Donnie Darko (2001)

Darko and Brilliant
Darko and Brilliant


Genre: Drama Mystery Sci-Fi

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain • Zodiac), Jena Malone (Life as a House •  Into the Wild)

Directed By: Richard Kelly (Southland TalesThe Box)

Overview: A troubled teenager is plagued by visions of a large bunny rabbit that manipulates him to commit a series of crimes, after narrowly escaping a bizarre accident. -IMDb

I'm going to commend my source for the Overview above, since IMDb was so perfectly able to put into one sentence every important plot aspect of Donnie Darko, and a perfectly wonderful and succinctly spoiler-free teaser it is. Of course, as all great films, it's also completely inaccurate, with so many lines to read between that all the things described above are, of course, the least important events of the phenomenal film that is Donnie Darko.


As the tagline (Dark. Darker. Darko.) suggests, Donnie is a troubled teen, and not in that middle-class-ennui-at-not-having-the-latest-iPhone way. Donnie is less Emo and more Medicated-Schizophrenic-Sleepwalking-Hallucination troubled. He sees a psychiatrist, he fights with his siblings, and one night while out sleepwalking, a jet engine crashes into his bedroom. From that point things start getting a little weird. Donnie makes a new imaginary friend named Frank. Frank is a pretty scary bunny the size of a man that speaks to Donnie and guides him in vandalism and other crimes, crimes that cause a ruckus in the school faculty, but also have ironically poetic/poetically ironic consequences. We follow the story of a twisted boy as he tries to get through October, including sharing moments with a new girlfriend, the aforementioned evil bunny, sharing rows and insight with his teachers, and a strange old lady who lives down the street nicknamed Grandma Death who, in a weird roundabout way, turns him onto learning more about time travel, of all things.


She's crazy. Crazy like a TIME TRAVELLER!
She's crazy. Crazy like a TIME TRAVELLER!

Dr. Lilian Thurman: Do you feel alone right now?
Oh, I dunno. 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. Lilian Thurman:
The search for God is absurd?
It is if everyone dies alone.


Now, rather than being a haunting thriller about a teen's angst-riddled descent into/ascent from madness, an interesting enough plot already, Donnie Darko is a film far more profound and with many great twists. Discussions on Death and God add an element of the existential, a depth that was unnecessarily wonderful. Most notable, however, is the exploration of the theme of mental health, the best storyline Donnie Darko has to offer. Going deeper than stability and instability, perversion and purity, Godlessness and zeal, Donnie Darko explores characters that are juxtaposed between philosopher kings and emotional retards, as illustrated by the cheesy, vacuous self-help video-swill the faculty teaches their suburban children.


Donnie: [shouts] First of all, Papa Smurf didn't create Smurfette. Gargamel did. She was sent in as Gargamel's evil spy with the intention of destroying the Smurf village. But the overwhelming goodness of the Smurf way of life transformed her. And as for the whole gang-bang scenario, it just couldn't happen. Smurfs are asexual. They don't even have... reproductive organs under those little, white pants. It's just so illogical, you know, about being a Smurf. You know, what's the point of living... if you don't have a dick?
Ronald Fisher: [pause] Dammit, Donnie. Why you gotta get all smart on us?


Of course it’s not all deep. Most of the script is delivered in such a hilarious fashion that I’m surprised that Donnie Darko isn’t also billed partly as a Comedy. The soundtrack is memorable, each song chosen with meticulous care.  Beautifully shot with a Hell of a brilliant ending, Donnie Darko lives in the best of both cinematic worlds - incredibly successful at the box office and still a cult classic, and not surprisingly sitting at #146 on IMDb’s top 250. Proven fun and straight-forward enough to appeal to the masses while still having enough cinephile-savvy moments of genuine genius in the writing, cinematography, fantasy and in loveable and despicable characters, Donnie Darko is a nearly perfect film, and certainly one I regretted not revisiting sooner.


 Clearly a tip of the hat to Harvey, a film where the imaginary bunny is ... nice.
Clearly a tip of the hat to
Harvey, a film where the imaginary bunny is ... nice.


Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 10 Plot: 9 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 90% (Darko Shines Bright)

There's movies that you watch that make you remember why you toil. Donnie Darko is one such film. I also found Patrick Swayze’s role to be one of the best I’ve seen in his career.


Yes, that includes Road House.


Wait. wait. Whoa, whoa. Just a Goddamn minute. How is Donnie Darko not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die List? I have, in the past, refrained from calling out a book for not having a film within it that I personally enjoyed. I know it's an impossible choice, perhaps even a 'Sophie's Choice'. But, if I could actually get a hold of Mr. Stephen Jay Sneider - editor of the 1001 magical tome that is my cinematic guide - if there was one film I could say, "no seriously, add this, and kick something else out," it would be, without contest, Donnie Darko. In fact I was so certain that it was on the list that I wrote a review and prepped myself for being one step closer to reaching my goal of reviewing every film in the 1001 tome. This is Bull. Moulin Rouge? Monsoon Wedding? No Man's Land? All films easily trumped by Kelly's 2001 gut-puncher. I dare say even: WTF.
No, really - talk about dropping the ball.
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"Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?"

"Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?"

Best WTF comeback ever?

I agree this was Swayze's best performance.  I found it pretty amusing when listening to the director's commentary and even he couldn't keep straight what was supposed to be going on.

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