipped Donnie to all this, which he was able to do, because Donnie kills him as revenge for Frank running over Donnie’s girlfriend with his Trans Am in this 28-day timeline anomaly. Frank’s death conveniently frees his spirit was the bounds of time. In the “end” Donnie goes home to sleep in his bed and gets crushed by the engine after all, sacrificing himself for his mom, sister, girlfriend, and Frank.

If you’re anything like me, it probably hurt a little bit to hear someone explain the plot in linear fashion like that. For one thing, it still doesn’t really make sense. Which as a plot contrivance is pure genius. Richard Kelly has figured out a way to make you to relive his movie over and over, by inserting a time travel paradox into the finale. Donnie Darko becomes like that line in a rap song you don’t quite catch the first time and have to keep rewinding. Brilliant as it is as a hook, it’s not even in the top 10 reasons why I love the movie.

Realizing that it’s almost unimaginably pompous to argue that a movie is a cult classic “for the wrong reasons,” I still can’t help but think that Donnie Darko suffers a bit from its association with the stoned college kid ouvre. Along with The Matrix and Boondock Saints, Donnie Darko is one of those movies it’s easy to imagine AJ firing up in the Soprano house media room. Certainly this is its own fault; without the sheen of “what does it all mean, maaaan” and its inextricable (and much to be imitated) “sci-fi element,” Donnie Darko is merely a much more pedestrian period-set indie coming-of-age dramedy. We’ve all seen that movie.

Yet even stripped of its time loop, Donnie Darko would still be an all-time great period-set indie coming-of-age dramedy. It’s Ladybird with a sci-fi element. In hindsight, it’s easy to forget that Donnie Darko takes place in the very specific time period — October 1988, just before the Bush-Dukakis election. In fact the very first line of dialogue is “I’m voting for Dukakis” delivered by Jake Gyllenhaal’s real-life sister, Maggie, playing Donnie’s movie sister, Elizabeth. It’s easy to forget that it takes place in 1988 because Donnie Darko, only 12 or so years removed from the period setting and released slightly before the 20-year nostalgia cycle made 80s period pieces hip, never plays that setting for easy nostalgia or cheap kitsch. It’s simply a matter of verisimilitude. That’s when Richard Kelly imagined the story, so that’s when it takes place — in “Middlesex,” Virginia. (Kelly went to high school Midlothian, Virginia, where his father worked for NASA).

Donnie Darko is a prime example that all those hyper specifics of story don’t winnow an audience, they broaden it. It’s set in a rich, leafy suburb at a lily white private high school, yet there are times watching it that I feel like it plagiarized my childhood (where I attended a largely Hispanic public school in a rural California dirthole). I’m almost positive I had the same bullshit health class taught by a Bible thumper with pearl earrings and a too-tight bun that inspired Beth Grant’s (perfect) performance as Kitty Farmer. Where Donnie had Patrick Swayze’s Jim Cunningham (Swayze’s defining performance in my mind), who Donnie calls “the fucking antichrist,” we had abstinence advocate and former Miss Black California Lakita Garth, offering all kinds of advice on how Jesus could reduce teen pregnancy (which worked out terribly, my class started with 600 students freshman year and graduated less than a third). The language of teenage shitheads drinking beer in fields is universal.

The opening scene, in which Elizabeth declares that she’s voting Dukakis, eventually devolves into bickering between the two, in which Donnie calls her a “fuck ass” and she laughs and tells him to “suck a fuck.” The scene sets a tone for a film that’s almost 100% earworms. It’s a mixture of the arch, the mundane, and the surreal in that endlessly repeatable, endlessly memorable kind of way. Beth Grant pleading “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!” has lived rent free in my head for 20 years.

The bullies are absolutely ruthless, but with sadism that feels gleeful rather than rote, like so many other high school movie bully cliches do. The Cherita character, a tragic loner played by Jolen Purdy, and the line “go back. To China, bitch,” is so absurdly cruel and abrupt as to be spit-take worthy. And still it manages to be overshadowed by Seth Rogen’s line read of “yeah, well didn’t your dad, like, stab your mom?” and Alex Greenwald’s freakishly memorable stab motion and sound effects.


Greenwald, incidentally, who in Donnie Darko played a bully named Seth (which is funny to me on its own), is in Jason Schwartzman’s band Phantom Planet and used to be engaged to Brie Larson.

Donnie Darko is a movie where even the small, strange performances are perfect, the cast a mix of up-and-comers like Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, and Seth Rogen; and veteran character actors like Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell as the Darko parents. Well, perhaps with the exception of Drew Barrymore, who portrayed one of the least-convincing English teachers of all time and whose line reads (“FUUUUCK!” “It’s meant to be ironic!”) are almost as earwormy as “commitment to Sparkle Motion,” but for the wrong reasons. Still, Barrymore deserves far more credit than shame. It was Barrymore who believed in it, who helped finance it through her production company and used her pull to get it a theatrical release. Without her, Donnie Darko might not even exist.

Which would be a shame. It’s the rare high school film that acknowledges sex but neither obsesses nor trips over it. Donnie is a horny high school kid, whose fantasies about sex (he almost jerks off to Christina Applegate in his therapist’s office while hypnotized) and obsession with getting the girl coexist naturally with similar angst about time travel, religion, and the meaning of life. That a teenager can be a horny idiot, but also a budding philosopher, thorny cynic, and stifled romantic is a fact rarely acknowledged in movies about high school.

Then and now, Donnie Darko feels like something special. One can choose to remember it a number of different ways, but for me, it’s less a time travel movie than a timeless suburban gothic, a portrait of mundane perversity rivalling anything, even from masters of the genre like Alexander Payne and the Coen brothers.

Donnie Darko’s legacy is everywhere, in cultural forces obvious and not so obvious. When Donnie Darko couldn’t afford to license “MLK” by U2 for the finale, the composer Michael Andrews created a slowed down dramatic cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World,” performed by Andrews’ friend Gary Jules, which went on to become a UK number one hit in 2003. Tears For Fears’ only number one hit, incredibly. This from the soundtrack for a film which, again, didn’t crack seven figures in box office. “Mad World” was, I would argue, almost certainly the inspiration for that children’s choir singing “Creep” in one of the first Social Network trailers. Which in turn spawned the mass phenomenon of slowed-down dramatic covers in trailers. A phenomenon now so widely acknowledged that my dumb tweet about the movie WONKA simply looking like the kind of movie that would have a slowed-down dramatic cover in the trailer received almost 35,000 likes.

When that spaceship suddenly shows up midway through Fargo season two, it’s hard not to think of Donnie Darko, and its mix of small town drama and the supernatural (sidenote: fuck that spaceship). The Leftovers, one of the best shows of the last 10 years, had a similar (and more successful) brew of character drama and existential questions. Would they exist without Donnie Darko? Maybe, but it set a precedent that audiences would accept that kind of genre bending.

While he’s been attached to other projects and has done uncredited work on plenty of movies and TV (so he has said in interviews), Richard Kelly hasn’t officially written or directed a movie since The Box in 2009, 12 years ago. Probably that has more to do with his famously disastrous follow-up whatsit, Southland Tales, in 2006, and its more conventional but still underwhelming successor than Donnie Darko (stories probably worthy of posts of their own).

Maybe there’s some irony to the way that Southland Tales, intended to be such an up-to-the-moment slice of the times (Kevin Smith called the script “a political Pulp Fiction“), feels decades old, while Donnie Darko, a coming-of-age tale made five years earlier and set in 1988, feels like it could’ve been made yesterday. It seems to shoot for something broad and definitive, about the way reality seems to shift underfoot at the cusp of adulthood. In depicting adolescence truthfully, it ends up being entirely offbeat and singularly strange. Maybe the only way to do justice to the high school experience is through the supernatural. To borrow a cliché, Donnie Darko taught us it was okay to be weird.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.