Friday 28 April 2017

On Second Thoughts #2... Donnie Darko (2001)

Welcome to On Second Thoughts..., a new column in which I look back at a movie I didn't much care for on first viewing and give it another chance. Most of the films I cover in these columns will be ones I haven't seen in years, so there's a good chance my opinions and feelings about them may have changed over time. Well, that's the idea, anyway...

What is it? Donnie Darko was writer/director Richard Kelly's debut 2001 feature, following two short films, The Goodbye Place and Visceral Matter. Initially a box-office dud (a movie featuring a plane crash was never going to do well in the month after the 9/11 attacks), it subsequently became a huge hit on home video and a cult favourite (New York's Pioneer Theater played DD as a midnight movie for 28 months). Mad World - a cover of the Tears For Fears song by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews from its soundtrack - was a No.1 hit in the UK. A longer Director's Cut of the film (which I've never seen) was released in 2004.

What's it about? It's 1988, and 16-year-old Donnie Darko (Gyllenhaal) is a troubled - perhaps schizophrenic - high-school student. One night the engine from a passenger jet falls through the roof of the home he shares with his parents and two sisters (including Gyllenhaal's real-life sibling, Maggie), completely destroying his room. Donnie should have been killed but wasn't in the house at the time - instead he had been sleepwalking and ended up unconscious on the local golf course. It turns out Donnie has been having visions of a bizarre, skull-faced rabbit-man, named Frank, who we are led to believe has time-travelled from the future or another dimension. He gives Donnie a grave warning - the world will end in 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Initially, Donnie doesn't seem to believe him and even starts dating Gretchen (Jena Malone), a new student at his school. But as his visions become more regular and intense, Donnie realises something very strange and quite possibly apocalyptic is going down.

Three's a crowd: Donnie and Gretchen's first date doesn't go smoothly

Why didn't I like it first time round? I initially dismissed director Kelly as a wannabe David Lynch and thought Donnie Darko - weird and scary things happen in a small white-bread town - was just another in a long line of films and TV shows desperate to be 'the new Twin Peaks'. It didn't help that Mulholland Drive came out the same year and pretty much cornered the market in bafflingly brilliant psychodramas. The Lynch comparison was one Kelly certainly recognised. Jake Gyllenhaal once remarked that, after they’d seen Mulholland Drive together, the director joked, “I guess we made the Bambi version.”

Why am I rewatching it now? To celebrate its 15th anniversary (apparently, that's a thing now), Donnie Darko was given a brand new 4K restoration and re-released into UK cinemas last Christmas, with the US following with showings this month and last. There were even rumours of a third film in the DD series (following 2009's poorly received S. Darko) but these have thus far come to nothing.

Bunny monster: Frank warns Donnie of impending disaster

Has my opinion changed? On the whole, yes, but the stuff I most enjoyed about Donnie Darko is that which goes on around the periphery of the main story, rather than the main story itself. I love the way Donnie's sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bickers with her Republican parents over the forthcoming presidential election ("Vote Dukakis!"); the Patrick Swayze subplot and the horribly dark turn it takes; Drew Barrymore's battle with reactionary parents over the teaching of Graham Green's short story, The Destructors, and the clever way that story - 'destruction is a form of creation' - feeds into the main narrative; Donnie's younger sister, Samantha (Daveigh Chase), and her Sparkle Motion dance crew; Kelly's inspired use of music throughout (especially Echo And The Bunnymen's Killing Moon and Tears For Fears' Head Over Heels), and the homages to Spielberg and King, years before Super 8 and Stranger Things. Most of all, though, I love Gyllenhaal, whose Donnie actually resembles a living, breathing teenager - surly, confused, troubled, destructive. There were times I wondered if you were meant to like him at all.

Kelly's film is a far richer and more rewarding movie than I'd given it credit for, but all that clumsy and confusing 'philosophy of time travel' stuff - with its 'tangent universes', 'liquid spears' and 'living receivers' - is the least interesting thing about it. In fact, the only element I really like about the 'end of the world' plotline is the big reveal about rabbit-man Frank, which is smart, disturbing and sad.

Teenagers seem to think the universe revolves around them. In Donnie's case, it actually did.

Scene you should check out on YouTube right now: Donnie disses Swayze's motivational speaker, Jim Cunningham ("I think you're the fucking Antichrist"), and is swiftly escorted away by the school principle, much to the amusement of his fellow students.

Rating then: W
Rating now: WWW

Coming soon: The Shawshank Redemption

Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful


  1. I own a copy of the director's cut but I have no idea where it's gone. Apparently I haven't missed it!

    Looking back it's probably not a very good film but I have a fondness for it because I love time travel stories. It's no Timecrimes though!

  2. It's a frustrating film - probably two-thirds of a really good movie but let down by the overcomplicated and clunky stuff. I'm still waiting for the Frank/Harvey crossover though...