Now fully restored for theatrical release, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko initially tanked at the box office when it was first released in October 2001. Hot on the heels of the September 11 terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it’s easy to see why a movie about a high school teen, who dodges death by a falling aero engine that crashes through his bedroom, might be doomed to obscurity. However – thanks to Donnie Darko’s demented blend of angsty teen comedy, mind-bending, tangential universe time-travelling sci-fi, and a whacking great metal-jawed bunny buddy – a second life beckoned on the late night circuit, from which the word of mouth buzz ensured cult status in time for the home video release.
Now my first impression of Donnie Darko was that it was a Harvey (1950) for people on psychoactive drug therapy. Both films feature a damaged hero – Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) clearly suffers from some kind of mental instability, while Harvey’s Elwood Dowd (James Stewart) is a drunk – who spends a lot of time with their psychiatrist and, most importantly, with a big bunny rabbit with the ability to affect time. However, Donnie Darko‘s Frank is a much, much darker creation than Elwood’s lop-eared drinking partner and, to prove this point, the first thing that Frank tells Donnie is that the world is going to end in twenty-eight days, six hours, four minutes and twelve seconds. He tells him this shortly before a jet engine crashes through Donnie’s family home, but thankfully Donnie has sleepwalked to the local golf course and avoids being creamed.
Frank really isn’t a great role model and from then on Donnie does some terrible things under Frank’s influence (even if they are things that we’d really like to do ourselves, but for our pesky social consciences), but he also sparks Donnie’s interest in time travel. This leads Donnie to a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel by former high school physics teacher Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland) – now known as Grandma Death because of her habitual wandering into the path of traffic on the way to and from to her mailbox.
This is the point where I start to find Donnie Darko intriguing because, to me, it becomes a film about choices and their consequences. Despite the fact that Frank’s suggestions are usually quite bad things to do in themselves, something good often comes from them. For example, when Donnie decides to flood the school it gives him the opportunity to chat up new girl Gretchen (Jena Malone) and for them to fall in love, while torching the house of the insufferable motivational speaker Jim Cunningham (a brilliantly oily Patrick Swayze) ensures Cunningham’s arrest as the hub of a child porn ring.
This all leads ultimately to Donnie’s act of self sacrifice that resets the universe when the space-time vortex opens up above the Darko house and engulfs the aircraft carrying Donnie’s mum and little sister. Donnie’s decision to flit back to the time the movie starts and be crushed by the falling aero engine means that, although paedophile Cunningham remains at large and Gretchen does not know what it’s like to be in love, Rose Darko (Mary McDonnell) and little Samantha (Daveigh Chase) get to live. As a result, Frank does not get to become a time-travelling fancy dress ghost and the world does get to go on turning. Each action has its own consequence and these consequences go on to influence further events.
But then perhaps everything that we have seen may be the consequence of Donnie’s own mental state. Is Frank really a time-travelling ghost or is he a hallucination caused by paranoid schizophrenia, or even Donnie’s medication? After all, the first time we see Frank is not long after we see Donnie popping his pills.
Director Richard Kelly has said that the main event of Donnie Darko is a shift into a tangential universe, but that of course opens up a whole range of different questions: where is the rest of the plane that the engine belonged to, and how come Frank appears to Donnie before the engine drops from the sky? As a long time Dr Who viewer I know that events in the past will influence events in the future, so hasn’t Donnie’s sacrifice negated the events that create the need for such a sacrifice in the first place?
Donnie Darko is an intriguing and curious film with a great soundtrack from Michael Andrews, engaging performances from the predominantly young cast, some really clever jokes and writing – including the truth about he sex lives of the Smurfs and the trashing of a ghastly motivational speaker. Ultimately it’s a film about choice, coincidence and consequence that asks more questions than it ever answers but then that isn’t the end of world, is it?