Revisiting ‘Donnie Darko’ Is A Dangerous Act Of Time-Traveling

This weekend, Donnie Darko will return to select theaters in a few cities for a limited re-release before expanding to other cities in the coming weeks. “Great!” you’re thinking. “I was obsessed with Donnie Darko in the early ’00s. I’ve been wanting to revisit it, and this is a perfect opportunity.” But is this is a good idea? Does Donnie Darko hold up?

Having just re-watched Donnie Darko for the first time in at least 10 years, I can answer this question definitively: Sort of. Maybe? Definitely… probably. It really depends on you. Because Donnie Darko is what it is, but I’m guessing (is this a good guess?) that you’ve changed.

First of all, I had been warned by various people over the years not to re-watch Donnie Darko. Based on my informal polling of acquaintances with Donnie Darko opinions over the years, Richard Kelly’s twisty-turny time travel mind-eff ranks among the most devalued of once-prized early ’00s cult items. (Only bands once labeled “dance punk” have fared worse.) If you’ve seen the movie, you’re probably familiar with the complaints: The story is incoherent, the ending is illogical, and Drew Barrymore gives her worst-ever performance. (That’s counting both Charlie’s Angels movies, which never required Barrymore to convincingly recite passages from Graham Greene short stories.) Kelly’s follow-up to Donnie Darko, 2007’s insane cultural satire about the apocalypse and the Iraq War and teen horniness and Justin Timberlake lip-syching to the Killers opus Southland Tales, further diminished the former wunderkind’s debut.

But what people really seem to dislike about Donnie Darko in retrospect is that at one point it felt incredibly deep, mysterious, and profound, and now might seem a little… dumb. That’s my sense anyway from the conversations I’ve had with disgruntled former Donnie heads over the years. Perhaps you can relate: Everybody has at least one thing that once commanded an incredible amount of attention and adoration. That one thing, for a short while, became part of your personality: You thought about it all the time, and you talked about it all the time. And then, for whatever reason, that one thing fell out of favor, and all of a sudden what once inspired intense adoration now elicits equally intense derision. It’s as if you feel betrayed by this thing. It’s personal. It makes you feel embarrassed for your younger self.

For a lot of people who were in their teens and early 20s in 2002, Donnie Darko was that thing.

All that said: After re-watching Donnie Darko, I was surprised by how much I still enjoy it. The constant theorizing about this movie’s hefty portion of mumbo jumbo — tangent universes and manipulated living and manipulated dead and blah blah blah — tends to obscure how funny Donnie Darko is. A lot of the humor (the humor that lands, anyway) derives from the specificity of Kelly’s late-’80s suburban world. I don’t think I had ever heard “go with me” — a term for teenage coupledom that was still in use when I stumbled into my middle-school love life a few years later — used in a movie before Donnie Darko. And surely no film has ever depicted the phenomenon of pre-teens dance groups as vividly as the venerated Sparkle Motion crew.

The other most immediately arresting aspect of Donnie Darko are the musical sequences. As Kelly reiterated in that amazing “‘All The Things That I Have Done” scene from Southland Tales, the man knows how to cut a montage to ’80s pop-rock songs (as well as songs indebted to ’80s pop-rock). Echo & The Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” The Church’s “Under The Milky Way,” Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” — how many unimaginative-but-still-fun DJ nights did Donnie Darko influence 15 years ago?

The first time I saw Donnie Darko, it was in a theater in Minneapolis that served food during the movie, a terrible idea that surely contributed to this place shutting down not long after. The constant flow of waiters going in and out of the screening room took me out of the film, but nothing could distract me from the “Head Over Heels” sequence. At the time, this scene represented everything I wanted out of a movie — a song I loved but hadn’t heard in years scoring a sequence that looked like a John Hughes movie directed by Martin Scorsese. Honestly, the “Head Over Heels” sequence still feels like that to me.

But Donnie Darko didn’t become “the quintessential cult movie of the last 20 years,” to quote my friend Scott Tobias, simply because of its soundtrack or nostalgia for suburban minutia. Donnie Darko attracted a devoted following the same way the Rubik’s Cube attracted a devoting following. It’s a movie that people are still trying to figure out. Because Donnie Darko wasn’t simply something you stared at in your dorm room between bong blasts — it was supposed to mean something.

Here’s a reductive summation of Donnie Darko’s plot: Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), a mentally ill teenager, believes that a demented man-sized bunny named Frank has told him that the world is ending in 28 days. Donnie thinks it’s his job to save the world, and it appears that this process will involve wormholes in time that only he can see. But at the end of the movie, what actually happens is that Donnie’s girlfriend, Gretchen (Jena Malone), is killed. Instead of saving the world, he must save her by going back in time and allowing himself to be killed by a jet engine that crashes through his bedroom. (Also, the jet engine is attached to a plane carrying his mother and sister in a different timeline — because wormholes, I think?)

If you’re the sort of person who believes that everything in a movie is literal, and that every minor plot detail is vitally important, and that movies like Donnie Darko exist only as puzzles to be solved, Donnie Darko is bound to eventually let you down, because I don’t think the movie has a “solution.” The pieces — either by design or because Kelly is better at brainstorming cool ideas than exercising storytelling discipline — were not designed to fit together.

For me, what Donnie Darko is really “about” is the need for young people — particularly young men — to see themselves as unique and gifted and above all heroic in their own personal narratives. And often, those narratives include fantasies of an early death, inevitably followed by widespread mourning by all of those people who never understood you in life. This is much clearer to me now than it was then. I think it’s why Donnie Darko resonates so deeply with people of a certain age. Fans of Donnie Darko see themselves as Donnie.

Kelly was 26 when he made Donnie Darko. I was 24 when I first watched it. Both of us were less than a decade removed from high school. It takes a while to shake the worldview of a high schooler — nobody gets me, it’s me vs. the world, everybody is a phony. I think it was still in Kelly’s head when he wrote Donnie Darko, and I suspect it was still in mine (and many others) when they first saw it. Donnie Darko is the ultimate “you’ll miss me when I’m gone” movie, perfect for viewers who were weaned on the iconography of Kurt Cobain and The Catcher In The Rye in high school, just a few years earlier.

“They’re all part of this great big conspiracy of bullshit. And they’re scared of people like you, because those bullshitters know that you’re smarter than all of them. You know what you say to people like that? Hmm? Fuck you.” That’s what Donnie’s father says to Donnie toward the end of Donnie Darko. What young misfit hasn’t dreamt of such a moment — unvarnished validation from a parent that you’re special? It’s like that scene in The King Of Comedy, in which Rupert Pupkin fantasizes about marrying his teenage crush on national TV, and his old principal suddenly materializes to tell Rupert, “You were right, and we were wrong.” Only there’s no irony.

As the realization of an adolescent fantasy, it’s almost too perfect — though it can’t touch the climactic “Mad World” sequence, which depicts the aftermath of Donnie’s “sacrifice.” Over Gary Jules’ doleful rendition of a Tears For Fears oldie — which includes the line, “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” — Kelly’s lingers on the faces of Donnie’s family. They’re crying and absolutely shattered, as one would expect after losing a family member — though we just witnessed how they all tortured our poor, misunderstood hero earlier in the film. Again, what angry teen hasn’t envisioned such a moment, when the world finally gets who you are, and now will be haunted forever by your absence? I’m honestly surprised that Kelly’s didn’t underline his point once more by putting The Police’s “Can’t Stand Losing You” on the soundtrack.

Watching Donnie Darko now, my perspective is much different — I now relate to the parents more than Donnie, so the “Mad World” sequence seems almost painfully cruel. But for the most part, I appreciate Donnie Darko at this point as a vacation to the headspace of my younger self. Even the film’s overly obvious satire about stuffy suburban conservatives tamping down on soulful iconoclasts — including a PTA scene about banning book that’s practically a direct lift from Field Of Dreams — didn’t bother me, because it’s consistent with the rather simplistic way I saw the world back then. When in Rome, mock stuck-up religious ladies.

So, does Donnie Darko hold up? The question is really does the younger you hold up? Are you comfortable with being reminded of what you used to be like for two hours? Think about it before deciding. Time travel isn’t for everybody.