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Should I Watch..? Donnie Darko

Updated on June 7, 2018
Benjamin Cox profile image

Benjamin is a full-time carer and former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films for over ten years.

Poster for "Donnie Darko" - director's cut
Poster for "Donnie Darko" - director's cut | Source

What's the big deal?

Donnie Darko is an off-beat sci-fi drama released in 2001 and was written and directed by Richard Kelly. Made on a shoestring budget of less than $5 million, the film boasts an impressive ensemble cast including Jake Gyllenhaal with his sister Maggie, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle and Jena Malone. The film concerns the title character who must uncover the meaning and significance of his foreboding visions and his disturbing imaginary friend Frank, a tall man in a scary rabbit suit. Despite minimal success at the box office, the film received critical acclaim when it was first released and quickly developed a cult following. This led to a director's cut of the film being released on DVD in 2004. It also led to a poorly received sequel, S. Darko, in 2009 but Kelly had no involvement in this at all as he doesn't own the rights to the original, which flies straight into my Hall Of Fame.

Unmissable

5 stars for Donnie Darko

What's it about?

On October 2nd 1988, troubled teenager Donnie is woken up and led outside by a figure in a horrifying rabbit costume calling himself Frank who tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Disturbed by what Frank tells him, Donnie returns home at dawn to find that an engine from a jet plane has crashed into his bedroom - one that the FAA investigators cannot fathom where it came from. Over time, Donnie has more visions of Frank and slowly starts to fall under his influence. After following Frank's orders to flood his school, Donnie shares his experiences with the school's psychotherapist Dr. Thurman.

Following advice from Frank regarding the nature of time travel, Donnie speaks to his science teacher Dr. Monnitoff who shows Donnie a book called "The Philosophy Of Time Travel" by Roberta Sparrow. It theorises that time travel is possible when there is a disruption in the Prime Universe, creating an alternative Tangent Universe which can only exist for a few weeks before collapsing and destroying the Prime Universe. Realising that Frank's warnings about the end of the world are true, Donnie realises that only he can save everyone. But how?

Trailer

Main Cast

Actor
Role
Jake Gyllenhaal
Donnie Darko
Jena Malone
Gretchen Ross
Mary McDonnell
Rose Darko
Holmes Osbourne
Eddie Darko
Maggie Gyllenhaal
Elizabeth Darko
Katherine Ross
Dr. Lilian Thurman
Drew Barrymore
Karen Pomeroy
Patrick Swayze
Jim Cunningham
Noah Wyle
Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff

Technical Info

Director
Richard Kelly
Screenplay
Richard Kelly
Running Time
113 minutes
Release Date (UK)
25th October, 2002
Genre
Drama, Sci-Fi
Frank's unsettling image has a lasting effect, prompting the film's many mind games with its audience
Frank's unsettling image has a lasting effect, prompting the film's many mind games with its audience | Source

What's to like?

Anyone who is fed up of endless action movies, vapid comedies involving bodily functions and erotic dramas about as titillating as a used teabag can consider this a joyous escape from Hollywood's predictable drudgery. At long last, here is a film that demands your attention and respect as Kelly takes us on a difficult and thought-provoking journey. The film inhabits a strange nether-region of reality that invokes a dream-like atmosphere perfectly suited to the bizarre nature of the story. And the screenplay is sheer brilliance, hiding the secrets in plain sight to allow the viewer a chance to grasp what's actually going on but not so much that you come away with all the answers.

Aside from the wonderful soundtrack, the cast also help to reinforce the film's nightmarish vibe. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a performance that belies his age, alternating from normal teenager to the very incarnate of evil with a mere flash of his eyes. Alongside more experienced stars like Swayze and Barrymore, he easily holds the film together. They all help to make the film oddly believable which makes the frequent mind games that Kelly plays with us all the more troubling. Once you make Frank's acquaintance, you think that you see him everywhere from patterns of wallpaper to the shadows in the autumn trees. This is a film of real class, quality and intelligence.

Fun Facts

  • At the film's wrap party, both Jake Gyllenhaal and Seth Rogen agreed that they hadn't a clue what the film was about. Donnie Darko is actually Rogen's debut feature film.
  • The film had a limited theatrical release after the September 11th attacks, grossing just over $517'000 in the US. However, the final takings were around the $7.5 million mark after international box offices were included.
  • The soundtrack contains the piano-driven cover of Mad World by Gary Jules and composer Michael Andrews. Originally by 80's group Tears For Fears, this new slower version topped the charts in the UK and Portugal.

What's not to like?

One break in your concentration can prove devastating to your understanding of Donnie Darko which spends not nearly enough time explaining itself. Don't get me wrong, it's nice not to have a movie patronising its audience but you honestly need to focus on everything on screen. Of course, watching it again always helps...

The only things I can really criticise are some slightly dodgy CG effects (not surprising given the film's microscopic budget) and the ending which felt a tad unsatisfactory to me. The film has a suitably apocalyptic feel to it, especially during the Mad World sequence when the pieces of the puzzle start falling into place. Make no mistake, this is a film for people who want to think. If you go into this expecting some sort of troubled-teen-slasher movie then a) you weren't paying attention to the trailer above and b) this isn't your sort of film anyway. Donnie Darko is a deliberately dark and powerful picture that plays with your mind and threatens to throw you off-course at any moment. Stick with it and you'll be rewarded.

As well as appearing in the film, Barrymore's production company helped to produce the movie
As well as appearing in the film, Barrymore's production company helped to produce the movie | Source

Should I watch it?

Forget about all of those crass teen comedies, this is how a teen movie should feel like. Wonderfully performed, brilliantly written, utterly bewildering and shot with a real flair, Donnie Darko is a film where everyone is on top form. Don't worry if you don't get it first time around - like a good book, the film deserves multiple revisits and chances are, you'll spot something new each time or at the very least look at things in a new way. Thoroughly recommended.

Great For: confusing people, sparking debate, intelligent viewers bored of the norm

Not So Great For: action fans, anyone looking for an easy film to watch, fans of reality TV

What else should I watch?

Time travel is a staple of science fiction and has been since the days of H.G. Wells. But few cover the topic in quite the same way as this film does. For good old fashioned time machines, they pop up in everything from Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Even the crew of the Enterprise have travelled through time too often - the original crew did it in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home while the Next Gen team pulled the same trick in Star Trek: First Contact.

Other films look at the subject somewhat differently. The excellent Groundhog Day features a typically brilliant Bill Murray reliving the same day over and over again but still finds time to ask the audience philosophical questions while he's doing it. Even Gyllenhaal can't escape from the theme of time-travel when he starred in the surprisingly entertaining Source Code in which he plays a man in a train who keeps reliving the last eight minutes of his life and must prevent a bomb from killing everyone on board.

© 2015 Benjamin Cox

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