Donnie Darko: Richard Kelly’s Cult Classic

There are thousands of theories that explain what was really going on in Richard Kelly’s complex and layered sci-fi film which has only increased in reputation since its first release almost two decades ago. Donnie Darko was a convention-defying effort from Richard Kelly which has stood the test of time and rewards repeated viewings.

Donnie Darko: Richard Kelly’s Cult Classic Donnie Darko: Richard Kelly’s Cult Classic Source : BagoGames, Flickr


Richard Kelly directed his impressive first feature Donnie Darko at twenty-six. It was a US box-office failure when it came out just after 9/11 but Donnie Darko soon became the first cult classic of 21st century owing to the mind-bending story, chilling atmosphere, 80s look & feel, and much more than what a suburban teen angst movie typically offered.


The opening of Donnie Darko establishes quite a few things at once about the movie. It is 1988, and we are in Middlesex, a suburban upper-middle-class town in America. A family is having dinner. The discussion rapidly falls off into offensive jokes. Donnie is summoned from his bedroom out into the night and the next morning he wakes up on top of a hill. He returns home to find that a plane engine has mysteriously crashed through his bedroom ceiling. Donnie begins seeing visions of Frank, a man in a giant rabbit costume. He explains to Donnie that he is the chosen one, as he is a progressive in a conservative, hypocritic society, in a plan to save the end of the world in 28 days. Donnie manipulates Frank and intices him to perform increasingly destructive acts.


Jake Gyllenhaal's breakthrough performance of a troubled, nerdy teenager is accessible, emotional and adventurous. Donnie is an eccentric genius but poignant and disenchanted inside. The same goofiness attracts Gretchen (Jenna Malone) to him. Luckily for Donnie, he has two good teachers in Karen Pomeroy (Barrymore) and Professor Monnitoff (Wyle) who understand him because they care enough to make an effort. The longing for acceptance and questions about individual identity that Donnie has are relatable. He is a rebellious teen but more than it is his honesty to himself that hits home and inspires. In his pursuit of knowledge, he starts to find his identity and understand what is driving him.


Although the themes of time travel, teen angst, politics, religion, parenting and death are earnestly explored in Richard Kelly's ambitious effort, the film also lingers with a melancholic air of unyielding loneliness and a universal search for meaning. In Gretchen, Donnie finds love that had eluded him thus far. The human intimacy they find in their companionship is comforting. When they are together, the whole world fades away in distance as they find solace from the chaos that's surrounding their lives. When they embrace, the pain and suffering disappear as they are swept by the feeling of love.


Richard Kelly highlights the renewal of isolationism and the ignorance of white American suburban life during the '80s and critiques the institutional sexism and racism. He also produces the struggle of teenagers attempting to define their line of morals against that of their community. Kelly's film appears to be an experimental art-house indie which went a bit too far; Albeit a beautiful, provocative and creative one which did not work as a whole. But Kelly made the film the way he wanted to-meticulous, layered, replete with motifs and symbolism and open to diverse interpretations and readings.


The lyrics "The dreams in which I'm dying, are the best I've ever had" of the song Mad World reflect Donnie's fatal mission as given to him by Frank. Mad Word was originally written and performed by Tears for Fears. It was reworked by composer Michael Andrews and pop singer and songwriter Gary Jules in the film's final sequence.


In the end, the heterotic string is closed and the time warp has looped back to Oct. 2. This time, a wiser Donnie lies in bed laughing, awaiting death happily, knowing he completed his fate. Richard Kelly "combined religious context with complex scientific theories about time travel and the existence of god. He told the story from a scientific approach; after a new tangent universe was created due to the plane engine incident in the beginning. God used Donnie as a sacrificial pawn in his plan to complete this new looped string, close the tangent universe, and reset the timeline back to the original dimension. The theme of time serves as an important real-world forewarning, urging history not to repeat itself. Ironically, with the timeline wiped clean at the end of the film, the histories of the characters in Middlesex will continue to repeat themselves without Donnie."


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Reference: Village Voice, Dennis Lim (2006) and "DONNIE DARKO: Third Theatrical Time", Alex Arabian, Film Inquiry.