‘Donnie Darko’: One of the Best Superhero Stories Ever Told

When Donnie Darko was released in 2001 it was a commercial flop. Making just $7.5 million at the box office, not enough people saw it for positive buzz to spread fast enough for it to be a success. But today, Richard Kelly’s tale of an unsettled high schooler tasked with preventing a catastrophe is widely seen as a cult classic beloved by horror and sci-fi fans. For Kelly, it was his one hit wonder, but if you’re going to be a one hit wonder… make it as unforgettable as Donnie Darko.

Frank, the time-traveling character that provokes Donnie’s sleepwalking episodes.

Every time I revisit the mind-bending tangent universe of the film I find it harder to verbalize its genius. All the elements needed to bring it to life in a way that would successfully engage is quite baffling. The further down the rabbit hole, the more mystifying it becomes. It’s complex, undoubtedly, for some even confusing—but it still wins people over. There’s a thread running through the science fiction, time travel and trippy events that keeps us involved and it’s precious. It has to be, otherwise, Donnie Darko would be a wood entered only to be lost in and never to come out the other side. Thankfully, Kelly’s grainy and hypnotic puzzle is a spectrum of emotion and theoretical physics that covers all angles, piquing curiosity and rarely losing a passenger during the ride.

“She said that every living creature on Earth dies alone.”

With so many different things to manage, it wouldn’t be surprising for a project such as this to be tonally turbulent and unhinged. Instead, Donnie Darko has overarching thematics and sensations which pull the world around it into the mystery and horror, like a kaleidoscopic warping of the physical dimension. Everything sinks and swirls as reality circles the drain. The segmented parts of the film move in and out of fields of feelings. You don’t step into the stranger sequences then sit through benignity. There’s something there, always, that hangs above heads like a cloud. It’s not a dark one, it doesn’t look to unnerve or frighten (although it definitely is creepy), it’s simply there. Showering you with just enough consistency for the whole cut to come together with fluidity. 

Donnie wakes up with the date that the world is supposed to end on his arm.

Something lost on me before my most recent viewing is how important the surrounding people in Donnie’s life are. Aside from the fact they’re required to move him into place for the sequence of events to take place, the supporting characters are fleshed out just enough to justify grief and care for them. Whether it’s the father just trying to bring everyone together with laughs, the mother holding the house together like glue, the sister who provides the dinner time banter, or the peripheral teachers trying to inject something new into brain dead classrooms—they all matter. And whether they’re bad or good they’re part of something. Not sideshows or expendable comedic relief, real people with real problems.

Donnie and Gretchen (Jena Malone).

For Donnie Darko to truly succeed it needed to do so much work on the outskirts to help us realize subliminal cogs are just as needed as the ones in the center. The inevitability they bring is essential too because they all have a moment which plays like a goodbye, something extra to add to the slate so that Donnie would want to wipe it clean. Each person has a moment that humanizes them, too. The full realization of the town of Middlesex is half the hard work, but it’s wonderfully under the radar.

Rose Darko (Mary McDonnell) reading Stephen King’s IT.

Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular Donnie is a multitude of great character traits. He’s representative of a lot of teenage angst but he seems darker and all-consuming. He’s lost and confused by what’s happening around him—much like we are—and the characters operate like chess pieces backing him into a corner until he only has one move left. The finality of the events is fascinating because although sad, because of Donnie’s death, it’s the relief and appreciation of his sacrifice that causes chords to be struck.

The hotel the Darko family stay in after their home is wrecked by the jet engine.

With some slight changes to character writing, the ending would’ve been soul-crushing, but Donnie’s path to enlightenment is also one of acceptance. As he learns to love what is around him and not fear the end, he begins to understand his role and what he has to do for the duplicate universe to cease to exist without collapsing in on itself and threatening the primary one. For Donnie, this story is a quest, with artifacts, characters, and locations posed along the way to help him reach his destination and understand what he must do. When he gains control over his gifts to manipulate the elements he has grown and empathized with the world around him enough to want to save it.

Sparkle Motion’s talent show performance.

Each time I watch the credits after “Mad World” plays over the aftermath of the jet engine, I’m moved in a way that probably isn’t adverse to what Donnie’s friends and family are feeling in their last appearances. All jolted awake by something in the middle of the night, they feel what is perhaps remorse, thankfulness or something different. They don’t know exactly why they just know they feel it and that it’s strong enough to make them cry. They’re totally alone. They experience it singularly. All these people sharing a specific emotion but separately, for the rules don’t allow them to know. When I hear people talk of not understanding Donnie Darko but still loving it, that’s all I can compare it to. To be moved by something you don’t fully comprehend might be one of the most instinctual things a person can experience. At the epicenter of our being there is an ability to be touched, and by the end of the October calendar page, we see one of the most down to earth examples of emotion transcending everything else there is.

Donnie carrying Gretchen home after the car accident.

Great superhero stories are usually comprised of three things: a normal person gave unimaginable gifts, an obstacle that threatens the ones they love, and a great sacrifice. In my eyes, Donnie is one of cinema’s most underrated heroes. And it’s not because he did everything right or was in the traditional sense heroic, it’s because he was the opposite of what we’ve come to expect from a “chosen one”. 

“Did you know him?”

I don’t know why Donnie Darko was unsuccessful upon release. Why did it take people so long to realize an all-time great had gone unnoticed? Marketing problems, distribution, whatever it might have been; all I know now is that, like many others, it’s one of my favorite films, and I don’t believe there’s anything comparable, there’ll probably never be. Luckily, the news did eventually spread. The film, like its cryptic and troubled teen, fulfilled its destiny and found appreciation after the fact. Peace was restored to the galaxy, the balance was brought to the force, a jet engine was chucked through a portal back to where it belongs and so on and so forth…

All images courtesy of Newmarket Films
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