Donnie Darko has officially been out for 20 years. This post obviously contains “spoilers.”
My cult movie experimentation continued with an iconic guest and his friend in a bunny suit. Watching Donnie Darko for the first time, I was surprised by a star-studded cameos including everyone from Patrick Swayze to Ashley Tisdale and Seth Rogan, a young pair of Gyllenhaal kids, and an iconic movie that is minted as such even having seemingly lost sight of its own plot.
The absurdity of Donnie Darko is, perhaps, a major part of its draw. It’s an experience like no other, leaving people with so many questions they go to Reddit to explore (and argue) the truth behind the narrative.
I was one of these people drawn into the conversation, and was surprised to find many people took enlightenment from this broody film. The argument for this being that it makes you question the human experience, the truths that people hold to their hearts, the ways in which you can perceive your own purpose in life.
The very nebulous concept of our place in life, ironically, is one of the more clear messages of this demented film.
With so many people having already gone to such depths, it isn’t easy to present a new take on Donnie Darko. The internet as it has a habit of doing, has already picked its bones clean. Even though there are all of these resources to trying to explain the experience, each of them ultimately fail.
Watching Donnie Dark for the first time
At 26 years old, I finished my first-ever viewing of Donnie Darko both baffled and entranced. The message boards tried to explain to me the where it’s set, which is somewhere between the tangent and the primary universe.
And with that, we’re off to the races.
Some other more concrete ideas suggest that the movie looks at the concept of fear on the opposite side of the spectrum of love.
The character Donnie (Jake G) points out that you can’t possibly simplify the human experience into two categories, and so is the truth to the movie itself. You can try to boil it down, as the motivational speaker does to Donnie and his classmates in the assembly scene, but ultimately this is shallow thinking.
The Fear/Love Dichotomy
The Fear/Love concept isn’t unique to DD, as Twin Peaks explored similar themes in accessing the Black and White Lodges. In the case of Donnie, however, we see how it can possibly be manifested in one person.
When we meet him, giggling, in the middle of a winding mountain road, displaced and endangered, he doesn’t seem to fit into a theme of love nor fear. We see him in a sense of discomfort, though he manages well, almost relishing the fact that he isn’t particularly stable.
Off the bat you know this character isn’t driven by fear or love, but something else. It’s a sensation that, perhaps, if you asked him then in that moment, even he wouldn’t be able to explain. After all, not even Jake Gyllenhaal, who played Donnie, could tell you what it’s about.
As the audience, it feels like we’re also being led to choose whether to love or fear what we’re watching. Enter Frank: the iconic man in the bunny suit that’s becomes a companion of sorts for Donnie. Is he an illusion? Is he a manifestation?
He appears only to Donnie, somewhat calming, somewhat menacing, and completely freaky. Although his long horse-like face, which opens back out into a huge ominous grin, is undoubtedly designed to unsettle the audience, Donnie often greets him with a similarly coy smile; one of welcome and curiosity.
Does Donnie love the encounter as a friendship or as an experience that sets him apart from his family and peers? You might start out thinking so, that is, until you see Donnie so startled by a vision of Frank while under hypnosis that you, as a viewer bunny hop in your seat.
Donnie also takes a kitchen knife to Frank’s eye in an attempt to break through the liquid barrier he appears behind one evening in the bathroom, which seems to point to something self-destructive and not at all welcoming.
But on a whole, Donnie is welcoming—trusting, even—of Frank in his topsy-turvy life. For the most part Donnie is unflinching when Frank arrives, even when he breaks his moments of peace and sanctity. When Frank gives Donnie a task to do, Donnie accepts it on the spot, pulling his hood over his head in a mobilizing gesture.
Donnie, overall, seems to act on impulse. He jumps at every semi-conscious opportunity for mischief that Frank presents, but he also uses his own internal urgings to press forward.
He tells even his best friends to back down from bullying the outcasted Asian girl (who’s later revealed to have a crush on Donnie – probably from this exhibition of machismo).
He takes the opportunity during which school is canceled (due to his flooding of it) to ask out the girl.
He calls out Jim Cunningham, author and motivational speaker, for being a sell-out who has nothing but vague buzzwords to feed to kids who have real questions about life.
(Well, what he really calls him is “the fucking antichrist.”)
What is likable about Donnie is that he stands up for the underdogs, goes for the girl, and shares well-thought-out perspectives on literature in class; so, in a word, relatable. What is likable about Donnie Darko is that it isn’t really about relating to the common viewer. It’s a story that’s so otherworldly that you would hope not to relate, but rather be the Michael Jackson eating popcorn in the comments.
(Jake Gyllenhaal reportedly didn’t even know what the movie was about once it wrapped.)
Donnie Darko is a movie that makes you feel things that are off the spectrum of what most movies hope to elicit: fear or love. It isn’t a horror. Actually, there are many moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. (As a reply to his friend boastfully offering him “the good shit,” Donnie replies, “it’s a fucking cigarette.”) There’s enough comedy to keep you hooked, enough science fiction to keep you guessing, enough shock-value to keep you awake, but still, the movie falls into a category all its own when it comes to how you’ll feel when you reach the credits.
Donnie explores emotions on a topsy-turvy scale, but also tries to understand the concept of free will vs. fate. Around him he sees people acting in ways that are literally already drawn out for them. He questions whether or not we can make our own decisions, or if what Frank tells him to do is just part of his own blueprints.
This is what’s best about DD, and this is what’s kept it in such popular cannon some 17 years later. The film allows you to go into your own sliding scale of depth. You can enjoy the fear factor and the progression of the story as each piece is presented, or you can spend hours reading up (or watching the Director’s Cut) to uncover the true intent of the script – and come to the conclusion that you have more questions.
For me, the movie ended and I didn’t know what I was feeling. I sat and pondered for a while what it all could have meant – if it was all a dream. As “Mad World” played in the background, you’re guided even further down the rabbit hole of emotions. It’s hard to tell you and it’s hard to take; it’s kind of funny and it’s kind of sad. It’s all up to you to decide.
This is exactly how I felt after watching this movie, and even now, years later, i’m still not sure how to feel about this movie.