A film review by Craig J. Koban May / 2004

Rank: #4

RANK: #1



2001 (theatrical cut), 2004 (director's cut), R, 142 mins.

Donnie Darko: Jake Gyllenhaal / Rose Darko: Mary McDonnell / Eddie Darko: Holmes Osborne / Gretchen Ross: Jena Malone / Ms. Pomeroy: Drew Barrymore / Samantha Darko: Daveigh Chase / Jim Cunningham: Patrick Swayze / Dr. Thurman: Katharine Ross / Dr. Monnitoff: Noah Wyle

Written and directed by Richard Kelly


People and critics who refer to 2001’s DONNIE DARKO as a "cult film" don’t do it justice at all.  It's not really so much a cult film as it is a cult phenomenon. 

Writer/director Richard Kelly, in his feature film debut, shot DONNIE DARKO in a paltry 28 days on a budget of under $5 million.  Considering the vast and absorbent amounts that modern studio films cost, $5 million probably would not have been enough for the catering on the last CHARLIE’S ANGELS picture.  Once the film was complete, Kelly had a disastrous time finding a distributor that would release it, citing that marketing the dense and convoluted film would be next to impossible.  The film itself was incredibly close to premiering on cable television until Newmarket Films came to the rescue and picked it up for a theatrical distribution.  

Unfortunately, this did not in any way save the film. 

The film did open at the Sundance Film Festival to a very respectable response, but when it was officially released in October of 2001, the timing could have not been any worse.  Given the film’s dark tones and concepts, not too many people were willing to see a film that involved cataclysmic death, destruction, and morbid themes.  9/11 changed the landscape not only politically, but also socially, and any film that reflected, even in indirect and ironic ways, the mindset of the time was not bound to be very successful.  As a result, the film went on to gross a disastrously low sum of $700,000.  Amazingly, four years after its release, DONNIE DARKO is listed at #97 on the Internet Movie Database's top 250 Films of All-Time.  Considering that it beat out such “classics” like FORREST GUMP, THE GRADUATE, THE DEER HUNTER, RETURN OF THE JEDI, BLADE RUNNER, and even GONE WITH THE WIND is absolutely extraordinary. 

This poses the ultimate question: How could a film that was one of the biggest box office bombs of recent memory be eventually placed so highly on a list of the upper echelon of cinema’s best films? 

Answer: The wonderful world of the DVD format. 

When DONNIE DARKO made it to region one DVD in North America it was arguably the best thing to happen to the film that was seen up until that time as a colossal failure.  It sold and rented out moderately until word of mouth began to spread...and spread, and spread.   The film became a success by its sheer complexity.  People would begin to discuss its plot, characters, and story and decipher its meaning.  DONNIE DARKO became a film that developed a reputation as a work that “nobody could understand” after a first viewing.  Of course, as the film was recommended down the line, more people spread the word of the film’s convolution.  This film was just so hard to get, and even harder for lay film fans to watch. 

The “cult” of DONNIE DARKO was born, and when the region two DVD was released in the UK, film fans there ate up the film even more than their North American counterparts.  The film, all over the globe, became insidiously addictive, one in which people watched once, failed to understand it, and then felt compelled to seek out others to find out their respective interpretations.  When they realized that others were just as flabbergasted, people revisited the film over and over again hoping to gain further insight into its significance.  Even after multiple viewings, no two people can succinctly agree on the meaning of the film, which became seemingly more illusory with more viewings.   

Yes, everyone that felt connected to DONNIE DARKO watched it endlessly, discussed it continually with others, and then when faced with contradictory or challenging reflections on it, continued to watch it again to dissect its plot into something meaningful.  Fan clubs arose, thousands of midnight screenings ensued, and in 2004 Newmarket Films finally approached Kelly to re-edit the film into a director’s cut for a new theatrical release.  By the time that happened, the film hit its gigantic peak.  It not only became a cult film, but a “must-see” film.  How ironic hindsight is - for a film that virtually no Hollywood studio wanted to buy at Sundance in 2001, DONNIE DARKO became one of the greatest of the recent Indie sensations, and its high placing on the IMDB poll ostensibly reflects this. 

So, is the film, and its new director’s cut, as good as all of the word of mouth? 

I was introduced to the film very modestly on cable television back in 2002.  My first viewing gave way to more viewings.  I have now seen the film probably 20 times, and it still does a remarkable job of holding up as something fresh, powerful, intriguing, and mind-numbingly and tortuously complicated.  Yet, it’s by the film’s sheer density of possible meanings that makes it the masterpiece it is.  DONNIE DARKO is a film, even after multiple viewings, that is as ambiguous as it is disturbing, funny as it is haunting, and a work that explains everything while telling you nothing.  I have never seen a film that manages to be so thoroughly captivating and involving, especially on the 20th viewing. 

DONNIE DARKO, more than any other recent film, is a work that demands repeated exploration not only because it’s a great film, but more or less because you just have to revisit it to make sense of it.  It is the poster film that definitely supports a genuine lack of closure and easily identifiable and digestible themes.  The film, to this day, remains one of cinema’s great and masterful achievements of impenetrable logic.  The fact that it engages us so completely to search for meaning when, ultimately, explanations remain so aloof, is a true testament to the transcending power that the film has.  It hooks you in and pulls you head-on into its maddening world, and by the end you experience simultaneous feelings of both amazement with complete puzzlement.   

The film has to be one of the most narratively and thematically dense films I certainly have ever seen, and Richard Kelly, in his first major theatrical feature, should be commended.  His film demonstrates an attention to detail and a masterful eye that only directors of succeeding years and experience could have made.  Like 2004’s GARDEN STATE, DONNIE DARKO is one of the cinema’s great rookie films.  Dissecting the film’s broad archetypes seems almost foolhardy, but I’ll give it a try.  The film is about: 

- Adolescence, and the pain and awkwardness therein. 

- Adolescent love and attachment 

- Censorship in the media 

- Family and family life

- The social-political climate of post Reagan America in the late 80’s 

- The question of destiny versus free will 

- The futility for the search for God 

- The conscious mind versus the unconscious mind 

- Suburban life in middle-upper class America... 

Oh…and it also is about the philosophy of time travel, inter-dimensional vortexes, the nature of dreams, the possibility of tangential universes, and giant rabbits with demonic heads that serve the purpose as a gatekeeper of sort for the film’s protagonist. 

I don’t even feel like I have scratched the surface of this film, but at least it’s a start. 

The story is kind of arbitrarily set during the presidential campaign of 1988, but it does serve the purpose of at least showing the time effectively, which kind of gives the film a subtle hint of other-worldliness (Kelly, having been a child of the 80’s, admits to writing what he knew about adolescence).  The opening of the film is as weird and evocative as it is mysterious.  Donnie Darko (played in one of the great underrated performances by Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens in the middle of a road by his bike.  He thinks he was just sleeping, or was he?  It seems and is later revealed that young Donnie does a lot of “sleep walking” away from home, and one nocturnal trip eventually saves his life. 

One night a jet engine suddenly, without warning, crashes into his home and would have surely killed him where he slept if he were at home sleeping.  Yet, was it sheer luck that made him leave home to avoid death?  Well, early on in the film we see clearly that it was not.  It seems that he leaves the home that fateful night on the advice of a rabbit, a six-foot tall one with a head that looks like the devil.  To make matters worse, the horrific rabbit also informs Donnie that the world will end in exactly 28 days.  Ouch!  The rabbit, whose name is Frank, gives a lot of good advice to Donnie, especially when it comes to getting him out of the house to avoid being smashed by the jet engine.  Yet, strangely, when the government makes an appearance at the Darko home, they have absolutely no record of a plane losing its engine.  

Paging Rod Serling? 

Frank, a sort of Harvey from the deepest pits of Dante's Inferno, continues to summon Donnie and give him advice and instructions in all sorts of matters.  He even manages to teach Donnie how to look into the future and be able to physically see an individual’s timeline (seen as an ABYSS-like visual effect) as they follow it.  He also seems to be able to perform all sorts of other superhuman feats, one of which seems to be touching the edge of another possible dimension or tangential universe (my interpretation, of course). 

As Donnie’s behavior becomes more destructive and highly erratic, those around him, from his family, friends, new girlfriend (Jena Malone) and even his teachers start to show great worry over him.  They see him as troubled, and his therapist sees him as schizophrenic, never cluing in that maybe, just maybe, Donnie is speaking to a visitor from another dimension, or that he is speaking to a giant demonic rabbit, or that he is being contacted by a deep future intelligence that has mastered time travel, or that he does, in fact, have the ability to manipulate time and space and do the impossible.  If you have gone crossed eye, well...I certainly have as well.  Let’s just say that, as the film draws to a close, Donnie is left to make a vital choice, and the implications could either save the universe as he (or we) know it or he could loose the girl he loves. 

The original 2001 film was one that was rich to begin with, but the new director’s cut, which adds over twenty more minutes of footage plus new visual effects montages, is wonderful by enhancing it so meticulously.  Yet, in no way does the film alter or change its tone, mood, or overwhelming sense of intricacy.  This is not one of those director’s cuts that pains to explain everything that we have questioned about the film (although it does hint more at the possibility of either inter-dimensional intelligence or futuristic time travel meddling with Donnie).  The film remains as powerfully unfathomable as it was originally.  The plot coils and recoils back and forth and over itself and reveals layer upon layer of meaning that creates a twisted labyrinth of possible explanations until we reach a point where we want a definitive explanation, don’t get one, and are still nevertheless satisfied.  Few films are so successful with such a lack of closure.  DONNIE DARKO is what I like to call Rubik’s Cube Cinema - you are continually frustrated by not being able to crack it, but you cannot allow yourself to put it down and give up on it.  You continue to work at it and try to solve it even when it might seem impossible to you. 

Many have commented that the film feels like a demented John Hughes 1980’s teen comedy as directed through the eyes of David Lynch.  That is a highly apt description, but even that does not do the film’s merits justice.  DONNIE DARKO has the sort of smart-ass, perceptive and sensitive humor and realism with its teenage characters that the Hughes' films do, combined with the eerie and disturbing visuals of a Lynch film.  However, whereas a Lynch film, like the horrendously overrated MULHOLLAND DRIVE, throws out random and completely inane elements to just mind screw the audience into thinking its something that will add up and does not, Kelly never gives you that impression.  He is not the annoying, self-indulgent, artistically bloated, and self-important charlatan of the cinema that Lynch is.  Kelly instead gives us the sense that all of his choices, from the music, characters, their actions, everything…has a logical cadence and ultimate meaning.  You feel that his choices are deliberate and not arbitrary or redundant ones.  Yes, we are still left scratching our heads after the 20th viewing of DONNIE DARKO, but you still look back at certain elements of the story and realize that their was something to each and every one.  Watching the film is like having a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle thrown on the table in front of you and then pieces of it slowly start to be put together until, at the end, we have a completed puzzle that contains a picture we ultimately cannot decipher.  

In an age when teen film after teen film regurgitates the same endless formulas over and over again, I applaud Kelly for being bold and daring enough to give us something we’ve never seen before.  DONNIE DARKO is not a film that panders to the lowest common denominator sensibilities of modern audiences, nor is it one that can be easily taken it.  The film works because, in the end, you respond more to how it’s trying to tell a complicated story and less to how it tries to solve or answer the complicated story's questions.  The more you don’t understand, the more you are, ironically, willing to accept the film. 

What we are left with is a film that may be one of the all-time least palatable of entertainments, but it's one that is enriching, alive, funny, stimulating, and wildly and audaciously imaginative.  DONNIE DARKO is an exceptional motion picture aside from its convolution.  It’s well acted, shot, and edited, and the sound and visual design is Oscar caliber.  More than anything, it shows the incredible range, persistence and control of vision by its director, who never, ever takes the easy road most traveled.  DONNIE DARKO facilitates, more or less, my own definition of what makes a “classic” film - one that you can watch over and over again and still gain fresh insights into it and never be bored in the process.  DONNIE DARKO is a modern classic of the absurd and widely evocative, a film that wholeheartedly deserves its high ranking on the IMBD list.  The current decade is only half over, but if I were to make my list of the best films of the decade, I would probably include such titles as BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, GARDEN STATE, TRAFFIC, MOULIN ROGUE, MEMENTO, MYSTIC RIVER, LOST IN TRANSLATION, THE AVIATOR

...and DONNIE DARKO…for certain.


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