There aren’t many movies out there that I’d want to watch twice, but Donnie Darko is the happy exception. It’s not only worthwhile; it’s also necessary if you really want to get it. I’d recommend two viewings as a bare minimum. In fact, I’d even recommend buying the director’s cut…
Donnie is a high schooler who’s losing his mind. Or so everyone around him thinks–with the possible exception of two preternaturally understanding teachers. He’s in therapy and on medication (which he refuses to take); he sleepwalks right out of the house and even rides his bike off into the mountains while in a trance, only to doze off in the middle of the road–or a golf green; and most frightening of all, he has an imaginary friend named Frank, who’s a man-sized rabbit from hell. At Frank’s behest, Donnie does seemingly unwarranted damage, like chopping through a water pipe so that his school will be flooded; later, he sets fire to a local celebrity’s house, revealing the smarmy motivational speaker’s skeleton-in-the-closet: a sizable cache of kiddie porn, hidden in a secret room.
As the story unfolds, we realize that Frank is no mere schizophrenic hallucination, ordering Donnie to destroy at random. His methods are bizarre, but precise. At their first meeting, Frank gives Donnie an exact rundown of how many days, hours, minutes and seconds will elapse before his world will end. This is just one of many strange foreshadowings, which are explained in startling fashion later on: Donnie is really a time traveler, whose purpose is to somehow unwind and set right all the dark, gone-wrong lives around him. Unfortunately, he must do it by seeming insane, although he is actually the healthiest mind in town. (Would it be spoiling the ending to say that it, too, is foreshadowed, practically at the very beginning?)
You’ll want to watch Donnie Darko several times, too, for the simple reason that a single viewing is not enough. It’s easy to miss all kinds of seemingly insignificant details, from the resonant mid-1980s pop soundtrack to objects in the background, that point to startling synchronicities (meaningful, Jungian coincidences–in other words, no real coincidences at all). At times, the dialogue and the action race ahead of themselves, making them seem just ever so slightly elided; the full significance takes too long to sink in before you flash on it. (This effect is lessened in the director’s cut, where we get more explanation, but it’s still extremely mysterious.)
Every song used in the film is also significant, if not in its immediate context, then certainly as a foreshadowing device. Especially effective is Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon”, which serves as the opening theme in the final version (the director’s cut opens with INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart”, which, though wonderfully stark, is considerably subtler and more oblique; “Killing Moon”, however, does appear as a cheesy background song for a party scene near the end in that version). The band’s name alone is fitting; what is Frank if not a bunnyman, and what is the storyline if not a jumbled series of bizarrely clanging echoes?
In the strangest synchronicity of all, Donnie Darko‘s fictional narrative overlaps frighteningly with our own reality. The film was originally slated for release in September 2001, but by coincidence, it features a jet engine falling on the Darkos’ house. Obviously, 9-11 made that a touchier issue than it would ordinarily have been. It took a couple of years before the film was deemed safe to release; in the meantime, one more layer of ironic resonance has spread itself over it, albeit one the filmmaker could not have foreseen (or could he???)
With all this going for it, it’s little wonder that Donnie Darko–largely unheralded and resisting easy classification–has carved a niche for itself as a true cult classic. It’s not a blockbuster; it doesn’t need to be. Instead, it’s one of those rare, strange, bittersweet movies that sink into your subconscious and stay there, like an unforgettable dream or a wild hallucination, every so often giving off a glint that indelibly colors your own life.
BTW, I think I may have spoiled the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.
Or maybe I just foreshadowed it. But I won’t tell you where.