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Weekly Classics: Donnie Darko

December 22, 2012

"Every living creature on Earth dies alone." – Roberta Sparrow (Grandma Death)

The best thing about art is that it’s quite unlike a scientific equation. Art can’t be interpreted with one explanation. You may perceive a painting in a particular way from one vantage point and find an entirely different picture from another. The best pieces of art are left open to interpretation. If film making is an art form, then this movie is a young prodigy’s magnum opus.

When 25-year-old debutant writer-director Richard Kelly completed filming Donnie Darko in 2001, he had a hard time finding a distributor in the US because the movie just couldn’t be clubbed into one or two specific genres. This bizarre film touches upon multiple tones and messages, although most viewers mistake it for another sci-fi fantasy tale of a teenager struggling to cope with life and his new-found obsession with time-travel.

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Donnie is a troubled but intelligent young lad, possibly too smart for his own good. And he has questions, questions that are often snubbed by his elders and teachers, and often too difficult to answer for his friends. Donnie has friends, he dates a beautiful girl, but he’s lonely.

Otherwise a calm and quiet kid, Donnie’s random bouts of aggression worry his parents, and he’s put on regular psychotherapy sessions after he gets into trouble for burning down a house.

Taking it as a mandatory exercise he has to put up with due to his parents’ insistence, he continues regular therapy and his prescribed medication. But Donnie needs real help – real answers to the troubling questions he’s faced with – and sees a ray of hope when befriends Frank, an imaginary monstrous six-foot rabbit who says he can show Donnie the way.

Frank also tells Donnie that the world is going to end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.

Cinema theatre scene when Donnie meets Frank as Gretchen is fast asleep.Donnie: “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?”Frank: “Why are you wearing that stupid man-suit?”
Cinema theatre scene when Donnie meets Frank as Gretchen is fast asleep.
Donnie: “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?”
Frank: “Why are you wearing that stupid man-suit?”

Hidden underneath the conventional late-1980s-American-family-cum-high-school settings, this confusingly strange film paints itself in tones difficult to make out in a quick glance. Watch it once, and you may be touched by young Darko’s rebellious nature and his insistence on questioning things around him … even depressed by his acute inability to relate to everyday life. But watch it a second time a little closely and the movie digs up questions in your head you’d probably buried in away in a casket in your own youth: questions about life, death, god and solitude.

It is perhaps in two scenes where the films underlying philosophical messages are most evident.

First, when Donnie’s literature teacher, Karen (played by Drew Barrymore), does a critical study with her students on Graham Greene’s The Destructors, a short story in which a gang of boys burn an old man’s house to the ground, find a stash of money but ironically burn it as well. Among her students, Donnie has the most noticeable of interpretations, identifying destruction as a form of creativity.

Karen Pommeroy: [to Donnie during her last day at school] This famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, that "cellar door" is the most beautiful.
Karen Pomeroy: [to Donnie during her last day at school] This famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, that "cellar door" is the most beautiful.

The second sequence is during a conversation with his psychotherapist about death and loneliness when she asks him if he feels lonely. Donnie replies by telling her how futile and absurd he thinks questioning god’s existence is, and how he doesn’t want to die alone.


Although the acting is not stellar, it is not bad either. Simply put, you could say more could be desired of the lead character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Drew Barrymore (who also helpoed make the film as an executive producer) does well to play Karen Pomeroy, the English teacher who, along with Prof. Kenneth Monnitoff (played by Noah Wyle), has a significant impact on Donnie’s imagination. The best performance is perhaps delivered by Mary McDonnell, playing the confident Rose Darko who consistently worries about her son’s troubled life.

There is much to write home about the film’s music though, which builds the emotion in the narrative. The exceptionally original score deserves a five-star rating, especially the beautiful piano-cum-dreamy-synth rendition of “Mad World”, a 1982 song by Tears for Fears”, by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules. Appearing at the end of the movie, the song, which perhaps played a major part in transforming the film into a cult classic, delivers a climax of hopelessness that may reduce many strong-hearted cinema-goers to tears.

All in all, Donnie Darko is perhaps the best debut a writer-director could achieve for his first full-length film, but it is also Richard Kelly’s only movie of note so far. However, with people rating it 8.2/10 on, the film’s original script, screenplay and music make up for his future failures.

My advice? Don’t watch Donnie Darko. Watch it twice.


*Recommended reading: The Destructors, by Graham Greene


The writer is a journalist at