Donnie Darko


A cult sleeper hit at the turn of the century, shortly after Columbine and shortly before 9/11, Donnie Darko is a curious, beautiful and ultimately tragic romance that ranks with the best movies of the past twenty years. Written and directed by Richard Kelly, his bravery in making a film this lyrical about what is either directly or subtextually about mental illness should be commended.

Two star making performances in brother and sister duo Jake and Maggie Gyllenhall (who play a brother and sister of an eighties nuclear family) they both went on to blockbuster success afterwards. Drew Barrymore and E.R’s Noah Wyle feature as teachers at Donnie’s school, and Patrick Swayze (against type) was cast as a predatory “self help guru” who Donnie despises.

After finding a distribution deal at Sundance in January 2001, when it was released in October of the same year, it was buried and barely advertised due to its airplane crash plot and the film being out so soon after 9/11. It grossed a mere £7.5 million off a £4.5 million budget, but word of mouth and rentals grew; like The Shawshank Redemption before it, it may have failed at the box office (through an unfortunate release date) it’s now an internationally beloved film. From the glorious eighties soundtrack including Gary Jules who scored three weeks at Number One in the UK charts with his cover of Mad World by Tears for Fears, to the dreamlike steadicam shots in slow motion (look out for Mary McDonnell who plays Donnie’s mother, reading a copy of Stephen King’s IT).

The eighties detail, the backdrop of the Dukakis/Bush election and the Stephen Kingesque and Spielbergian moments predate Stranger Things by well over a decade, making Donnie Darko a true original that landed just before high level CGI and illiterate screenwriters  destroyed cinema.

The elfin Jena Malone plays Gretchen Ross, Donnie’s girlfriend, running from demons of her own and the person he loves above all others, despite his battle with the time warp or his schizoid delusions, or both.

I remember renting the VHS from my local video shop (back when such things existed), stocked up on illegally bought beer with a fake birth certificate and being so drunkenly moved by the film I ended up in floods of tears. I’ve always been a hopeless romantic, Donnie Darko is a joyous celebration of doomed amour fou, enduring for twenty years in part because of the lack of teenage nudity with its young cast.

Apart from Larry Clark’s stark and cerebral Bully which is full of full frontal teen sex, and succeeds without being gratuitous since the twisted, documentary tale of teen anomie, abuse and murder justifies it. I don’t enjoy or recommend films like American Beauty or American Pie which feature unnecessary teen nudity just to attract an audience of creeps.

Director Richard Kelly confessed to The Observer that:

Columbine was something that affected me deeply and disturbed me on a very deep level when it happened. It also cast a shadow over the film when it premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2001, about eight or nine months prior to 9/11. At that point, Columbine was still very much in the conversation. I remember distributors backing away from the movie immediately. It was a really sensitive time, and people were just not comfortable distributing a film involving a teenager firing a gun.

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @Voguishfiction