by Haley Goetz
To me, watching Donnie Darko literally equates to life and death. I remember, during a cold October night, in my junior year of high school, watching the film for the first time when the phone suddenly rang. I knew it was going to be news of my grandfather’s passing. He had been sick for quite some time so I just could tell this was going to be the nature of the call. I was in the middle of the scene where we first see Frank, the oh-so prominent and ominous rabbit who keeps telling the titular Donnie Darko that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. When I had time to return back to the film after that night, I was struck by every aspect of it. I could see so much of myself in Donnie, as well as how the film highlights the connections between life and death, how it showcases the promises and downfalls of youth, and how it brings to light the mysteries and complexities of the universe. And I absolutely loved how a film that is essentially so nonsensical could also be so utterly profound at the same time.
The word “plot” can’t really be used when describing the story of Donnie Darko. More than anything, the film is characterized by its mood and atmosphere. Although it’s supposed to be set in the town of Middlesex, Virginia, the film was actually shot in and around Los Angeles. Its dark tones would never give this away, however. Basically, Donnie Darko revolves around a teenage boy named Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he struggles with increasingly disturbing thoughts. When he encounters the rabbit named Frank (James Duval), who spews out apocalyptic ramblings, Donnie takes it to heart, wreaking havoc on the town before the world is supposedly set to end. Anchoring the whole story is a whole host of subplots, ranging from the jet engine that falls from the sky straight into the Darko family’s house to the downfall of the creepy motivational speaker Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) to the invariable mishaps that naturally come with being an American high school student.
The acting in Donnie Darko is fairly off-putting, to say the least but this is ultimately what gives the film its charm. Donnie himself is interesting because he is so multifaceted and misunderstood. The more times I watch the film, the more I come to realize that Donnie is easily the most sane person in the film. While he may cause a lot of physical destruction, he is the sort of person who completely sees through the bullshit of humanity and is not scared whatsoever at saying absolutely whatever is on his mind at any given time. He’s also quite a caring individual as he does anything he can for his beloved Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). Gretchen is the perfect person for Donnie because they both feel the same pain at the world. In one of my favorite scenes from the film, when they are about to share their first kiss, Gretchen tells Donnie to wait, to which he replies that they should wait for when all the beauty in the world can be seen or something like that. Gretchen instead says that no, she wants to share her first kiss with him when a fat man in a bright red tracksuit is not staring at them in the middle of the woods.
There are so many characters in this film, but that’s what is ultimately so great about it. Each character is fully realized and equally compelling in their own right; from the overbearing yet highly amusing Health teacher Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant) to the strung-out Darko family unit. I think the reason that this film has attained the cult status that it currently has over the years is definitely because of this relatability. Donnie Darko takes a look into all of the struggles that come from being young and turns it into a dark tale that really doesn’t take itself too seriously (which is the same way young people usually treat life). Along with this, there are so many layers to the film, allowing for fans to talk about the various conspiracy theories for hours on end. Said theories range from the nature of existence itself to wormholes, both in how they can manifest themselves in space and also in people. Not to mention the fact that the plot can’t easily be explained, which is another realm in how people can discuss this film.
Donnie Darko’s soundtrack is also especially memorable. It sort of became my anthem throughout high school, in its tracklist ranging from Tears for Fears to Duran Duran to Joy Division, and finally my favorite anthem of “The Killing Moon” by Echo & the Bunnymen. Now, with the new 4K restoration of the film, I just have to say one thing: go and see Donnie Darko if it’s the last thing you do! It’s creepy, hilarious, easy to relate to, and it will make you THINK!