Donnie Darko: Nobody Understands It Except Me


Donnie Darko (2001)
Written & Directed by Richard Kelly
113 min. (Original Cut)
133 min. (Director’s Cut)

Spoilers ahead.

The first time I saw this movie, I hated it. Or rather, I hated where it ended up. I appreciated the journey, but not the destination. God damn does it wrap up in a cheese ball way. That ‘Mad World’ montage? Jena Malone’s and Donnie’s mother staring at each other? Man did that shit bug me. So much so that for a while I wrote off the entire movie as bad.

But then, here and there, I’d think about the parts I liked and want to watch it again. And each time I’d re-watch, I’d like the movie a bit more. But that ending remained a sticking point. It always made me cringe.

I can’t remember exactly when I came to the realization that the ending is supposed to make you cringe from its cheesiness—and that Donnie laughing in bed is meant to be him laughing at the cheesy resolution—but once I did, god damn. Fireworks in the brain. What a movie. Five stars.

I’m not exaggerating. I really do believe Donnie Darko deserves five stars. It’s a perfect movie, for what it is—a surreal ode to teenagehood. And it’s also arguably the most misunderstood movie of all time. Its fervent supporters—people that have watched it dozens and dozens of times and have come up with elaborate theories about it—don’t even understand it. I’m literally the only person I’ve ever encountered that truly gets this movie.

And I know art is subjective, and everything is up for interpretation, and nobody is wrong, and everybody is right, and we are all equal, and blah blah blah. I know all that. But I’m still right. Even if Richard Kelly himself were to not agree with my assessment, I’m still right. Because my understanding of the film actually makes sense, whereas everyone else’s fucking doesn’t.

Fans of Donnie Darko tend to get bogged down trying to figure out the exact mechanics of the science fiction elements in the movie. It becomes an obsession. Scour the internet for a few seconds and you’ll find tons of theories, most of them with some basics in common, but all of them definitely different—and all of them ultimately useless.

This movie is an intentionally unsolvable puzzle. (Yes, even the director’s cut, which is touted as easier to understand or whatever but definitely retains the unsolvability of the original cut.) There’s simply not enough information in either version of the film—or even in its supplemental tie-in material—to truly understand everything that’s going on. At some point, every theorizer has to just make shit up out of thin air. So why fucking bother? Donnie Darko himself never fully understands the world around him, so why should we?

Bothering to try and fully understand the logistics of this movie is to fundamentally misunderstand what this movie is even about. This movie is about adolescence. An impossible to understand time period in one’s life. A very subjective, swirling time. A dystopia, essentially, full of arbitrary countdowns (to a holiday, to summer, to graduation, to your 18th birthday, to your 21st birthday) confusing rules you’re meant to follow, and unexplainable urges and impulses. This movie is an ode to all that, and the sci-fi elements are just clever, metaphoric expressions of that theme. So if this movie is to be explored, it should be explored on those terms—not obsessively mapped out in an infographic like fucking Primer. Nothing is gained here from mystery solving, and everything is gained from simply opening your heart and allowing yourself to truly feel what’s going on.

Donnie Darko is, in essence, a collage. It’s an emotional, cathartic experiment in cut and paste, brimming with elements from Richard Kelly’s teenagehood—movies and songs he loved, experiences he had, imagery that fascinated him, philosophical and spiritual obsessions, fears and desires, you name it. And in the universe of the film, all these elements, even the fantastical ones, are equally real. They do not merely linger in Donnie’s angsty mind—they also make up the ridiculous world he must navigate. And what a beautiful world it is.

The look of this film is fucking hypnotic. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s got this swimmingly dreamlike softness, and there’s something about the blues and the shadows that is just perfection. I’m not even sure they even knew how they achieved what they achieved, because Kelly’s subsequent work not only has not looked anything like it, it hasn’t looked good on any level whatsoever. I really think this was probably just a perfect storm of a low budget, gut instinct, and happy accidents. I mean just look at the still I chose for the beginning of the article. That’s just flawless fucking lighting. Even if the actually content of this movie does nothing for you, if you can’t, at the very least, be enamored by the look of this movie, then you just plain don’t like looking at movies. Watch this and then go watch any movie of a comparable budget that has come out since. No comparison. But I digress. Back to the topic of this movie’s themes.

Basically, one should appreciate the ride much as Donnie appreciates it—with cynicism and delight, disgust and laughter. You should feel all these things for this movie and more. It is a thing to both love and hate. It is designed to bring out the inner judgmental youth in us all. You’re supposed to have complex, difficult to describe feelings about it, and complex, easy to describe feelings about it as well, because it’s about that wonderful and awful age where you are brimming with opinions of that sort.

What would Donnie himself think about the film Donnie Darko? He’s a very opinionated kid, and it’s likely he might have issues with it. As I pointed out earlier, him laughing in bed is our self-referential taste of what his thoughts on the film might be. Overwhelmed by the silliness of everything, he can’t help but laugh. And the resolution to this film really is quite overwhelmingly silly. I’m not saying the film didn’t come to its logical conclusion—it totally did—but the style in which things wrap up have a certain intentional cheese. For a movie that rebels so hard against 80’s period piece cliche, it sure does finish out in full embrace of corniness. And that’s a beautiful thing. It’s a much needed nod to the inherently unavoidable silliness of overly ambitious and convoluted plots, making the great lesson of the movie that overcomplicated shit—i.e., the world—is inherently funny. And that the opposite of fear isn’t love. It’s laughter. Laughter is fearlessness.

5 out of 5 Codys.

5 thoughts on “Donnie Darko: Nobody Understands It Except Me”

  1. Very solid perspective on Donnie Darko here. I haven’t seen it in a few years, but reading this has certainly made me want to revisit and consider your point. Great to have a confident and fresh take. Sometimes the “everybody’s right” routine and group-think about interpretation and value gets stale. Not that the opposite is the answer always, but felt appropriate here. Well, other than some flyer superlatives and sweeping statements unrelated to Donnie Darko that even lost me, but good shit overall.

  2. So well said, man. I’ve had an idea for a while to write about how time travel movies aren’t about god damn time travel but about human emotions and things, and about how it misses the point to analyze their “mechanics”, and this movie was going to be part of that, and it was even going to be compared with Primer and others, but you basically made the same point using only this movie, in a fraction of the wordiness I would have used, assuming I would have ever gotten around to it at all. Commas.

  3. Great review by Cody! He nails it, again.

    Let me say this to the fans and critics who spend a lot of time discussing theories about the plot – there are can not be any serious movie about time travel. It’s such a complicated topic that is impossible to present faithfully within the framework of a movie. The concept sounds ridiculous even when scientists talk about it. Humans may NEVER travel in time or great distances because our simple brains have great difficulty with such concepts. Good movies about time travel focus instead on more familiar, human topics.

    The way Donnie Darko was shot is indeed commendable. There are people who are irritated by the way this movie looks. A few scenes look like they belong in TV commercials and some parts of the movie look cheap. But as Cody noted, there is a magic quality to the picture, some innocent accidents if you will that will be very difficult to reproduce.

    I think many fans were disappointed with the ending because Richard Kelly was so successful at building tension. The viewer is informed there’s something totally off from the beginning and by the end they are sitting on a barrel full of gunpowder. Donnie knows that he’s been dealt a bad hand. He knows that he will do the right thing when the time comes. But will know what is right? Will he have the courage? How can one be sure about anything of great importance? The essence of the movie revolves around what we don’t know. It’s the realm of the unknown that drives the journey so why try so hard to figure it out?

  4. You’re not alone Cody. There is one other human being on the face of the Earth that shares your enthusiasm. Australian film reviewer extraordinaire, David Stratton understands this movie – he won’t shut up about it.
    For 12 years, Australian TV audiences have been listening to him bang on and on about it. When David Stratton conducts a film review, I play a game – count the minutes until he invariably makes reference to, or comparison with one scene or other, from either “Singin’ in the rain” or “Donnie Darko”…
    I, for one, simply don’t understand it, but I am a known critic of extreme self-indulgence. I think this film spirals in ever decreasing circles, into a tailspin and eventually up it’s own keester.
    Hey, each to his own.
    Glad you like it. 🙂

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