Donnie Darko (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #26

Twenty-eight days, six hours,
forty-two minutes, twelve seconds…
that is when the world will end.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 113 minutes | 134 minutes (director’s cut)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 26th October 2001
UK Release: 25th October 2002
First Seen: cinema, November 2002

Stars
Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time)
Jena Malone (Saved!, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition)
Noah Wyle (A Few Good Men, The World Made Straight)
Drew Barrymore (Never Been Kissed, 50 First Dates)
Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing, Ghost)

Director
Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box)

Screenwriter
Richard Kelly (Domino, Southland Tales)

The Story
Troubled teen Donnie Darko is saved from a jet engine falling on his bedroom by a vision of a grotesque rabbit that tells him the world will end in less than a month. Over the coming weeks, more strange and possibly supernatural events occur, and it all gets quite complicated and stuff.

Our Hero
“Donnie Darko. What the hell kind of name is that? It’s like some sort of superhero or something.” “What makes you think I’m not?” The eponymous teenager is a troubled young man, possibly suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, who begins to perform acts under the influence of his imaginary rabbit friend.

Our Villains
Who’s the greatest evil: Frank, the six-foot imaginary rabbit who proclaims the world is going to end; Jim Cunningham, the motivational speaker with dark secrets; or moral-crusading gym teacher Kitty Farmer?

Best Supporting Character
New girl in town Gretchen may be the only person who ‘gets’ Donnie. Bonus points to Kelly for writing a geek-fantasy girlfriend character who doesn’t conform to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype.

Memorable Quote
Donnie: “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?”
Frank: “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.” — Kitty Farmer

Memorable Scene
Donnie wakes up in the middle of nowhere at dawn, in his pyjamas but with his bike discarded nearby. As he rides home, we see snapshots of his small town and his family, all set to The Killing Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen.

Memorable Music
The film makes strong use of contemporary pop music. It all seems to sit perfectly, which is a little ironic as a good number of tracks were changed because they couldn’t afford the rights on such a low budget. The director’s cut restores some of the original choices, which was a mistake. The film’s soundtrack composer, Michael Andrews, and his chum Gary Jules recorded a cover of Tears for Fears’ Mad World for the film, which wound up being the coveted UK Christmas number one for 2003 (beating the likes of The Darkness’ Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End), and Bill Nighy’s Christmas is All Around from Love Actually).

Next time…
Whoever owns the rights attempted to cash in with sequel S. Darko, about Donnie’s younger sister. Richard Kelly wasn’t involved at all. It was not well received.

Awards
Toronto Film Critics Association Awards special citation for “the best film not to receive a proper theatrical release in Canada”.

What the Critics Said
“has a texture and tang all its own, despite its remarkable mixture of genres and expressive modes — horror, romance, science fiction, teen flicks, and Robert Bresson meets Generation Y, to name a few. There’s also a dry realism in its evocation of suburban life, which abrades nicely against the bouts of slow- and fast-motion photography that jiggle time and make the ordinary shiver. Kelly, who also wrote the script, has a great ear for family dinner-table arguments about politics, teenage debates about the sexual habits of Smurfs, and the quotidian absurdities of small-town colloquy. Local busybody Kitty Farmer’s near-hysterical complaint to Donnie’s mother, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” (the name of their daughters’ dance troupe), is for some unfathomable reason my favourite line of dialogue this year.” — Leslie Felperin, Sight & Sound

Score: 85%

What the American Critics Said About the Director’s Cut
“First-time writer-director Richard Kelly’s breathtakingly ambitious Donnie Darko was one of the best pictures released in 2001. Now that it has returned in a 20-minute longer — and richer — director’s cut, it seems sure to be ranked as one of the key American films of the decade.” — Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

What the British Critics Said About the Director’s Cut
“If it’s your first viewing, you should still be wowed by an astounding masterpiece. But this is undoubtedly the lesser of the two cuts, and since you have the choice, you should stick with version one. […] All this director has done is cut a star off his five-star debut.” — William Thomas, Empire

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“Maybe Richard Kelly’s fate is to be the cult circuit’s Michael Cimino — forever admired for one great film amid subsequent missteps, including a director’s cut of the same movie. Kelly has yet to match the mysterious mood or magnitude of his filmmaking debut […] a collision of time-travel sci-fi, commentary on ’80s Reaganomics malaise and teen angst that’s simultaneously witty and poignant. Non-Darkolytes should start with the enigmatic theatrical cut and proceed further if curious.” — Nick Rogers, The Film Yap

Verdict

When it finally made its way to UK shores, about a year after its initial US release, Donnie Darko was something of a hit — it made more money here than Stateside, in fact. I know several people who stumbled upon it “just because it was showing”. Conversely, I made a special trip to see it at a distant cinema at an inconvenient hour, having heard about it from US reviews. I would’ve been 16, which is probably the best kind of age to become enamoured of its misunderstood teen hero and its complicated, semi-inexplicable sci-fi story. I haven’t actually watched it for years, and never made time for the divisive director’s cut, but (whatever I’d think of it now) it remains a key touchstone in my teenage film experience.

#27 will be…

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