Donnie Darko’s Perfect Study of Teenage Isolation

Donnie Darko is a much-loved cult sci-fi film. But it's also a superb observation of what it's like to be a teenage outsider...

Donnie Darko
Photo: Pandora Cinema

Frank, the apocalypse rabbit. Roberta Sparrow’s Philosophy Of Time Travel. Tangent universes. Living Receivers. The Manipulated Dead.

Type the words “Donnie Darko” into Google, and you’ll find lengthy videos or even entire websites that try to unravel the knotty mystery of Richard Kelly’s 2001 debut. In fact, I’ve often spent time looking through some of the explanations and theories surrounding the film – its time loops, alternate realities and dreams. But in the process, I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that the bewildering sci-fi elements are only a small part of what makes Donnie Darko such an affecting cult film, and why I keep returning to it over and over again.

At Donnie Darkos center is Jake Gyllenhaal’s intense title performance as a disturbed, isolated teenager living in late-80s suburban America. It’s telling that, as the movie opens, the first shot of Donnie sees him utterly alone. Waking up on a hillside seemingly miles outside the small town where he lives, Donnie cycles home to the ominous chords of “The Killing Moon”by Echo & The Bunnymen – a taste of dark events to come.

Donnie Darkos opening five minutes are a showcase for Richard Kelly’s economical storytelling. In its wordless opening seconds, Kelly depicts Donnie as a solitary figure passing through a landscape of affluence and seeming perfection. The town of Middlesex lies nestled among green hills and pine trees. There’s Donnie’s father, blowing the autumn leaves from his beautifully manicured lawn. Donnie’s mother Rose (Mary McDonnell) reads Stephen King’s It on a sun lounger while his sister bounces happily on a trampoline in the vast back garden. 

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Against this pristine backdrop, Donnie stands out as an anomaly. His parents pay for him to see an expensive psychotherapist, Dr Thurman (Katharine Ross), who prescribes him various pills with exotic-sounding names, but still Donnie doesn’t quite fit in. He’s hostile to his mother and distant at school. He walks in his sleep and wakes up in strange places. 

Everything changes on the 2nd October, when Donnie chooses to go on one of his night walks at a fateful moment. As a jet engine from an airliner descends on the Darko residence, reducing Donnie’s room to so much firewood, Donnie sleepwalks onto a nearby golf course, where he meets Frank. Frank’s an eerie figure in a rabbit costume, who comes to Donnie with a prophecy: that the world will end in a little over 28 days.

Seemingly galvanised by this meeting, Donnie embarks on a secret campaign of destruction, first rupturing a water main at his school and then burning down the house of a respected self-help guru, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). As the days to Frank’s apocalypse count down, Donnie falls for a new girl at school, Gretchen (Jena Malone), and becomes fixated with a book on time travel by a reclusive old woman. But is the world really going to end, or is Frank’s prediction all part of Donnie’s mental illness, as Dr Thurman believes?

From beginning to end, Donnie Darko straddles the line between the dreamlike and everyday, between the glossy, rose-tinted memory of what the 80s were like and the sharper-edged reality. Donnie’s school is introduced in a delirious sweep of the camera and slow-motion shots cut to “Head Over Heels” by Tears For Fears. Interestingly, Kelly doesn’t depict the cliques we’re used to seeing in most high school movies. We don’t see jocks and nerds fenced off in their individual groups. Instead, Kelly shows his characters either passing through each shot either on their own or in small huddles of two or three – they’re individuals, rather than members of a herd. 

The depiction of teenage life is, I think, what makes Donnie Darko such an effective, funny and moving film. There’s an honesty to the way each character is delineated, no matter how small their role is in the overall drama – particularly Cherita (Jolene Purdy), the quiet schoolgirl whose only retort to her tormentors seems to be a plaintive “shut up.”

Through these characters, Kelly gets across the private pain and awkwardness of growing up – that weird twilight zone between childhood and adulthood, where the future seems to be both infinite and filled with uncertainty. Donnie’s surrounded by conflicting adult voices – his rightwing father, his liberal English teacher, his reactionary PE teacher Kitty (Beth Grant), who blathers on about fear and love – they all seem to cancel each other out rather than offer a clear roadmap for the future.

Donnie faces the same dilemma everyone faces in their mid-teens: working out exactly who it is they’re to become as adults. But for Donnie, that conundrum’s made triply difficult because of his psychological problems – a part of his character beautifully played by Gyllenhaal. Some of the most amusing and touching scenes are between Donnie and his psychiatrist (“How did you feel when you were denied these Hungry Hungry Hippos” Dr Thurman asks Donnie, with a hint of distaste at the words), or Donnie and his mother, Rose.

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There’s a tenderness to these moments that could be missed among the wider story of falling jet engines and rabbit-shaped apparitions. Indeed, the sci-fi fable Kelly weaves around the central character could easily be read as a symbol of Donnie’s troubled perception of the world around him. Frank could represent the area of Donnie’s psyche that both disturbs and fascinates –  a small but naggingly persistent part of an otherwise intelligent and likeable young man. 

These episodes aside, we see Donnie hang out with his friends, grow closer to Gretchen, who seems beguiled by his eccentricities, and engage in philosophical discussions with his science teacher, Dr Monnitoff (Noah Wyle). Moving between outright comedy – Donnie’s “You are the antichrist” line to Patrick Swayze’s glib self-help guru, for example – to astutely observed drama to sci-fi tragedy gives the movie a unique, fluid quality.

Kelly wrote Donnie Darko when he was just 23. At the time, he was still fetching sandwiches and cups of coffee for rich and famous people at a Hollywood production company. In his spare time, Kelly began to write his screenplay, which seemed to come out in a torrent of memories and sci-fi ideas – even in the first draft, much of the finished script’s tone and character was already on the page.

It’s this unedited and honest approach to writing Donnie Darko that makes the finished film – Kelly’s feature debut – so resonant. A youthful energy runs through it, driving the plot along even when you’re not quite sure where it’s going next. Kelly isn’t afraid to tell a story that goes against the grain of Robert McKee-type storytelling; that doesn’t adhere to the expectations of genre. He’s since cited Terry Gilliam and David Lynch as being among his favourite directors, and there’s more than a  hint of their surrealist attitude inDonnie DarkoBut overwhelmingly, the film has all the hallmarks and advantages of a work by a director whose memories of youth are still clear: it feels completely rooted in what it feels like to be a teenager – the laughter, the friendship, but also the awkwardness and confusion. 

Kelly finds a fantastical way to depict what every youngster eventually faces: the looming reality of adulthood. If you’re lucky, like Donnie’s Harvard-bound sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the future can look inviting. If your mind is as at war with itself as Donnie’s, then the future can look like an oncoming storm. Or worse, like an apocalypse.

Barely seen in cinemas on release in 2001, Donnie Darko seemed doomed, like its central character, to outsider status. But over time, it’s become a celebrated cult item, its growing base of vocal fans prompting the theatrical release of a director’s cut and even a sequel, S. Darko, which Kelly had nothing to do with. The director’s cut helps to explain much that seemed wilfully obscure in the earlier version: the rules of its primary and tangential universes, Donnie’s role as a living receiver, the jet engine’s role in the whole cycle of events.

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This, fittingly, brings me full circle. Because while interpreting and exploring Donnie Darko‘s riddles is an absorbing pursuit in its own right, it’s the characters, and the way the mercury-like plot gives them the freedom to breathe, that keeps me returning to Donnie Darko. To regard Donnie Darko as a puzzle to be solved is to miss the powerful humanity in its drama.