‘Something Quite Peculiar’: Donnie Darko at 20

Richard Kelly’s portrait of the magic and misery of adolescence remains unmatched.

“Do you believe in time travel?” the demonic, 6-foot-tall rabbit asked the shy high school boy. This isn’t an excerpt from some bizarre reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, but a pivotal moment in one of the most enchanting films released so far this century. Despite the passage of time, Donnie Darko, writer-director Richard Kelly’s first feature, remains unique for its combination of nostalgic Americana, surreal science fiction, and deep humanity. Twenty years after its release, the film’s cult following has never been more feverish, and it continues to resonate profoundly within popular culture for its universal themes.

Fundamentally, Donnie Darko is about youth. Its titular, 16-year-old protagonist is a mess of jumbled hormones and emerging interests. Obsessed with sex, unfulfilled by his surroundings, and troubled by a newfound concern with existential questions, he embodies the myriad insecurities and aspirations of adolescence. The opening scene finds him asleep on a vacant road as the sun rises; he’s been sleepwalking and is taking medication for an undisclosed mental illness. He slowly regains consciousness, and cycles home through idyllic suburban streets to the tune of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” like in an ominous music video.

Later that evening, Donnie argues with his sister, lashes out at his mother, and retreats to his room. That night, his nocturnal wanderings lead him to a golf course, where he seemingly dreams an encounter with Frank, a figure in a grotesque rabbit costume who warns him that the world will end on Halloween. When he returns home the next morning, he finds his bedroom has been destroyed by a downed jet engine of mysterious origins. He subsequently begins experiencing terrifying hallucinations and odd coincidences that suggest Frank’s apocalyptic prediction might actually be true. Donnie, it turns out, has been chosen to save the world, and the film follows him on his quest. But how can he accomplish such a task when he can barely make sense of his own existence? 

Donnie’s search for meaning occurs against the backdrop of the 1988 presidential election. His internal restlessness is overpowered by the sun-drenched optimism of middle America in the final days of Reagan, where those around him are most concerned with traditional values and tax rates. Kelly distinguishes his film by juxtaposing ordinary teenage experiences in a comfortable environment with nightmarish imagery. When Donnie takes his first love, Gretchen, on a date to the movies, Frank appears to project an unsettling vision of the future onto the screen. Lingering on the outskirts of Donnie’s quaint Virginia town is “Grandma Death,” a demented elderly woman whose presence haunts the idle moments he spends outside with friends. Kelly’s America is equally informed by the warmth of Stephen Spielberg and the strangeness of David Lynch. By merging the unreal with the familiar, he captures the emotional confusion of adolescence.  

Donnie Darko is also defined by a magnificent soundtrack. Yet when pop songs appear, they similarly blend anxiety with happiness. “The Killing Moon” is darkly romantic, but its references to questions of fate and free will establish Donnie’s overriding fear that life could be pointless, a theme revisited when The Church’s “Under the Milky Way” plays when he and Gretchen are at their closest. Likewise, Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” accompanies perhaps the film’s most magical sequence: A tour of Donnie’s school in which we are introduced to his teachers and peers. The scene beautifully conveys the excitement of childhood, but the overlaying lyrics remind us that inevitably, innocence is lost and “time flies.”

Nonetheless, the essence of Donnie Darko is joy, not pain. Kelly injects the film with humor that is never intrusive, and his dialogue is both quotable and well observed. Superficially, the characters he creates are clichéd rejects from a John Hughes script (the nurturing mother; the oppressive, hyper-Christian teacher; the beloved celebrity whose outward charm conceals an evil secret). But the performances behind them are incredibly convincing, and their actions always surprise.

Nothing about Donnie Darko is predictable. Beneath its stylish exterior, the film is designed to perplex the viewer with allusions to time travel, wormholes, and other oblique concepts. It exists to be experienced as work of pure cinema rather than understood in accordance with the demands of conventional storytelling, and its most memorable sequences are entirely visual. When Kelly released Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut in 2004, his changes unnecessarily made the storyline simple to decipher, and served to diminish the film’s magic. In its original form, Donnie Darko’s ending is almost inscrutable, and yet there is dreamlike logic to it. On an emotional level, the film’s narrative delivers immense satisfaction, and its final moments make perfect sense.

Kelly began working on Donnie Darko shortly after graduating from college while attempting to decide what to do with his life. This lack of direction inspired him to revisit his high school years and the feeling of uncertainty that pervaded the decisions he made at a similar turning point. Donnie Darko is a majestic expression of that uncertainty, into which Kelly poured his every memory of growing up. And the film’s devotees are so rabid because their memories of youth, both fond and unpleasant, are identical to his in fundamental ways. We share many of the same struggles, desires, and accomplishments. After all, human nature is immutable, and so too is Donnie Darko’s brilliance.