Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Donnie Darko (2001)

Maybe it's the story of Holden Caulfield, resurrected in 1988 by the spirit of Philip K. Dick, who was always spinning yarns about schizophrenia and drug abuse breaking the barriers of space and time. Or it's a black comedy foreshadowing the impact of the 1988 presidential election, which is really the best way to explain it. But first and foremost, I wanted the film to be a piece of social satire that needs to be experienced and digested several times.
    -Richard Kelly, director of Donnie Darko

Since the story of Christ unfolded--or maybe even that of Moses or perhaps that of God Himself--there has been only one epic plot in the tales that sustain the West: the lone hero seeks to impose his will on the world--his vision (which most of us share) of the ideal life--but ends up battered and bruised by the stubborn realities of unperfectable human nature. At that point he, who has held himself aloof, reintegrates into society by sacrificing some part of himself or even his life for the sake of others, leaving behind the idealistic example he'd set to inspire those who remain. Just a few of the innumerable examples of this endlessly recurring theme include: Don Quijote; High Noon; The Searchers; Shane; Of Mice and Men; Spartacus; Cool Hand Luke; The Sand Pebbles; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; and recent films like Spider-Man and Gladiator.

The little noticed Donnie Darko has won well-deserved cult status by incorporating that fundamental storyline into an ambitious stew that sprinkles in equal parts teen angst, dark comedy, philosophical speculation, Tarantino-esque dialogues, and elements of two great Jimmy Stewart films (both of which actually draw on the metatheme) Harvey and It's a Wonderful Life. The eponymous hero is a disturbed high school student--maybe even paranoid/schizophrenic--who is led away from his bed one night by an eight-foot tall talking rabbit named Frank. In his absence, a jet engine crashes into the house, destroying his luckily empty room. Led on by the rabbit, Donnie becomes increasingly convinced that the world is ending and becomes obsessed with time travel. He also begins to act out violently against the various hypocrisies he sees around him, from high school mascots to a charlatan motivational speaker who has captivated the locals--think of Holden Caufield with a blowtorch, or even a flamethrower.

Meanwhile: Donnie has fallen in love with Gretchen, the new girl at school, who says, quite accurately, that he's weird but means it as a compliment; fascinates his iconoclastic English teacher (Drew Barrymore)--especially with his approving interpretation of Graham Greene's The Destructors, that destruction is a form of creation; scares his science teacher (Noah Wylie), with his questions about the space-time continuum; worries his parents nearly as much as their older daughter, who's threatening to vote for Mike Dukakis (it's Fall 1988); and intrigues and appalls his therapist (Katharine Ross). In the midst of all of these plots and sub-plots is a terribly confused teenage boy. He may be crazy. He may be off his medications. He may have slipped out of real time. He may be communicating with God or the Devil through Frank. But mostly he's just angry at the things that make us all angry and, whether through the intercession of Frank or not, seems to have the freedom from inhibitions or the raw power to do something about them. This makes him in some ways a terrifying figure and it's easy to see the movie spinning off into just a sensationalistic Columbine High School shoot-'em-up. But first time director Richard Kelly has bigger fish to fry. So big, in fact, that this is the first film of which it can honestly be said the DVD is superior to the movie, because the deleted scenes and voice overs add tremendously to our understanding of what's gone on.

Donnie's quest for understanding leads to tantalizing clues, especially when he gains the ability to see the paths people are following in time/space and when a reclusive old woman in town turns out to be the author of a book on time travel and tells him: –Every living thing dies alone.” If the world is ending and he's going to die alone then what sense does it make to believe in God? what can he make of his newfound love for Gretchen? of his realization that his mother loves him irrespective of his illness? of the solicitude, even love, of Dr. Thurman (Ross)? And if he is come loose in time and it is only this that is giving him these insights and powers then is destruction truly a form of creativity or is his destructiveness an aberration like his presence in this alternate time path? Does dying alone prove life meaningless even if you love and are loved? Is death itself necessarily meaningless?

When Donnie makes his final judgments about these questions and goes forth smiling to embrace his fate the film achieves an all too rare affirmation of life and of God and of the idea that there is an order and a purpose to Creation. It's not without its flaws--like any debut effort Mr. Kelly has crammed too much in, as if he might never get another opportunity to tell a story. But, unusual for a debut, he's taken much else out in order that the viewer not be led too easily to the conclusions towards which he's eventually headed. This makes for some confusion on your first viewing, but offers all the more reason to watch it several times. And considering that you can own the disc for only about $10, it's easy enough to get a copy and enjoy it repeatedly.


Grade: (A)


See also:

    -INFO: Donnie Darko (2001) (
    -FAN SITE: Donnie Darko
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Richard Kelly (Imdb)
    -INTERVIEW: with Richard Kelly ( Jason Korsner, 21st October 2002, BBCi)
    -INTERVIEW: The Outsider; Richard Kelly Breaks In with "Donnie Darko" (Jessica Hundley, 10/24/01, IndieWire)
    - INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD KELLY director of "Donnie Darko": Cult hit refuses easy answers for artistic truth, filmmaker says (BOB LONGINO, 6/27/03, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
    -INTERVIEW: Richard Kelly Makes Directing His Deeply Personal First Film -- Donnie Darko -- Sound Easy (Barnes & Noble, March 22, 2002)
    -INTERVIEW: with Richard Kelly (Chris Neumer, Center Stage)
    -INTERVIEW: Richard Kelly: Young and restless The writer/director of Donnie Darko is being feted as the next big thing. Richard Kelly talks to Fiona Morrow about the Columbine massacre, Francis Ford Coppola, and earrings (Fiona Morrow, 25 October 2002, Independent)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Jake Gyllenhaal (Imdb)
    -INTERVIEW: with Jake Gyllenhaal (David Michael, 21st October 2002, BBCi)
    -INTERVIEW: Jake Gyllenhaal (Chelsea Clinton, February 2003, Interview)
    -SHORT STORY: The Destructors (Graham Greene, 1954, Picture Post)
    -ESSAY: Should There Be a Christian Movie Industry? (Jeffrey Overstreet, 05/15/2003, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for Donnie Darko (
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for Donnie Darko (
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for Donnie Darko (MetaCritic)
    -ARCHIVES: "donnie darko" (
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (James Berardinelli, Reel Views)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (China Mieville, Socialist Review)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Philip Kerr, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Jeffrey Overstreet)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Annie Young, Metaphilm)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (The Flick Filosopher)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Steve Parish, The Church of England Newspaper)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Health)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Elvis Mitchell, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Philip French, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Nev Pierce, BBCi)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (JAN STUART, NEWSDAY)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Bob Graham, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (BOB LONGINO, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (David Edelstein, Fresh Air)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Joe Donnelly, LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Chris Dahlen, Pitchfork)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Andrew O'Hehir, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Kimberley Jones, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Leslie Felperin, Sight & Sound)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Gary Mairs, Culture Vulture)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (J. Hoberman, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Scott Tobias, Onion AV Club)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Gerald Peary, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (FileThirteen)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Chris Gore, Film Threat)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Andy Bailey, Park City)
    -REVIEW: of Donnie Darko (Mark Bourne, DVD Journal)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Whale is a story of grace: There is a strange beauty beneath the film’s grease and grime (John Pietro, January 6, 2023, Spectator)