When people learn I have a film degree, the first thing they inevitably ask about is my favorite movie. I usually tell people that Donnie Darko gets top billing although most have heard of it but haven't seen it. The cult status of Donnie Darko has given the movie a well-deserved allure; everyone knows something vague about it. My dad referred to it as "that jet engine movie" until he finally saw it, while one of my friends once asked "that's the one with all the demonic rabbits right?" The truth is that Donnie Darko is a film from a remarkable first-time writer/director that stands the test of time and is a refreshing departure from the movies that Hollywood consistently churns out for profit.
I first saw Donnie Darko in 8th grade, three years after its release in 2001. Jake Gyllenhaal had become my obsession after seeing October Sky and The Day After Tomorrow (I was a certified Gyllenhaallic thanks to the glorious interwebs) and I begged my parents to let me rent the R-rated movie over and over without ever getting a yes. However, when you end up in the hospital with both Lyme Disease and West Nile Virus, I guess parents get a little more lenient about what you can and can't watch (shoutout to the Harlem and Diversey Hollywood Video). I have since seen the film more times then I would even try to count. After all this time, this movie has become a comfort to me. Something I can still rely on to surprise me. Here are my thoughts:
Reading on contains spoilers and my personal analysis that has developed over 11 years of viewings.
Original or Director's Cut
This is the quintessential question. The Director's Cut was released in 2004 and gave new life to the original movie thanks to the Cut being shown in theaters. I appreciate the Director's Cut for what it is, but I 100% prefer the original. Anyone who is pulling their first viewing should watch the original. The Director's Cut is roughly 20 mins longer and leaves less to the imagination, splitting the movie into sections with title cards that give away too much. The original is more ambiguous and leaves the movie more open to serious thinking afterwards. Some key parts of the soundtrack were changed with the Director's Cut as well. After watching the original so many times, it's still pretty jarring when the opening song goes from Echo & the Bunnymen to INXS.
I have always seen the key theme of Donnie Darko as religion vs. science. It's a dichotomy that makes its way into multiple parts of the film. The conversation between Donnie and his science teacher begins as a study on time travel that gets derailed as Donnie talks about predetermined destiny via a higher being. We see Donnie speaking to his therapist, a doctor and a woman of science as she asks him if he believes in God. Donnie's confusion mimics our own as the viewer and we are brought along for the ride as he tries to seek the answer to the universal question of the existence of a higher power.
Donnie: Oh, I don't know. I mean, I'd like to believe I'm not, but I just... I've just never seen any proof, so I... I just don't debate it anymore, you know? It's like I could spend my whole life debating it over and over again, weighing the pros and cons. And in the end, I still wouldn't have any proof. So I just... I just don't debate it anymore. It's absurd.
Dr. Lillian Thurman: The search for God is absurd?
Donnie: It is if everyone dies alone.
In the end, we are left to answer that question ourselves in the way we interpret the film. Do we see the entire chain of events as a vision or hallucination Donnie has in his last moments before death in the beginning of the film? Science. Do we believe he actually traveled through a wormhole in order to save the world? Science. Do we see Frank as an omniscient religious being who leads Donnie to save the world from the Antichrist (which is how Donnie refers to Patrick Swayze's character)? Religion. Religious overtones are peppered often throughout the screenplay. Words like "creation" and the theatre showing The Last Temptation of Christ (more about that below) show that religion plays a very important role. All outcomes are plausible, but it depends how you interpret it personally.
The Movie Theatre Scene
Arguably my favorite film scene of all time, this haunting part of the film reveals so much, foreshadows upcoming events, and literally propels the film forward. It's in this scene that the true identity of Frank is revealed; the man behind the literal mask, but not before Frank asks Donnie "Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?". This simple retort can be interpreted as revealing that Donnie really is a special being, hiding behind the guise of a teenager so he can walk among those he is destined to save. We then see Frank's true face, a gunshot in his eye foreshadowing what's to come. In the original cut, Donnie asks what happened to his eye and Frank replies "I'm so sorry" referencing the death of Gretchen who although lies asleep between them, is actually dead at this point (deeper analysis of the movie inevitably reveals time gaps and loops in the plot). The whole act of Donnie watching the film screen harkens back to film theorist Tom Gunning's theory of the Cinema of Attractions. With this theory, Gunning explains that in the earliest years of film specifically with an early short film of a locomotive racing towards the screen, people were thrilled that a resemblance of such an object could be on the screen in front of them:
"The first audiences were naive, encountering this threatening and rampant image with no defenses, with no tradition by which to understand it. [The moving image] reduced them to a state usually attributed to savages."
Donnie himself is living this out in this particular scene. He is finally on the path to getting answers, all of which are opening a world that is completely new to him. While this is happening, he is the naive spectator of the film in front of him except instead of a train coming towards him, a portal opens before his eyes. It's this portal that turns him savage, as he sets Jim Cunningham's house on fire and as the images we once thought were hallucinations become real:
"The image had taken life, swallowing, in its relentless force, any consideration of representation - the imaginary perceived as real."
A New Form of Teen Drama
For all intensive purposes, Donnie Darko is a teen drama. The opening scene takes us through the picturesque town of Middlesex where everything is well-kept and in it's place. Much like the John Hughes films of the 80's, Donnie lives in a beautiful house complete with spiral staircase, chandelier and large backyard that reflect the lives of upper-middle class society. Throughout the film, Donnie is plagued by conventional teen issues: bullying, first loves, struggling with classes and trying to find his place in the world. However, the film rises above the stereotypical teen dramas starring Emilio Estevez and Molly Ringwald. At one point in the film, Gretchen equates Donnie's name to that of a super hero. Donnie's response: "What makes you think I'm not?" The alliteration alone of Donnie's name suggests he has other-worldy abilities (think comic book characters Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Jessica Jones, Reed Richards, Sue Storm, etc.) and most teens live with a sense of complete invincibility, not realizing the consequences of their actions. By embodying this way of teen thinking in a tangible way, Donnie rises above the male protagonists of other teen narratives. The power teens think they have is the power Donnie actually has. The trivial problems that most kids see as being the end of the world, could in fact lead to the end of the world for Donnie.
The Open Ending
Stereotypical Hollywood tends to shy away from movies with open endings. The twist ending was perfected with Fight Club, Se7en and The Usual Suspects to such a point that movies that should have open endings are given a twist that answers every question. Apparently the American masses need closure. My best example of where this failed in recent years is Shutter Island; a twist ending so obvious that it wasn't even a twist. Leaving the ending ambiguous would have allowed for a much more successful ending as audiences were left to speculate instead of be hit over the head by something so obvious and unoriginal. Shoutout to the indie films that believe in letting audiences do some thinking. Goodnight Mommy is a great and recent example of a movie with a twist ending that is STILL left open ended.
Discovering New Things a Decade Later
I think this aspect is what makes Donnie Darko so powerful and so timeless. Small things you wouldn't normally think twice about suddenly come to life with another meaning. For example, I was hit with another realization as I rewatched the film a couple weeks ago: the awkward wave between Donnie's mom and Gretchen. This takes place at the end of the film when the plot goes back in time before they were ever in each other's lives. I never really thought twice about this, just shrugging it off as simple gesture of kindness but these are the two people in Donnie's life he cared most for and connected with the most. By sacrificing himself, he was able to save these two characters tying them together with an unknown and unseen bond. I haven't been able to accomplish this feat of random epiphanies over the long term with any other movie. The only one that would come close is 2001. Proof that this little cult film has powerful resonance.
Quotes taken from Tom Gunning's "An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator"
Donnie Darko Theatrical Trailer: