Rediscovering: Donnie Darko

Edd Elliott

It seems only fitting that 15 years after its original release Donnie Darko is looping its way back into cinemas. The time-travel teaser has been a staple of millennial’s DVD libraries for the past decade. Now with Arrow Pictures’ 4K restoration re-release there is a chance to see it once again on the big screen. The graphics have been improved and the soundtrack given an extra kick. Deep down inside, however, it’s still that same old film you used to watch, and re-watch, and re-watch, week after week.

Donnie Darko – “What the hell kind of name is that? It’s like you’re some kind of superhero or something.” – is a troubled teen in an American every-town. He sleep walks at night and is visited in trances by—brace for it—a 6-ft bunny rabbit named Frank. The visions turn out to be a blessing in disguise. When an airplane engine mysteriously lands on Donnie’s room, he is off dreaming elsewhere. The end of the world is coming though, the omniscient Frank forecasts. Only Donnie can save those he loves. This benevolent quest ironically leads the confused protagonist on a trail of destruction through his humdrum town, flooding schools and burning down mansions. Slowly, however, Donnie begins to unravel the doomsday riddle and the time-travelling implications rapt therein.
Falling within the uncanny chasm of film present and film history, it’s easy to forget just how brilliant a movie Donnie Darko is – or should that be was? In a period deplete of true cult classics, Richard Kelly’s second feature stands a large bunny head and broad, fluffy shoulders above the rest. It has all the midnight movie traits: a bizarre plot, a killer soundtrack, strange camera tricks, and unending wormhole of memorable lines – “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!” Off-screen, all the cult boxes are ticked. The film opened to middling reviews and poor box office beset with distribution problems. It was only on DVD that Donnie began to find a following.
Looking back at Donnie Darko 15 years on, it’s remarkable how melancholic the film now feels. Maybe this was to be expected: it is after all two hours of waiting for the end of the world. But the struggles of the schizophrenic Donnie and the resulting detachment he experiences from his family appears both sad and prescient from our later viewpoint. The millennial generation that championed the film on DVD, watching as teens late at night eyes glued to the screen, would grow up to suffer an “epidemic” of mental illness and depression on a previously unimagined scale. Although time-travel and wormholes are fanciful, the daily pains experienced by the Darkos now feel horribly poignant; Patrick Swayze’s hokum “love-fear axis” certainly seems less ridiculous. In a heartbreaking scene Rose Darko, Donnie’s mother, breaks down upon hearing her young son’s psychiatrist suggest more medication and therapy. “Whatever will help him,” she builds herself up to say. “We’d just like to experience him. So if you think more medication will do that, then I think we should give it a try.”
Loneliness and depression are notable features across many cult films of the noughties—Punch-Drunk Love, Garden State, Fight Club, and even Lost in Translation. Donnie Darko, however, somehow cuts the deepest. As the camera glides down the Middlesex High corridor to the sounds of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” the sense of detachment is overwhelming. This is the John Hughes’ heartland – the 80s school-scape, with jockish boys, pretty girls and disapproving teachers. The warmth and sense of possibility, however, has been ripped out. What remains is a mess of embittered, disappointed adults and mean, scared, lost students. “Hello teacher, tell me what’s my lesson: looked right through me, looked right through me,” the film’s Gary Jules cover of Mad World mourns. This is a world where not even a Ferris-style day off or Saturday morning detention would provide meaning.
Jake Gyllenhaal has reported recently that what drew him to Donnie Darko’s script was how relatable it was to his own high-school experience. Many viewers then and now will feel the same way. For all the film’s sly 80s references to Stephen King, Spielberg and John Carpenter, it lives and breathes in the present. Donnie Darko isn’t timeless: it is timely – now in its time-travelling re-release more than ever.
***** - Five stars.

Donnie Darko 15th Anniversary 4K Restoration will screen at the BFI from 17 December and in cinemas nationwide from 23 December. BFI Tickets are on sale now. 

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