Donnie Darko (2001)
Be Afraid of the Dark

Directed by Richard Kelly

The Basic Plot

An interesting blend of supernatural thriller, time travel paradox, and teen angst Donnie Darko tells the story of emotionally disturbed sixteen year-old Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) living in suburban Middlesex, Virginia in 1988. In additional to the typical drama that goes hand in hand with teenage years, Donnie is trying to cope with visions of a six-foot tall demonic looking rabbit named Frank (James Duval), who has told him that the world will end in 28 days, sixteen hours, forty-two minutes and twelve seconds.  

The Analysis

Director/writer Richard Kelly’s screw-with-your-head Mobius strip of a plot may leave you scratching your head wondering what just happened, but chances are you won’t be disappointed in this first time director’s efforts. Kelly seamlessly weaves 1980s pop references through out the film including a superb soundtrack that incorporates such 80s standards as Notorious -- Duran Duran, Love will Tear us Apart -- Joy Division, Killing Moon -- Echo and the Bunnymen, and a haunting cover of Tears for Fears Mad World. Kelly succeeds and capturing the mood and tone of the late 1980s without once feeling false.

Although Donnie suffers from emotional problems, he possesses a clarity that allows him to see through much of the bullshit that adults try to pass off on teens. In a couple of memorable scenes Donnie challenges both his teachers and the faculty when they try to pass off new-age guru Jim Cunningham’s psycho-babble as easy answers to what ails troubled teens. Of course the adults view Donnie’s outbursts and disrespect of authority as further proof that he is a troubled teen.

The part of Donnie was original intended for actor Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore, Spun), but was instead given to Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky, The Good Girl) who turns in a fantastic performance.

While I don’t pretend to fully understand Richard Kelly’s concept of the “tangent universe” and what actually transpires in Donnie Darko, but I’m willing to give my two cents worth.

The following contains spoilers so reader beware:

Through out the course of the film Donnie pieces together Roberta Sparrow’s concept of time travel and realizes that a metal object such as airplane engine could be transported through time. Following the climatic scene at Roberta Sparrow’s house where Donnie confronts Frank, Donnie takes Gretchen and drives into the country to await the storm that causes the divergent time lines in the first place. In voice over we hear Gretchen’s comments “What if you can go back in time, and take away all those hours of pain and darkness and replace them with something better.” followed by a quick rewind of the events leading up to this point. While we don’t see if Donnie was actually transported back in time, we do go back to October 2nd, 1988 the date when Donnie first missed being crushed by the falling jet engine. This time around he is in his room laughing for no apparent reason before curling up to await his fate. It seems that he has come to the realization that in order for him to save Gretchen , his mother and sister as well as releasing Frank he must sacrifice himself.

So why did Frank lure him away from his fate in the first place? Personally, I think it was a reverse “It’s A Wonderful Life” moment and that instead of showing Donnie what the world would be like without him, Frank decides to show Donnie what the world could be like with him in it for the next 28 days. Instead of an angel, Frank or more appropriately Frank’s ghost is Donnie’s guide during the next 28 days, showing him some of the wonders of life such as Gretchen (Jena Malone) and some of the horrors Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) and his secret room.

To Richard Kelly’s credit I think Donnie Darko works best as a film that captures the essence of what it is like to be a teenage growing up and trying to cope with the emotional and physical changes that make you feel like a freak most of the time. As for the time travel aspects of the film while they add an interesting twist to the story they aren’t fully realized enough to stand up to intense scrutiny that time travel films demand.

While Donnie Darko has found a wide following upon its video release, it’s unfortunate that it was not given a proper theatrical release in the first place. The film initial debuted at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival in January of that year to great reviews. Unfortunately the tragic events of September 11, 2001 caused the film industry to shy away from distributing and producing films with content that might seem insensitive or objectionable such as an airplane falling from the sky.

We will hopefully see bigger and better things from Richard Kelly in the future. At present he is busy at work on a film called Knowing that also deals with time travel. This plot summary for Knowing is courtesy of the Internet Movie Database:

A water main breaks, resulting in repair crews unearthing an elementary school's time capsule. But when the chairman of the town's historical society opens the capsule, he finds more than he bargained for. Full of children's drawings, the sketches are predictions of the future. But one child's pictures are much more than ridiculous future worlds. Each sketch accurately predicts some of the greatest tragedies from the past forty years. Only one of the drawings has yet to come true. In a race against time, the chairman sets out to prevent the last drawing from becoming a reality.


Related Links:

Official Donnie Darko Website
This is an intriguing site that uses Macromedia Flash to good use. Some nifty extras here like a telephone conversation about the missing jet engine.

Internet Movie Database
This is the Internet Movie Database entry for Donnie Darko includes cast list, memorable quotes, trivia, and soundtrack listings.

Donnie Darko Info at Official Patrick Swayze International Fan Club
In addition to some comments on the film and Patrick Swayze's role as Jim Cunningham, there is also an alternate poster for the film

Review Posted: 2003-08-11

Return to Time Travel Movie Review Index

Return to Andy's Anachronisms Home