Donnie Darko is a sci-fi, psychological thriller that was directed by Richard Kelly. It stars a very young Jake Gyllenhaal in the titular role, accompanied by her elder sister Maggie Gyllenhaal.
The film tells the story of a disturbed teenager named Donald ‘Donnie’ Darko, who often sees or hears things. One night, during his routine sleepwalking expedition, he befriends a giant bunny named Frank, who warns him of an impending doomsday.
He tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. Absurdly, at the same time, a jet engine mysteriously crashes into his bedroom, damaging the majority of his house.
The police and FAA investigators fail to determine the origin of the Jet engine. Donnie’s parents, nevertheless, feel grateful for him surviving the crash. Soon, as the countdown speeds up towards the prophesized doomsday, Donnie starts experiencing daylight hallucinations of his bunny friend Frank.
Donnie’s therapist, Dr. Thurmann, performs hallucination therapy and finds out about Frank. She informs Donnie’s parents about his deteriorating mental health and asserts that he has paranoid schizophrenia.
Soon, through a fortuitous series of events, Donnie finds a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel and starts examining it with great interest. As the doomsday nears, Donnie’s actions, ultimately, lead to a bizarre, life-altering result.
This review is of the film’s director’s cut, which runs for 20-additional minutes as compared to its theatrical version.
If you have seen both the film versions, you must have acknowledged the importance of this additional footage. Because Donnie Darko is a film that needs to be seen multiple times, it requires reading of the explainer blogs or vlogs to understand and fully appreciate its brilliance in writing and direction.
Donnie Darko is One of the Most Seminal Films of the Post-2000 Era
The film is one of the many celebrated, game-changing movies made during the early 2000s. The reason being the story juggles multiple film genres. Though it is principally a sci-fi film, with a mindblowing take on something I do not want to spoil, it is also a psychological thriller, which sometimes gives vibes of a horror film. And on top of it, there is an entertaining dash of humor, too.
It is challenging to balance the narrative with so many tones, and yet, the potpourri of it astonishes you with its beauty and fascinating ambiguity. This is a terrific looking film, almost satanic that engrosses you in its story through immersive visuals and a rich, haunting score.
Even when you do not understand what is precisely happening – you remain fascinated through the perfect blend of hallucinatory sound and visuals. And it is hard to fully rave about its greatness without getting into the spoilers territory, which I won’t do.
Donnie Darko is a film many people STILL haven’t seen. Despite the general habit of cine lovers to journey across an actor’s entire filmography, in this case, Jake Gyllenhall, this film of his remains mostly unseen. The man has an excellent report card with a variety of performances in films such as Prisoners, Nightcrawler, Zodiac, Source Code, Brokeback Mountain, among several other movies.
Donnie Darko is one of his earlier ones. Before this, his popularity was limited to October Sky. This film took its time to blossom, for the 9/11 attacks ruined its theatrical run. Though, through the home release and eventually theatrical re-releases, later on, led it to become a cult classic. And ever since, it has been receiving incredible appreciation for Gyllenhaal’s work, for it was not an easy performance to pull off.
As a person with schizophrenia, Gyllenhaal personifies the character incredibly well. The first time you watch him in the film, you may feel unimpressed, particularly in the opening shots from the ridge to the conversation at the dinner table. His character smiles, curses, and winks abruptly, which makes him seem awkward. Once the plot begins to unfold, his seemingly stupid antics attributes something bigger and more relevant.
Major credit goes to the director for extracting such incredible work, but its Gyllenhaal, eventually, who successfully conveyed the right emotions.
A Remarkable Debut Film for a Writer-Director
Besides Gyllenhaal, the film scores, substantially, on developing each of the supporting characters with significant meat and relevance to the plot. And there are a lot of characters.
Upfront, there is Donnie’s family, which includes his mom and dad, and his two sisters (one elder, one younger). There are Donnie’s trash-talking school friends, with whom he would hang out most of the time. There is the weird girl, whom he finds attractive. There is a Chinese girl who finds him attractive. There are two bullies (one includes Seth Rogan in his acting debut), and a pretentious motivational speaker (played flawlessly by Patrick Swayze). Three school teachers – with contrasting characteristics. And finally, a crazy looking old-woman whom everyone calls Grandma Death (because she is 101-years old!).
Each of the characters mentioned above has high relevance to the story, which is quite extraordinary. As a writer myself, I understand how hard it can be to juggle a dozen unique characters, while also making their involvement in the plot meaningful. The film scores here substantially. You remember these characters for a long time, and its a huge compliment.
For instance, in the Netflix show Dark, which also contains many characters, one of my major gripes is that it sacrifices character development for its convoluted plot. Richard Kelly refrained from doing it. Each of the said characters is very well refined. We understand their intentions and motivations, which Kelly also uses for some fantastic humor.
There are two standout scenes – one of which is in an attitude class where the teacher asks Donnie to denote the emotion of a sentence in either fear or love. His answer summarises how it is impossible to choose merely between black and white. Life is much diverse than that. The teacher doesn’t accept his answer, and Donnie, hilariously, tells her to shove her philosophy up her butt.
When the school principal tells the same thing to Donnie’s parents, they, surprisingly, laugh at it. Instead of feeling worried about Donnie’s unorganized response, they appreciate his rebellious approach. The film has plenty of such bright moments that both serve the purpose of balancing intensity with humor but also sketching the characters for our best understanding.
Besides, the performances are uniformly excellent. Each of the actors plays their part well and feels convincing. Even the smallest roles leave a profound impact. And that has a lot to do with how Richard Kelly has penned the screenplay and helmed it.
The Film Maintains the Suspense Till the Last Minute
Donnie Darko has one of the most intricate plots to understand. The film isn’t a straightforward mystery, and it keeps you invested in comprehending the enigma.
The first time you see Donnie’s bunny rabbit friend Frank, you might think he is a ghost. However, as the story progresses and Donnie’s therapist reveals him being schizophrenic, you begin to feel if he maybe imagines all of it.
The film maintains the suspense till the end of the movie, and even when you understand the more substantial portion of the story, you will feel a massive urge to read an explanation of the plot. And that is what I think is the film’s only down point.
Those who watched the theatrical version of the film must have felt a lot more confused about the story. It is because the film is structured in a way for people to make out multiple explanations of what happens exactly. The director’s cut, which I am reviewing, and which I also saw first instead of the theatrical version, is more elaborative.
It primarily includes the text of its in-universe book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, which the theatrical version missed. It simplifies the understanding of the scientific elements of the story. Though explainers are still needed for deciphering the deeper implications, it is an overall better viewing experience. It would have been best for the film to have Kelly’s intended version than slicing the many crucial scenes.
Remains an Influential Film for Aspiring Filmmakers
The time Donnie Darko came out, it wasn’t the only transfixing film to astound the cine lovers. Fight Club, Memento, had recently happened. However, it was one of the few films that:
a) wasn’t a book adaptation,
b) wasn’t a byproduct of a blockbuster franchise based on a TV series or Anime, and
c) wasn’t a rip-off of a previously successful sci-fi film
To this day, Donnie Darko remains a wholly original and transcending film that is an inspiration to many aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers. It was, back then, too, an astonishing achievement for a debutant writer-director.
If you haven’t seen the film, I strongly recommend that you watch it. And ensure you watch the director’s cut of the film.
Rating: 5 / 5
Have you seen Donnie Darko? Were you able to interpret its story in the first viewing itself? Share your experience below in the comments section.