Feature: Donnie Darko: 15 years on and still the ultimate mind-bender

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Originally published on The National Student on 13/01/17. 

Believe it or not it’s been 15 long years since Richard Kelly cracked the sci-fi genre wide open with what is easily one of the 21st century’s most important movies. 

October 26th 2001; America is still reeling from the devastation of 9/11, and Richard Kelly’s ambitiously-minded self-starting brain re-organiser of a film, Donnie Darko somehow makes its way into a ridiculously limited amount of theatres stateside. And precisely nobody sees it. 

Several months earlier, the doomsday drama about a mad-eyed teen buddying up to a demonic bunny rabbit had bombed at Sundance, and was destined to become a forgotten, straight-to-TV misfire. But then, of all people, Christopher Nolan (at the time a new indie hotshot still riding high on the success of Mementostepped in and talked Kelly’s film up, eventually winning it theatrical distribution.

Darko’s cinematic run that October ended up being mercifully short, raking in just over half a million dollars; Kelly thought his movie was finally well and truly dead. And then, as if out nowhere, DVD sales picked up. Word of mouth caught on and this super weird, tiny indie about parallel universes and phantom jet engines suddenly started earning mega money. 

A cult hit was born, and now Donnie Darko is arguably one of the most critically celebrated dramas of the 21st century; so much so in fact that it’s earned itself a 4K restoration and re-release. How convenient.

But why all the initial confusion? Well, you only have to watch the very opening of Kelly’s debut to realise that it’s not the most accessible of films. A highly-publicised director’s cut was released a few years later in 2004, which closes quite a few of the gaps and makes for a much more straight-forward watch but in a way, this totally loses sight of how Donnie Darko became the cult hit it is: there’s nothing quite like it out there, anywhere. 

Set in an alternative 1988, a baby-faced Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the titular Donnie, a troubled teen who starts seeing a life-sized bunny rabbit that tells him the world is ending, and that he’s the only one who can save it. From there, things get a little less Ralph Wiggum and a lot more philosophical, with Kelly even dipping his toes in the very nature of universal existence. 

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We’re talking wormholes, alternate realities, telekinesis, the whole shebang. And the best part about the whole thing is that all of the above is simply eluded to and never outwardly explained. The audience aren’t insulted by exposition dumps or carefully planned explanations of the film’s lore; Donnie Darko just gets on with doing its thing and if you fall behind, well, it doesn’t really care. 

Again, the director’s cut kind of erased a huge portion of this, throwing in a whole heap of extra footage, including huge chunks of text which pretty much do exactly what we just praised the original cut for not doing. Overall it makes for an easier baptism into Donnie’s sincerely fucked-up little universe, but with all the questions answered, there’s much less of a reason to revisit the film time and time again. 

Everyone from Tim Minchin to the film’s own most official-looking (though fairly dated) website has attempted to offer a decent explanation for how all of the neat little pieces fall together, but the truth is, all the universe-hopping and engine falling can mean precisely what you want it to. 

There’s so many varied and equally fascinating ways to assemble Richard Kelly’s total jigsaw of a movie that it literally remains the gift that keeps on giving: every watch offers up something new. Something tiny, something spiritual. Even if it’s just you realising that Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal play brother and sister, just like in real life (who would’ve guessed it?), or holy shit, teenage Seth Rogen has been in it the whole time too(!); there’s an almost endless fountain of exciting little tidbits to fish through.  

So much so in fact that, even as we sit here now, celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of a film that doesn’t insult its audience’s imagination, there’s still yet more clues hidden deep within Donnie Darko’s psychologically-charged plotting to uncover and assemble. 

Pixar’s Andrew Stanton always talks of the 2+2 theory: that in order to respect and entice an audience, you don’t give them the answer, you give them the question. Instead of presenting them with a giant number 4, you give them 2+2 and trust that they will themselves, fill in the blanks. 

To date, Donnie Darko remains one of the most beautifully assembled demonstrations of this rule, making it above and beyond, an absolute cinematic must. 

Donnie Darko is currently screening around the UK, and the 4K restoration set from Arrow Films is also available on Blu-ray and DVD now. 

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