'Donnie Darko' - the Film Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Donnie Darko' - the Film

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Donnie Darko (2001) Certificate 15
Directed by Richard Kelly
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Katharine Ross and Patrick Swayze
Duration 113 minutes

The following is an in-depth review and may give away important plot points, but given the complexity of the story, it is very unlikely!

The Story

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a 16-year-old boy living in an American town called Middlesex. He a very troubled individual, and is on medication for a mental problem which manifests itself in acts of vandalism and disobedience, committed while Donnie is asleep.

The relationship between Donnie and his family is fraught; he constantly bickers over the meal table with his sisters and is astonishingly disrespectful towards his parents, his mother in particular. In spite of this, his parents love him dearly and are having a hard time trying to come to terms with Donnie's condition, and he regularly sees a psychoanalyst.

One night, while Donnie is on his nocturnal wanderings, a tall figure called Frank dressed in a macabre bunny costume warns the boy that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds - on the 31st October 1988 - Halloween.

He wakes up at dawn on the grass at the local golf course, and when Donnie returns home, he finds that his bedroom has been totally destroyed by an aircraft engine which has fallen off an unidentified plane. The aviation authorities have no idea where the plane was flying from or where its intended destination was. Has Frank saved the boy's life, or is Donnie living on borrowed time? So begins the weirdest month of 1988 for the inhabitants of Middlesex.

Donnie's nocturnal vandalism, orchestrated by Frank the rabbit, continues with Donnie flooding his school and sinking an axe in the school mascot, a statue of a rather comical snarling bulldog. With his school closed, he befriends the new girl in class Gretchen (played by Jena Malone) and the two misfits find an awkward solace in each other's company.

While this romance blossoms Donnie meets the local eccentric (she is nearly hit by Mr Darko Senior's car), a white-haired old crone cruelly nicknamed Grandma Death, who tells him that 'every living creature on this earth dies alone'.

After a discussion with one of his cautious teachers (Noah Wyle) it transpires that Roberta Sparrow alias 'Grandma Death' once wrote a remarkable book called The Philosophy of Time Travel and this strikes a note with Donnie. He is convinced that he is blessed with the gift of being able to see through time itself. He watches strange threads emanating from people, pulling them to their preordained destinies. His science teacher mysteriously discourages the boy from exploring this idea further.

In the meantime, the rather odious self-help guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) pays the school a visit and tries to impress his strange philosophy on the otherwise bored pupils. Donnie clearly has no time for him and ridicules the visitor in front of the assembled school. This earns Donnie a reprimand from the principal, grudging admiration from fellow pupils and sows the seeds of Donnie's loathing for the self-help expert.

Frank tells Donnie to torch Jim Cunningham's home while Donnie is asleep in a cinema with Gretchen. He carries out Frank's request, and the resultant fire investigation unearths a terrible secret. Donnie's life is beginning to unravel as he reveals his newly found friend and talent to his psychoanalyst (Katherine Ross), who rather than try to understand the boy's plight, merely prescribes the boy stronger medication. His act of arson has revealed that Jake Cunningham's house hid a room full of depraved pornography, and the community is rocked by this revelation. Not only do Donnie's activities affect his family, but they also have far-reaching repercussions for the whole town of Middlesex.

Slowly things are becoming apparent to Donnie that Frank the bunny is helping the boy to shape his destiny and that tragedy is just around the corner. Donnie realises that if he doesn't act quickly several unnecessary deaths will occur...


This film was directed by Richard Kelly, who was only 24 when he wrote the script, and 27 when he shot the film; it is a remarkable achievement for the young director and his equally young leads. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the director's career; if he can produce more films of this calibre, then it looks very promising indeed.

It combines 1980s teen drama, science fiction and psychological thriller to amazing, almost dream-like effect. The opening scene is a stunning view of a wooded landscape at dawn, and appropriately concludes with the main character going to sleep. The film never patronises the audience, and while the plot isn't easy to follow, there are some clues as to the story's eventual outcome. Given the fact that the film is science fiction-based, the effects are not flashy, and the director's style is very subtle, offering limited use of the more peculiar camera angles. The most dazzling scene is an innovative shot, which follows the lead character from arriving on the school bus and wandering through the college hall, while the main antagonists are seen in the corridor, looking suspiciously at each other in an almost predatory manner. In this simple one take-shot, we get to see who will cause problems for Donnie.

The film is hard to categorise, but is easy to enjoy as it mixes comedy, emotional drama and chills in equal measure, while posing a question to the viewer: Is time travel not so much a scientific theory, but more of a product of the human psyche?

Through the beautifully subtle performances of the two young leads, and the sparkling script (which is, at turns, tragic and hilarious) the film addresses the issues of adolescent problems, such as isolation, loneliness and non-conformity within peer groups. This is probably why the film stands out. We can all identify with the younger characters because we have all experienced the troubles of teenage life - awkward moments, embarrassing parents, boredom and frustration. A notable influence on the film, whether deliberate or otherwise, is the novel Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. This tale tells the story of a disillusioned (and possibly mentally unstable) teenager from a privileged background called Holden Caulfield who regards most people he meets as very false, and his inability to cope with life, culminating with the boy using violent means to deal with another character who he sees as 'fake'. A comparable scene between both the book and the film are the characters dalliance with firearms.

The most original aspect to the film Donnie Darko is the time travel element. The computer-generated effects in the film are innovative and subtly done, particularly the 'destiny threads' that Donnie sees emanating from people. It is very difficult to make one of the staples of science fiction cinema seem fresh and innovative, given the fact that there have been numerous films about time travel. Only a few notable cinematic excursions into the mists of time have been outstanding, including Time Bandits (1981), Twelve Monkeys (1996), Back to the Future (1985), Les Visiteurs (1993) and of course the original 1960 George Pal adaptation of HG Wells novel, The Time Machine. Donnie Darko is a worthy addition to the canon. Unlike most modern films which always have to have the obligatory sequel, Donnie Darko has a very conclusive ending. A sequel is unlikely.


The soundtrack features many 1980s groups, including Echo and The Bunnymen, Duran Duran and most notably, Tears for Fears. Surprisingly enough, the tracks by Tears For Fears complement the film superbly, particularly the lyrics of 'Mad World' in the closing scenes. At the time of writing, the pop song from the soundtrack hasn't been released although the music score, which includes the haunting 'Waltz in the Fourth Dimension' by Michael Andrews and the composer's own rendition of 'Mad World', is currently available in Britain.


The film was shown to critical praise at the 2001 Sundance Festival, and was released later in the year in the USA. There is a very stylised website www.donniedarko.com which provides details of Donnie's' psychiatric reports, police reports as well as notes on the book The Philosophy Of Time Travel and its author.

Notable cinematic offerings influencing this film's style are Twelve Monkeys, Back to the Future, and La Jetee (Chris Marker's 1960's film which originally inspired Twelve Monkeys).

The film was released on 25 October, 2002, in the United Kingdom. It was on a limited release, and was initially shown on only 37 screens. The film's commercial success was even more remarkable, considering that it did not have the mass advertising campaign that accompanies most films released nowadays. Through word-of-mouth and glowing critical reviews Donnie Darko managed to dent the UK top 10, and stayed in the chart for many weeks.

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