“Donnie Darko” (2001): Enigmatic & Slyly Funny Existential Classic

Donnie Darko

Groovy Gory Gruesome Gold

When it comes down to it, life and death can be quite funny, enigmatic, and hard to classify. The same can be said for writer/director Richard Kelly’s existential comedy, mystery, science fiction thriller Donnie Darko (2001). A teenage boy begins having disturbing visions, including ones of a six-foot skull-faced rabbit that tells him that the world is ending soon. Are these simply hallucinations brought on by improper medication, signs of a mental breakdown, or is something potentially apocalyptic truly happening? The film covers serious themes including the nature of life, death, loneliness, god, and destiny. This does not mean that Donnie Darko is a glum affair. On the contrary, the movie has a sly humor, giving it the air of a slice-of-life comedy. Ultimately, the film’s strongest appeal comes from its enigmatic nature, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions as the meaning and significance of the events depicted.

Donnie Darko - Countdown
28 Day, 6 Hours, 42 Minutes, 12 Seconds

It is the beginning of October 1988 and Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a fairly typical angsty teenage boy. He does not always get along with his parents (Holmes Osborne as his father Eddie and Mary McDonnell as his mother Rose), verbally spars with his older sister Elizabeth (Jake’s real-life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal), and teases his little sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase). Donnie is on some medication prescribed by his therapist (Katharine Ross), but he has recently stopped taking it. On the night of October 2, he awakens and is called outside. There he meets Frank (James Duval), a guy in a creepy (and iconic) bunny suit with a skull-like mask. Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. While Donnie is outside talking with Frank, a giant jet engine drops out of the sky, through the roof, and onto Donnie’s bed. The odd thing is, when agents from the FAA come by to investigate, they cannot figure out from where the engine came. While Donnie has to deal with typical teenage distractions such as a new girlfriend (Jena Malone), random (not-so-random?) vandalism, class bullies (Seth Rogen and Alex Greenwald), existential musing, strange neighbors (Patience Cleveland), and high school parties, he also has to come to terms with Frank’s prophecy. Over the next 28 days, Donnie ponders the contents of a mysterious book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, and has increasingly bizarre visions, more creepy encounters with Frank (whom nobody else can see), and occasional blackouts. Is the world truly in danger and are all of these odd events cosmically connected, or is Donnie simply losing his grip on reality?

Donnie Darko - Grandma Death
Grandma Death (Patience Cleveland) explains to Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) that “every living creature dies alone”.

It is often in one’s teenage years that one first begins to ponder the big questions, including the meaning of life, death, and more. Donnie Darko explores these themes through the odd circumstance encountered by its eponymous main character. It is easy to see how narrowly missing “death by being crushed in one’s own bed” can trigger an existential crisis in anyone, especially a teenager. Frank’s appearance is iconic, with his tattered bunny suit and very creepy skull-like mask, and it is a modern memento mori, being a recurring reminder to both Donnie and the audience that death is potentially looming. Another key character is Donnie’s older neighbor to whom the teens actually refer to as Grandma Death (Patience Cleveland). While she seems like a minor character at first, she rather significantly ties into events later in the story. Grandma Death, living alone and possibly with dementia, brings up another key and related theme, that of loneliness. Donnie, like many people, is afraid of being alone. When he is told that “every living creature dies alone,” it understandably disturbs him quite a bit. This fear of loneliness is possibly one of the reasons he reaches out and starts a relationship with the new girl in town, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). Frank’s prophecy of impending doom and the book The Philosophy of Time Travel also lead Donnie to ponder the nature of god and destiny, and whether or not either of those exists.

Donnie Darko - knife
Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) tests the barrier that apparently is between himself and Frank (James Duval).

For all of the weighty topics covered in Donnie Darko, it is not a dour or depressing film. Instead, it is suffused with a sly humor. Much of it feels like a slice-of-life comedy, covering the quirky world as experienced by Donnie and his teenage cohorts. At one point, Donnie and his friends are hanging out in a  field, just chatting as teenagers do. They end up with a sincere discussion of the sexual life of Smurfs. The humor is understated and feels natural to the situations and characters. The movie also is eminently quotable, though out of context, the lines themselves do not come across a humorous as they actually are. “Sometimes, I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion,” is not inherently funny, but there probably is not a fan of the film who does not get a good chuckle from hearing it. The humor holds up and is enhanced by repeated viewings. In the end, there is a really nice balance between the light nature of the humorous elements and the potentially heavy themes of the film.

Donnie Darko - Sparkle Motion
Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant) tells Rose Darko (Mary MacDonnell), “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.”

If most people were asked to use one word to describe Donnie Darko, they would probably pick a variation on “mysterious.” The enigmatic and ambiguous nature of the film is one of its most appealing elements. On first viewing, it is even unclear if the events Donnie is seeing and experiencing are real or hallucinations brought on by his medication and/or mental state. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie in such a way that he could be considered “dark, menacing, and creepy” or “depressed, sympathetic, and angst-ridden”. It is not until the end of the film that it becomes somewhat clearer as to the nature of Donnie and what is going on. though much of the mystery still remains. Even after the first viewing, the whys and wherefores of the story are not entirely clear, allowing for interpretation by the audience. The 2004 director’s cut adds scenes and text that explicitly point out what exactly is going on. This robs the story of its ambiguity and its power. There will be some fans who may enjoy having this spelled out for them, though most will find it lessens the film. Sometimes, it is better to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain and just enjoy the mystery of it all.

Donnie Darko - Frank
Frank (James Duval)

Donnie Darko may be hard to classify, but it is well worth watching. Existential without being pretentious, it explores themes such as the meaning of life, death, loneliness, god, and destiny. The more serious aspects of the story are balanced by its smart and understated sense of humor. While the original theatrical cut is wonderfully cryptic and ambiguous, most fans may want to avoid the 2004 director’s cut, which robs the films of some of its mystery. Enigmatic and genuinely thought-provoking, Donnie Darko sticks with its audience long after it is over.

Donnie Darko (2001) 4.8 out of 5 stars (4.8 / 5)

Donnie Darko - Poster
Poster for Donnie Darko

Paul Cardullo
Paul Cardullo is a North Carolina indy filmmaker and horror fan. His tastes range from art-house horror to low-budget schlock to indie gems to Slovenia killer hillbilly flicks. When not watching films, he helps make them. From actor to boom operator to doughnut wrangler, he makes himself useful wherever he can. Paul believes it is sometimes necessary to suffer for one’s art. He has endured being covered in [censored], having [censored] thrown at him, and spending over a year with muttonchops and a 70’s-style mustache. When not being abused for the sake of his craft, Paul works on computers and watches as many obscure (and not so obscure) movies as he can fit in.