What the Hell Is 'Donnie Darko' About, Anyway?
Over Zoom, I ask the writer and director Richard Kelly if he’s aware of Phoebe Bridgers. The cover art for her groundbreaking album, Punisher, features the musician wearing a Halloween-esque skeleton costume in the California desert, her neck craned towards the sky. The look is partly a reference to Donnie Darko, Kelly’s debut feature. In the music video for Bridgers’ single “I Know the End,” she even accents the jumpsuit with a grey zip-up sweatshirt, just like the one Jake Gyllenhaal, playing the film’s titular character, wore in the movie’s climax.
“I know of Phoebe Bridgers. I hadn’t seen her wearing that costume, but I think that’s great,” Kelly says. “When I wrote that costume into the screenplay, I never thought it would ever become anything iconic because to me it was just a simple idea — one of those costumes that you buy at Kmart or something.”
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Released wide on October 26th, 2001, Donnie Darko tells the story of a troubled teenager named Donnie who’s prone to bouts of depression, as well as the occasional late-night sleepwalking session. After being compelled to wander the streets by a scary-looking guy in a rabbit costume named Frank, our protagonist discovers that he alone holds the keys for preventing the apocalypse — or something like that.
The movie is more fever-dream than coherent narrative. Its plot feels like having the pieces from a dozen separate puzzles dumped over your head at once. Bits of ideas click together, and just as easily unclasp, latching onto the next floating fragmentation. It’s one of those movies that you can dissect for 20 years and get absolutely nowhere in terms of understanding. Which is to say it is a singular cinematic achievement.
Jake Gyllenhaal and director Richard Kelly, on set, 2001.
© Newmarket Releasing/Everett Collection
By now, watching Donnie Darko is like a rite of passage for young people everywhere. It’s up there with discovering bands like Radiohead, or rappers like Odd Future, as formative adolescent experiences. It offers a vessel for a specific kind of teenage anxiety. For millennials, and more urgently for Gen Z, there’s a keen awareness that the world might end at a moment’s notice — that there’s something deeply unstable about the prevailing status quo. The generation born into a fraught promise of social mobility can find some element of the movie to graft their own feelings onto. “I’m grateful that it has connected with a younger generation,” Kelly says.
Tasked with saving the planet, the film’s melancholy protagonist represents both a fantasy and a nightmare for the ascendant generation. Two decades before the commentariat would diagnose them with “Main Character Syndrome,” Donnie Darko offers a sci-fi dreamscape in which its hero, like so many of us, seems to be the only person who understands how truly fucked the world is. “When we premiered the film at Sundance, it was right in the shadow of Bush’s inauguration after that deeply contested election,” Kelly recalls. “So here we were making a film about 1988, set during the election of George H.W. Bush, in the shadow of the election of his son.”
Early on in the film, before Donnie meets Frank, we’re introduced to his character’s family, the Darkos. There are Donnie’s parents, Eddie and Rose, played by Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell; his older sister Elizabeth, played by Jake Gyllenhaal’s real-life big sister Maggie Gyllenhaal; and his little sister Samantha, played by Daveigh Chase. In one of the film’s best-known scenes, the family sits down for a tense dinner. Elizabeth expresses her plans to vote for Michael Dukakis in the upcoming election. The family’s patriarch, of course, disapproves. As often happens with brothers and sisters, Donnie and Elizabeth start arguing about something off-topic.
“You can go suck a fuck. Donnie,” his older sister quips before Donnie returns fire: “Oh, please, tell me, Elizabeth, how exactly does one suck a fuck?”
Donnie Darko lands a number of these kinds of genuinely funny moments throughout. There’s a baby-faced Seth Rogen wreaking havoc at Donnie’s high school. A pitch-perfect send-up of beauty pageant culture in Donnie’s little sister and her dance troupe “Sparkle Motion,” not to mention Beth Grant’s brilliant portrayal of an Eighties suburbanite who’s eager to drink from the Kool-Aid of self-help. The film does as good a job as anything that has come since at rendering a specific kind of suburban malaise for what it really is.
“It’s sort of this dream world where you’re not really sure where it takes place,” Kelly says. “But the suburbs are the suburbs, they’re different all across America, but they’re also kind of the same. So maybe we were tapping into something more universal in terms of the experience.”
Kelly himself grew up in the suburbs of Virginia, says he was very much writing from his own experience as an adolescent. Almost cosmically, Donnie Darko was filmed in the Los Angeles suburb of Virginia Country Club, “a very affluent neighborhood that sort of resembles Virginia,” according to Kelly.
The film’s latent anxieties about an increasingly narcissistic culture come through in Donnie’s progressively risky tasks. In order to prevent the apocalypse, Frank instructs him to flood his school, setting off an attempt at censoring the books taught in the school’s English class. He sets a fire at a wellness guru’s home, revealing a stash of child pornography. While decidedly rooted in science fiction — the film’s plot is propelled by a jet engine falling through some kind of wormhole — Donnie Darko’s political sensibility endures.
“You think about kids in beauty pageants, and beauty-pageant culture, and competitive cheerleading,” Kelly explains, referring to the Sparkle Motion subplot in the film. “The way that has evolved into Instagram branding and influencer culture. It’s an evolution of those things that have always been there, but now it’s evolved with technology.”
Donnie Darko was also one of a handful of films delayed following the September 11th terrorist attacks. “And then all of a sudden, in the shadow of this catastrophe, we had to try to figure out how to keep talking about it and promote this film,” Kelly remembers. “I think the distributor probably would’ve yanked it and just tossed it straight to home video or something, but I think they had already booked the theaters and the checks had already cleared.”
It’d be British audiences that’d revive the film a year later. Thanks in part to its tastefully curated soundtrack (Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears hit ”Mad World,” would reach the top 10 on U.K. charts) and a director’s cut that began playing midnight screenings in 2004, Donnie Darko would become a bonda fide cult classic. It would continue to warp the sensibilities of teenagers who discovered it on DVD.
For his part, Kelly seems to have a knack for reading where the culture is heading. “When we made this film, we were only looking back 12 years. So if you do the math on that, it would be like today you’re making a movie about 2009,” the director says. “And it seems like even just in terms of culture and technology, things haven’t really changed much in the past 12 years.”
Now, Kelly says, “there’s cameras everywhere. Everyone is recording everything about their lives and posting it online. We’re in this global surveillance state that’s just an avalanche of visual information. So, I think the further you go back into the past, it just feels much more sparsely populated.”
In conversation, Kelly is careful not to reveal too much. But it sure sounds like he’s planning on revisiting the Donnie Darko universe, an alluring proposition in the age of streaming. “There’s so much information in Donnie Darko, I’ve been processing it for two decades,” he says. “But I think really in the past five years or so, since Trump was elected, I’ve been really digging into it and working to see what the bigger world of the film could look like.”
In addition to its tantalizingly unattainable plot and subdued political rage, Donnie Darko’s ending remains one of the more iconic scenes in teen cinema. The film’s final moments tease coherence but refuse submission to logic. Was it all a dream? Maybe. Except, how do we explain that final moment with Donnie’s mother? And, what’s the deal with Grandma Death?
The Halloween party that sets off the movie’s final action, and that inspired Phoebe Bridgers’ visuals, is a feast of aesthetic references. Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” plays as Donnie and his love interest, Gretchen Ross (played by Jena Malone), having just slept together for the first time, descend from his family’s staircase in slow motion. Here, rote high school movie tropes are recast with more dynamic and tasteful compositions. The film predates Tumblr by almost a decade but is undoubtedly responsible for much of the aesthetic culture it fostered online.
Still, what the hell is Donnie Darko actually about?
“I look at the events in the film as a story of divine and supernatural intervention, where a select group of characters happen to be living in the proximity of this science fiction event,” Kelly says.
Okay, got it. That much is clear. But does Donnie really die at the end?
“I don’t want to spoil too much, but there is a lot more to this story if you look at it both through a prism of science fiction and the logical reaction to the events presented,” Kelly says. “That is not to take away any interpretation that people have of the film, which I think is valid because the way it’s engineered, you can have any interpretation you want of the first 90% of the movie.”
Yep, totally. So … where is Donnie?
“In my mind,” the filmmaker replies, “the last 10 percent of the movie is the reality of what carries forward. But there’s plenty more to discuss.”
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