Donnie Darko is one of my all-time favorite films. I saw it for the first time in 2001 on VHS (the only copy available in Easley, South Carolina) after I had followed the film on the internet months before the street date. Since then, I've seen the film over fifty times. I keep coming back to it. And why wouldn't I?
Director Richard Kelly’s film debut follows Donnie Darko, a young man with schizophrenia. One night, Donnie sleepwalks out of the door of his house and on to his front lawn, where he is visited by Frank – a six-foot tall man in a rabbit suit – who tells Donnie that the world is going to end in twenty-eight days. Shortly after this revelation, a jet engine crashes through the roof of his house. No one knows where the jet engine came from. From this point on, Donnie begins having dark visions and may even develop telekinetic powers, as Frank guides him on this journey, occasionally asking him to carry out certain tasks – some of which are destructive in nature. With the help of his girlfriend, Gretchen, as well as his psychiatrist, and a mysterious elderly woman named Roberta Sparrow (affectionately nicknamed Grandma Death) it is up to Donnie to save the ones that he loves as the end of the world draws nigh.
There are five reasons why this film still resonates with me, as well as many other devoted fans:
1.) The Setting: Donnie Darko takes place in the fictional town of Middlesex, VA in October. The year is 1988. From the supporting characters to the leads themselves, the people of Middlesex are mostly likable creating a sense of community. You will enjoy getting to know these characters – some more than others. Like David Lynch’s "Twin Peaks", Middlesex is enshrouded in mystery. It is a place where anything can happen.
2.) The Mood: From the opening credits to the unforgettable climax, director Richard Kelly creates an ethereal atmosphere, using slow, meticulously choreographed tracking shots, as well as other unusual filmmaking techniques that draw us further into the world that he has created. This is one of the many reasons that Donnie Darko remains an altogether addictive experience.
3.) The Music: If you are already a fan of Donnie Darko, you know that composer Michael Andrews’ beautiful synth score is the heart of the film, as well as Gary Jules’ iconic cover of “Mad World”. Who could forget the opening sequence set to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” or the tracking shot set to Tears for Fears “Head over Heels”? These moments are memorable largely because the music brings them to life.
4.) The Mystery: Richard Kelly refuses to spoon-feed his audience, which is why Donnie Darko is an ambiguous experience that leaves us with many questions rather than answers. True fans of the film wouldn't have it any other way, which is why many of us balked at the Director’s Cut, which attempted to explain away the mystery. The loose ends allow for multiple interpretations. We always have a reason to return to Middlesex, VA.
5.) Frank: Yes, Frank. The six-foot tall man in a rabbit suit. He is the guardian that guides Donnie through the portal, leads him down the rabbit hole, and teaches him about the joys of time travel. Without Frank, there is no Donnie Darko. Frank is one of the most memorable imaginary friends in the whole of cinema, right next to Jimmy Stewart’s Harvey. Frank is awesome.
I have given you five reasons why Donnie Darko is one of the best films ever created, and now you have to see it for yourself. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Beth Grant, Noah Wylie, Holmes Osborne, Mary McDonnell, James Duval, and the late, great Patrick Swayze, it is a film that you will never forget. It's also the perfect film to watch on or around Halloween.
Donnie Darko is available on DVD and Blu-ray (and also VHS, if you want the retro experience). I highly recommend this film. Rent it. Buy it. It just may change your life.