Why it’s famous
Writer and director Richard Kelly’s first feature film, Donnie Darko, tops lists all over the entertainment industry as one of the best films of all time. Empire calls it the third-best independent film ever, behind Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and also places it among the ranks of the world’s 100 best films.
It is a revolutionary twist on dark fantasy, mixing science fiction with psychological horror in a way that would inspire future mind-bending films like Christopher Nolan’s 2010 masterpiece Inception. Considered Jake Gyllenhaal’s breakthrough performance, Donnie Darko is a cult classic laced with doomsday humour, time travel, thought-provoking commentary on the butterfly effect each person has on every other, and, of course, a cliffhanger final scene that puts Nolan’s spinning top to shame.
Why you haven’t seen it
Donnie Darko is an independent film that was the product of a first-time director, so it certainly wasn’t a blockbuster. Besides that, it premiered at Sundance in the fall of 2001, barely a month after the 9/11 attacks, causing the plane crash that jumpstarts the plot to be considered sensitive material. As a result, the film received little marketing and achieved only modest box office success, grossing $7.5 million.
The film isn’t shy on controversy. It tackles issues as shocking and diverse as mental illness, suicide, murder, sexual perversion, and domestic abuse. It’s definitely not a light-hearted-Saturday-movie-night type of flick.
And of course, there is Frank, the undead rabbit-man who haunts title character Donnie’s dreams and travels through time and consciousness to antagonize Donnie throughout the film.
Why it might be tough to get through
Admittedly, the time travel makes the plot a little difficult to follow at times. Until the end of the film, much of the plot is confusing and the passage of time can be hard to discern. Everything from the plane crash at the beginning of the film onward, including the crimes Donnie commits and the people he meets, may seem abstract and out-of-place unless you stick through the film.
Even then, although issues of chronology are solved, you may be left with more questions than answers.
Furthermore, the film explores at depth concepts of God and destiny, and often diverges from popular opinion or religious tradition. It’s not a film for the easily disturbed, easily confused, or easily offended.
Why you should see it anyway
Donnie Darko is a revolutionary piece of cinema and its influence can be found throughout the entertainment industry today. It also launched the career of 21-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal, now a Hollywood A-lister, and features a teenage Seth Rogan in his first feature film.
The screenplay is a masterful example of a psychological thriller — the capability of Kelly to create such a complex plot and tie it together neatly and maintain suspense even at the film’s close is astounding.
The themes explored in Donnie Darko are disturbing, fascinating, and timeless. The ideas of human consciousness, mortality, determinism, fate, and religion continue to resonate with audiences today, and are likely to continue to do so for a long time to come. Donnie Darko may be described as a “cult classic,” but it will likely be remembered by independent film critics as a classic, period — no cult necessary.
Donnie: Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?
Frank: Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?
Gretchen: “Donnie Darko.” What the hell kind of name is that? It’s like some sort of superhero or something.
Donnie: What makes you think I’m not?
Dr. Lilian Thurman: Donnie, what did Roberta Sparrow say to you?
Donnie: She said that every living creature on Earth dies alone.
According to IMDb, neither Seth Rogen nor Jake Gyllenhaal ever really understood what the movie was about.
When Kelly directed the film, he was a 26-year-old film school graduate with only two short student films under his belt.
Kelly has said that the giant rabbit was inspired by Watership Down, a novel about warring rabbit warrens. A subplot involving the book was cut from the film.