Donnie Darko is a 2001 cult classic psychological thriller film written and directed by Richard Kelly, and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The film depicts the reality-bending venture of the eponymous character as he seeks the meaning and significance of his troubling end-of-the-world visions.
The film initially was slated for a direct-to-video release before it was picked up by Newmarket Films. Budgeted with $4,500,000 and filmed over the course of 28 days, the movie just missed breaking even, grossing about $4,200,000 worldwide. The film has since gone on to receive favorable reviews from critics and a cult following among fans. A sequel to the film, entitled S. Darko, is expected to be released in 2009.
As Eddie drives Donnie to the office of Dr. Thurman (Katharine Ross), Donnie's therapist, Eddie nearly runs over Roberta Sparrow, also known as "Grandma Death" (Patience Cleveland). A senile old woman who spends her days walking back and forth from her house to the mailbox across the street, Grandma Death whispers in Donnie's ear that all living creatures on Earth ultimately die alone. This greatly troubles Donnie, who worries that life has no meaning.
A few days later, Frank appears to Donnie in a hallucination and urges him to flood the private school he attends by breaking open the water main with an axe. Donnie also embeds the axe in the head of the school's solid bronze statue of its mascot and spray-paints "They made me do it" on the sidewalk. School is canceled that day and Donnie walks home Gretchen (Jena Malone), the new girl in school. She reveals that her stepfather nearly killed her mother and is still on the loose. Donnie reveals his own troubled past as well as his intelligence. Gretchen decides that Donnie is weird and that this makes him attractive. They agree to become a couple.
Donnie has a troubled relationship with the faculty at his high school. Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) appreciates his intellect and ability to engage with and understand the difficult material she assigns them to read in English class. The science teacher, Dr. Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), finds him a little more troubling, and Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), the highly strung and socially conservative health instructor, is offended that he questions her use of self-help tapes in class. After he profanely rejects her use of the simplistic methods espoused by local celebrity Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), Donnie finds himself suspended from after-school activities. When Donnie verbally assaults Cunningham during an appearance at the high school, he gets in even deeper trouble. Although the administration suspects that Donnie is indeed responsible for the vandalism, he is never charged.
Frank continues to appear to Donnie and tells Donnie that they can do anything and won't get caught. Frank also tells Donnie about time travel, further confusing him. Soon, Donnie sees tubes of fluid light extending out of his family's chests, indicating where they will go. His own tube beckons him to follow as it enters his parents' room and reveals the gun his father keeps in a box in the closet. Donnie speaks about time travel with Dr. Monnitoff who gives him a book, "The Philosophy of Time Travel," written by Roberta Sparrow. She used to be a nun and a teacher at the high school. However, the climate at the school is becoming increasingly conservative as Kitty Farmer leads a protest against Ms. Pomeroy's choice of reading material; one of the stories she had assigned, Graham Greene's "The Destructors," features teenagers who flood a man's house by breaking a water pipe. Ms. Pomeroy is fired and Dr. Monnittoff, who is also her boyfriend, refuses to discuss time travel with Donnie once his questions take a theological direction.
Gretchen and Donnie grow closer. She is one of the few people he opens up to about his time travel visions, and they discuss how they wish they could travel back in time and prevent the bad things in their lives from happening. Dr. Thurman increases Donnie's medication and begins hypnotherapy with him. But Frank continues to appear to Donnie. One night, Donnie and Gretchen go to see a horror movie. Gretchen falls asleep and Frank appears. When Donnie asks Frank why he wears a "stupid bunny suit," Frank asks Donnie why he wears a "stupid man suit," then acquiesces and takes the head off, revealing a young adult with a gruesome wound in his right eye. When Donnie asks about the cause of the eye wound, Frank whispers "I am so sorry" and then directs Donnie's attention to the movie screen. A portal opens, revealing Jim Cunningham's house. Frank tells Donnie to burn it to the ground. Donnie leaves the sleeping Gretchen in the theatre and does as Frank tells him to. He is not caught, and firefighters discover a dungeon of child pornography in a hidden room in the mansion. Cunningham is arrested the next morning. Kitty Farmer, a friend and devoted follower of Cunningham's, decides she must lead his public defense and asks Rose to accompany the school's dance team, Sparkle Motion, to Los Angeles to appear on Star Search. Samantha is Sparkle Motion's lead dancer and, against her better judgment, Rose agrees. Eddie is away on business, so this means Elizabeth and Donnie are on their own.
Elizabeth is accepted into Harvard, and she and Donnie decide to throw a Halloween party to celebrate. The night of the party (October 30), Gretchen comes to Donnie's house for safety because her mother has suddenly disappeared. Donnie comforts her and they presumably make love, ignoring phone calls from Donnie's desperate therapist (who knows that Donnie is responsible for the vandalism to the high school and Jim Cunningham's house) and Rose, who calls to announce that Sparkle Motion won their initial Star Search competition and that they will return on a red eye flight that night.
At midnight, Donnie has another hallucination about the fluid light tunnels. He realizes that the 28 days have passed, and that only 6 hours remain until the end of the world. Convinced that Grandma Death is in some way connected to Frank, Donnie persuades Gretchen and two other friends to go with him to her house. When they get there, they are assaulted by the high school's resident bullies (Alex Greenwald and Seth Rogen). Gretchen is thrown dazed into the road, where she is struck and killed by a car driven by Frank (James Duval), Elizabeth's boyfriend who is on his way to their Halloween party. Frank is wearing the creepy bunny costume that Donnie's hallucination wears. Donnie uses his father's gun to shoot Frank in the right eye, killing him, then carries Gretchen's body to his home. He steals the car keys from a sleeping Elizabeth and, taking Gretchen with him, drives into the hills above town.
From that vantage point, Donnie can see a time tunnel forming over the town. The red eye flight carrying Rose and Sparkle Motion enters the turbulence created by the time tunnel, and one of the engines on the jet breaks free and falls into the tunnel. Donnie looks at Gretchen with love and the primary universe is reset to October 2nd.
It is back to October 2. Donnie is in bed, creating predestination paradox. On this occasion, he chooses to stay in bed (presumably to save the girlfriend he will never meet). Shortly after he goes to sleep, the jet engine from the red eye flight on October 30 crashes through the roof, killing him (In a deleted scene director's cut DVD it is revealed that he was actually impaled by a piece of wood from the broken roof). As Donnie's body is taken away, all the people affected by Donnie's actions are stunned: Frank, Elizabeth's boyfriend subconsciously touches his right eye and everyone else is suddenly sad. Gretchen, having never met Donnie, rides by on her bicycle. She learns from a neighbor what has happened and waves to Rose, who is smoking a cigarette (the last encounter she had with Donnie was the unpleasant argument). There is an air of mutual recognition between them.
According to Kelly and his Philosophy of Time Travel, at midnight on October 2 a Tangent Universe branches off the Primary Universe around the time when Donnie is called out of his bedroom by Frank, immediately before the appearance of the Artifact, the faulty jet engine. The inherently unstable Tangent Universe will collapse in just over 28 days and take the Primary Universe with it if not corrected. Closing the Tangent Universe is the duty of the Living Receiver, Donnie, who wields certain supernatural powers to help him in the task.
Those who die within the Tangent Universe (and would not have died otherwise) are the Manipulated Dead (Frank, Gretchen). Manipulated Dead Frank, at least, is also given certain powers in that he is able to subtly understand what is happening and have the ability to contact and influence the Living Receiver via the Fourth Dimensional Construct (water). All others within the orbit of the Living Receiver are the Manipulated Living (e.g. Ms. Pomeroy, Dr. Monnitoff), subconsciously drawn to push him towards his destiny to close the Tangent Universe and, according to the Philosophy of Time Travel, die by the Artifact.
Frank appears in the story in two guises (indeed, three guises if we assume that he 'never' dies on account of the restoration of the Primary Universe through the negation of the Tangent Universe). Firstly, there is the Manipulated Dead Frank who appears to Donnie as a premonition from the future of the Tangent Universe in the disturbing rabbit suit. Dead Frank is aware of Donnie's fate and destiny, and impels him to realize it so that the Primary Universe can be restored at the point where/when the Tangent Universe branched off from it. Secondly, there is the living boyfriend of Donnie's sister, Elizabeth, whose fate unfolds within the Tangent Universe by means of Donnie's successes in realizing his mission. This living boyfriend is fatally (in both senses) shot by Donnie towards the end of the film, a killing which was foreseen by Donnie (albeit through a glass darkly).
With regards to Donnie's mission, the question arises as to whether his success in fulfilling it was predetermined. If we assume that it was, then Donnie was fated to die a young death in the Primary Universe. If we assume that it was not, then there would not have necessarily been a Manipulated Dead Frank to guide Donnie on his mission. The fact that such a Frank existed suggests that it is probably the case that Donnie was, throughout the film, taking the inevitable steps towards his own annihilation.
The film was shot in California. Loyola High School, a prominent Catholic school in Los Angeles, California, was used as Donnie's high school. The house where the Darko family lives is located in Long Beach, California. Donnie awakens in a golf course in Long Beach, California; the hotel where his family lodges is the Burbank, California, Holiday Inn; and the Aero theater where Donnie and Gretchen watch the double feature is a cinema in Santa Monica, California.
A slightly remixed part of the song was used in the David Fincher directed TV commercial for the 2006 Xbox 360 game Gears of War. The advertisement brought the song an increased level of popularity, propelling it to number one in downloads at the iTunes music store in late 2006. This song has also had a strong presence in Internet culture, as it has been used countless times for fan videos and trailers. The song was also used at the end of an episode of CSI, at the end of an episode of Jericho, in Smallville, and the end of an episode of The Cleaner.
Other mainstream songs appear in the film, all of which are featured on the first CD of the British edition of the soundtrack. One continuous sequence involving an introduction of Donnie's high school prominently features the song "Head Over Heels" by Tears for Fears, Samantha's dance group, "Sparkle Motion," performs with the song "Notorious" by Duran Duran, and "Under the Milky Way" by The Church is played after Donnie and Gretchen emerge from his room during the party. "Love Will Tear Us Apart" by Joy Division also appears in the film during the party and shots of Donnie and Gretchen upstairs. However, the version included was released in 1995, although the film is set in 1988. The opening sequence is set to "The Killing Moon" by Echo & The Bunnymen, which relates to the plot of the film on two levels. First, Donnie's plight, newly found views on time travel and eventual demise are reflected in the chorus lines "Fate up against your will[...] will wait until you give yourself to him". Second, these lines delivered by "The Bunnymen" foreshadow the appearance of Frank as an agent of Fate.
The director's cut of the film was released on May 29, 2004, in Seattle, Washington, at the Seattle International Film Festival and later in New York City and Los Angeles on July 23, 2004. This cut includes twenty minutes of extra footage, an altered soundtrack, the director's interpretation, and visual excerpts from the book The Philosophy of Time Travel. The director's cut DVD, released on February 15, 2005, included the new footage and more soundtrack changes, as well as some additional features exclusive to the two-DVD set: excerpts from the storyboard, a 52-minute production diary, "#1 fan video," a "cult following" video interviewing British fans, and the new director's cut cinematic trailer. The director's cut DVD was released as a giveaway with copies of the British Sunday Times newspaper on February 19 2006.
Despite the poor showing at the box office, the film had attracted a devoted fan base. It was originally released on DVD and VHS in March 2002. During this time, the Pioneer Theatre in New York City's East Village began midnight screenings of Donnie Darko that continued for 28 consecutive months.
2002 — Donnie Darko won the "Special Award" at the Young Filmmakers Showcase at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. The movie also won the "Silver Scream Award" at the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival. Kelly was nominated for "Best First Feature" and "Best First Screenplay" with Donnie Darko, as well as Jake Gyllenhaal being nominated for "Best Male Lead," at the Independent Spirit Awards. The film was also nominated for the "Best Breakthrough Film" at the Online Film Critics Society Awards.
2003 — Jake Gyllenhaal won "Best Actor" and Richard Kelly "Best Original Screenplay" for Donnie Darko at the Chlotrudis Awards, where Kelly was also nominated for "Best Director" and "Best Movie."
2006 — Donnie Darko ranks ninth in FilmFour's 50 Films to See Before You Die.
2008 — Donnie Darko ranks #125 on IMDB. 's Top 250 Films.