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Donnie Darko (2001)

February 18, 2011

8/10 Mad Worlds

The stuff that cult dreams are made of.

Donnie Darko is about a “troubled” teen in the ’80s who finds himself sleepwalking around town and taking orders from a guy in a demonic rabbit costume who claims that the kid’s got 28 days left to go before the world comes to an end. So as the clock ticks down to Godknowswhat, the kid starts going steady with the new girl at school, starts lashing out against the bullshit his teachers and guest speakers are trying to feed him, and he keeps on following orders that lead him down a path of arson, vandalism and time travel of all things.

Yeah, I’ve seen this one a good three times now, and each new time I go in thinking I’ve got some new piece of the puzzle figured out, I’m always amazed at how much I really have no fucking clue what’s going on. As it sometimes goes when time travel gets involved, Donnie Darko‘s a weird one, it’s a head trip that almost seems to operating on the same brainwaves as Primer at times, but that’s also a big reason people ended up going so ga-ga over it. That and Sparkle Motion, of course.

Folks, it ain’t often that direct-to-DVD movies wind up going from the bottom of the bargain bin to playing in theaters nation-wide, word on the street is that the process is actually more vice-versa. But I love that about this, that  it fell through the cracks, that the moviegoing public realized this was something special and rallied behind it until it became a household name. And even though that little spiel doesn’t directly tie into to why I gave this an 8, it’s something worth noting ’cause it’s something that rarely ever happens.

If there’s anything I can say about Donnie Darko, it sure is new. Hard to thumb this as a high school drama, a dark comedy, a psychological thriller or a sci-fi time traveler because somehow it manages to be all four at once without imploding under its own weight. Geez, there are tons of moviesout there that you could pigeonhole into just one of those sub-genres that somehow manage to implode worse than Vulcan. And it works because it’s clear early on that writer/director Richard Kelly is marching to the beat of his own drum, that we’re not supposed to sit through this and be able to explain everything we just saw, that this isn’t your typical Hollywood three-Act offering.

And the more I think about it, the more I’m not really sure what it’s about. I dig the way Donnie stands as a middle finger to the adults in his life who think they’ve got it all figured out and are continually trying to get him to drink the Kool-Aid already, I dig Donnie as this credible embodiment of youth misunderstood, I dig the whole thing about him not wanting to die alone. But then you throw time travel into the mix, it becomes this completely different monster that’s at once out of place and actively tied into every other story line going on, and as much as I don’t understand it, I want to. It is confusing, although time travel’s been executed a whole lot worse.

There’s just so much more to this movie than what Kelly shows us, it’s the kind of thing I can see people buying books on and raiding message boards over for hours just to get the full picture and see what they missed. Like I said, this thing is operating on a different level, but that’s why it’s totally worth watching.

Then again, there are some parts of the script that I’m not so crazy about these days. Back when I first saw this in high school, I thought the dialogues about what a “fuckass” is and why Smurfette isn’t a skank despite what everyone tends to think were awesome. Now, they just seem random and the laughter is gone. Don’t know if it’s me or the movie, but there ya’ have it. Although it is still great when Donnie tells his gym teacher to forcibly insert the lifeline exercise card into her anus and I still get a kick out of Donnie’s dad quietly cheering for George Bush during a televised debate against Michael Dukakis. For the most part, the dialogue is pretty solid and there are some great moments with Donnie going off on people in public, but it’s not on the same level as the story driving it along.

Good cast though. Equally bizarre and hilarious that this came out the same year as the crowning achievement of Jake Gyllenhaal’s career, Bubble Boy, but he really is good as Donnie. Just a really good, surprisingly complicated character to begin with and I really liked the way Gyllenhaal played him down. So well done, Jake. And Maggie Gyllenhaal does her thing as Donnie’s sister; Drew Barrymore is here as the least believable high school English teacher I’ve ever seen; the late, great Patrick Swayze is a rip as a motivational speaker/snake oil salesman; Jena Malone (where the hell did she go?) is good as Donnie’s main squeeze; and Mary McDonnell (who I don’t really recognize from anything else) is also really good as Donnie’s mom. Also really liked the way she played it down. Her and Jake definitely got the memo on that one.

And I’m a big fan of the way Kelly introduces all the characters with two long shots through Donnie’s neighborhood and his school like a music video or something, just that we’re the 0nly ones hearing the tunes. Good songs, cool approach, I liked that.

Bonus points for featuring a young Seth Rogen as one of Donnie’s dickhead classmates whose first profound lines are, “I like your boobs.” A star is born, people.

Donnie Darko‘s one of those movies that I really like every time I see it but tend to forget about in between viewings. Don’t know why that is, maybe it’s because I have some stupid stigma against movies that every single kid I knew in college had a copy of. Whatever the reason, it is indeed very stupid. There’s always something to be said for smart, fresh movies that never seem to shed those qualities and keep you coming for multiple viewings, and while certain aspects of the script might not be as memorable as they once were, this movie deserves the hype that surrounds it.

Sweet soundtrack, too. Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, The Church, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division – all the best highlights of the ’80s without all the spandex and synthesizers. Hell to the yeah.

30 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2011 12:12 am

    Great review. Strangely enough, I also really like this film but completely forget about it…seems like it should be more memorable than it is for me.

    • February 18, 2011 3:31 pm

      Thanks! I felt the same way a couple months after each time I saw it. Hopefully the third time was a charm here.

  2. February 18, 2011 1:15 am

    Great writing. And I didn’t know that Rogen was in it! Great find.

    p.s. — weird as it may sound, my brother is an acquaintance/friend of the director of “Bubble Boy.” True story.

    • February 18, 2011 3:36 pm

      Thanks, man! And I was totally surprised to see Rogen, too. Nice little surprise.

      And that’s a very cool person to be friends with. I’d buy the director of Bubble Boy a beer any day. Saw that one in theaters. Stunningly good.

  3. February 18, 2011 3:15 am

    Man, Mary McDonnell appeared as Costner’s main Indian squaw in Dances With Wolves, and also opposite Bill Pullman as the First Lady in ID4 – to name two films.

    Oh, I love Donnie Darko, but my wife won’t ever watch it with me so I guess I’ll have to enjoy some solo watching to get my fix! Great review too Dan, as usual.

    Jena Malone is probably off somewhere being somebody’s “biatch”. Word. I wish she was still on the scene – she’s vastly underrated as an actress….

    • February 18, 2011 3:41 pm

      Thanks and DAMMIT! YOU’RE RIGHT! I totally know McDonnell and she’s pretty solid. Whatever happened to her?

      Sorry to hear that the Mrs. won’t watch it with ya’. I know the struggle, man. Watched this all by my lonesome as well, but it’s a good’n either way.

      And I’m right there with ya’ on Malone, she was good stuff. She had a bit role in The Messenger and I think she’s gonna be in Sucker Punch, but she went from It Girl to completely dropping off the planet. Weird.

      • Sun permalink
        March 1, 2011 10:43 am

        Mary McDonnell is awesome!!! I actually have never noticed her in any movie but she “went on” to become the president of the 13 colonies in Battlestar Galactica (the new reimagined one)..

        P.S. you should review the pilot for Battlestar, it’s not a “movie” but it is about movie length and was aired as a mini-series…Saw it again on Netflix in it’s entirety and it works great as a “movie” too

      • March 1, 2011 4:01 pm

        Dude, I am lame. Lamer than you even know. It’s been on the top of my list for ages now, but I’ve never seen a single episode of Battlestar Galactica. I know she’s in it though, and I’m sure she is awesome, but I promise I’ll take care of this embarrassing situation as soon as I finish getting through Cowboy Bebop again.

        And thanks for visiting!

  4. February 18, 2011 7:00 am

    I remember the great soundtrack and that strange rabbit. Haven’t this is mind-fu*k in years but I know I enjoyed it even though I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Great review Aiden!

    • February 18, 2011 3:42 pm

      Thanks, man!

      Hahaha. Yeah, those are the two things I tend to remember, too. Definitely worth a revisit, it’s quite the trip.

  5. February 18, 2011 10:08 am

    I haven’t commented in a bit, but just wanted to tell you that you still have the BEST movie review site around. I read you before any crap in the paper. I loved Donnie Darko…time to watch again. Great review too…..I feel the same. Your blog ROCKS…thank you for it!

    • February 18, 2011 3:44 pm

      Oh, Living Dilbert…made my day. Thanks a ton and glad you liked the movie! One of those movies that could always use another watch. Don’t be a stranger, yo.

  6. Andrew permalink
    February 18, 2011 10:34 am

    Sup dude, So yea the whole time travel thing is mad confusing. The way i interpret it is that he was given a choice to see how his life would play out in the future, which is why at the end of the movie he is sitting in his bed laughing instead of going to visit with frank. Not going to write a whole essay in the comments but yea, this is a fantastic movie to discuss over drinks. glad you finally got around to it you jerk

    • February 18, 2011 3:47 pm

      Sup, jerky!

      I agree with you on the time travel. Think he came to terms with the idea of dying alone and how his death would ultimately save the lives of others had he never met them in the first place. Interesting take though, I dig it and this is absolutely something that would warrant an essay.

      And how about those drinks? That should actually happen one of these days ya’ bum.

  7. nothatwasacompliment permalink
    February 18, 2011 11:08 am

    one of my favorites.
    i remember listening to the director’s commentary, and if i remember correctly, it really seemed to him like the story was more straightforward than people were making it. probably because not everything he was thinking made it to the screen. in his head, i’m sure it’s all crystal clear.

    i agree about the smurfette scene sticking out as unnecessary, but i still laugh at the dinner table scene. for some reason, the darkos are one of my favorite movie families of all time.

    • February 18, 2011 3:49 pm

      Very cool about the director commentary. Makes sense though, this doesn’t seem like something he just kinda whipped up for interpretation’s sake.

      And I dig the Darkos, too. Very watchable and genuine family.

  8. Smally permalink
    February 18, 2011 12:47 pm

    Looks like I’ll have to check out this movie some day. Great review! My company actually blocked your site (imagine that!!) so I can’t read you at work anymore. I’ve been resorting to reading you on my iphone. Any chance you’ll have an app soon? =)

    • February 18, 2011 3:50 pm

      Thanks, man! Definitely check it out, good stuff.

      And I have no idea how to make an app, but I guess I should look into that! My suggestion: QUIT THAT DAMN JOB!

  9. February 18, 2011 2:40 pm

    Damn you Aiden! I just reviewed this, but haven’t put it up just quite yet, but now I know I need to be a lot more quicker. This is such a good movie, and I learn something different from it every time, and in my opinion, I think Donnie Darko is one of the best teenage film characters of all-time. The scenes with him and Gretchen are just perfect, and really had me loving this film. Great Review!

    • February 18, 2011 3:53 pm

      Haha. Sorry, man. Didn’t mean to cramp your style. Totally agree with you though, always something new to take away from this with each viewing. And Donnie really is a great character, dug him a lot.

  10. February 18, 2011 3:25 pm

    I agree, it’s a pretty confusing movie that requires at least a couple viewings (at least for me ah). Even to this day, the whole time-traveling aspect makes me dizzy. It’s a movie that I never really intentionally want to rewatch but end up having a good time when I do.

    • February 18, 2011 3:54 pm

      Well-said, man. Right there with ya’ on all those aspects.

  11. February 18, 2011 5:51 pm

    DONNIE DARKO,I thought is about God. But the theatrical cut cuts out so much its difficult to work out. The directors cut clarifies the faith message. To summarise quickly – the reason he is laughing at the end is because he isn’t scared – and doesn’t care. He knows that when he dies he is not alone and will go somewhere. He knows his family is safe and that he will meet the girl afterwards … but none of them realise. Yhr bunny is an angel guiding him to the afterlife…

    • February 18, 2011 9:20 pm

      Whoa. Thought it might have been something along those lines in regards to Donnie coming to terms with dying alone, but it sounds like I really need to see this directors cut, huh? Heavy shit, yo.

  12. February 19, 2011 10:07 pm

    McConnell has also played in Matewan – Chris Cooper’s debut – directed by John Sayles.

  13. February 20, 2011 12:19 am

    Hey Aiden, nice line “.. it’s a head trip that almost seems to operating on the same brainwaves as Primer at times, but that’s also a big reason people ended up going so ga-ga over it. That and Sparkle Motion, of course.” Who could argue with Sparkle Motion?

    Found your review from Rodney over at Fernbyfilms – thought I’d say hello.

    And the note about Primer is fitting indeed, a big concept film that actually works at the character level which is why I think it continues to connect with people – both first time viewers and old timers who own it and have watched it many, many times. I must say though, before reading on further with your post and the many comments after, that I disliked the director’s cut something awful. It felt contrived and poorly executed, like Kelly was throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck in hopes of answering the naysayers who complained the first cut was too muddy for general consumption. BS. The first film remains the best cut. Period.

    It was nice seeing real life brother and sister playing off one another – I really think that added something of an undercurrent to their performance (the Gyllenhaal’s, that is). Can’t agree more about Barrymore – something went terribly wrong in casting though Kelly mentions her in the first cut director’s commentary which is interesting but it never translates to the screen. Swayze, yes, he was perfect and Jena Malone was great in Saved (2004) if you haven’t seen it, and also in Lying (2006) – though the film itself was dismal. Mary McDonnell went on to do the Battlestar Galactica television series, though I think she was best in Dances With Wolves and again in Grand Canyon from the early 90’s.

    Some good comments too. If you haven’t already watched the director’s cut I’d say don’t bother unless you like your films spoon fed to you. You know that feeling you had when you watched the first one, the uncertainty of things and the excitement of wondering whether you were figuring things out as they happened but in the end was left with a lot of questions? That’s Kelly. He gave you the outline and made it so you could add your own thoughts in there with it and make the film a very personal experience. In that, he exceeded in spades.


    Oh, and if you’re interested I have review of both versions of the film over at Above The line.


  14. February 23, 2011 6:01 pm

    Richard Kelly is working on a level I don’t even think most writer/directors can even conceive of. While people tout Nolan as the thinking man’s director, I’ll be busy mulling over this and “Southland Tales.”

    Also, the smurf stuff is still friggin’ hilarious to me.

  15. February 23, 2011 6:38 pm

    Sweet – I just re-watched this a few weeks ago as well.

    Kelly is a tough nut to crack. I’ve been (foolishly) defending Southland for years now. The thing is – he makes gibberish movies – Donnie included – but he makes them pretty well, and their fucking 100x more interesting than most of the new releases out there. That’s not enough to be considered great, and Donnie comes the closest BY FAR, but it’s enough to get my attention and keep my coming back. He may be an idiot, but I like his nonsense.


  1. Donnie Darko (2001) – What the Hell Should I Watch on NETFLIX?

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