Donnie Darko is a sleep-walking teenager manipulated by a giant bunny after discovering the exact time of the apocalypse. Richard Kelly’s only good film sounded like a long shot from the outset, but with time-travel, paedophilia, and loss of virginity all filmed over 28 days (the same time Donnie is told until the world ends) – this was a mind-boggling fantasy ride of genius proportions. And all written and directed by the guy who made Domino. Jake Gyllenhaal is that good.
Different interpretations have claimed Donnie is an angel, time-traveler or second coming. The Philosophy of Time Travel – a book given to Donnie by local crazy Roberta Sparrow – reveals the possibility of dual-universes, much like the alternate 1985 in Back to the Future Part II. When his girlfriend is killed by the giant bunny Frank, Donnie shoots him in the eye and realises he can let himself die to avert her death and allow the primary universe to continue. Donnie Darko self-sacrificially lives up to his superhero-sounding name.
Despite this being an early career boost for Jake Gyllenhaal there are some great names to be seen. The late Patrick Swayze plays a self-help guidance tutor who turns out to be a paedophile. After a tip from Frank, Donnie is able to burn down his house and reveal to everyone his dark secret. At the other end of the spectrum Drew Barrymore plays a good-hearted teacher trying to make a rebellious difference in a strict school, before losing her job. Sounds like a downer but something about the film makes you happy, and the brilliant eighties soundtrack certainly plays a part in that.
Despite winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Donnie Darko didn’t break even at the box office. It has since developed a huge cult following that led to the Director’s Cut release and a Christmas number one for the song that ran over the credits, a cover of Mad World. There have been theatre productions and even a competition for the best fan-made 60-second version of the film. The winner is below. A sequel called S. Darko was released. Needless to say it didn’t do well, nor did it deserve to.