Donnie Darko: the 2001 cult film you shouldn’t have missed

Updated: Nov 2, 2021


Art by Femi Henry-Chia

[All screencaps throughout the article are taken from the original film Donnie Darko.]



Where’s Donnie? If you’re a fan of horror, thriller, sci-fi, or any otherwise eerie genre, look no further than “Donnie Darko”. Whether or not you’re familiar with the title, chances are you’ve not seen it. This film came out in 2001 and was considered a flop because of how badly it did in the box office, despite all of the big names in its cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, and more).


Most of its cult following materialized long after the film’s initial release. All of the different puzzles and mysteries sprinkled throughout the film have been interpreted in many different ways, and chances are there are some we likely haven’t even found yet in the 20 years since this movie came out.


DISCLAIMER: The only section containing spoilers is marked; please watch for disclaimers above and below said section.



What is the movie about?


This film tells the story of Donnie Darko, a quiet and misunderstood teenage boy, who, while supposedly sleepwalking, meets a demonic-looking, man-sized rabbit named Frank. Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. Coincidentally, during Donnie’s completely normal midnight conversation with Frank, an airplane jet engine crashes into his room, and would have killed him if he hadn’t been outside.



It only gets stranger from there, expanding into the world of time travel, sleepwalking, and (gasp) high school. Do not let the demonic rabbit drive you away, however. Despite my satirical synopsis of the film, it is very dark and, indeed, serious.



Science Fiction and the Director’s Cut


“Donnie Darko” did have a director’s cut, which came out in 2005. It was considered the first director’s cut to come from a flop. It is a solid twenty minutes longer than the theatrical cut, and delves deeper into the technicalities of the sci-fi time travel aspects of the film: including more pages of “The Philosophy of Time Travel” (a time travel book that holds large relevance to the plot in both versions of the movie). It also includes much more information about wormholes, universes, and other things no one had ever heard of before this movie came out.


Realistically, if I tried to break down the director’s cut for you, this article would end up being ions longer than it is now (but if you’re interested in watching it on your own time, the DVD can be purchased on Amazon).



In both versions of the film, to receive explanations about time travel, Donnie visits his science teacher, Mr. Monnitoff, twice. Though the second conversation is quickly cut short by the teacher’s unwillingness to lose his job — which is smart on his part —Donnie now has enough information to drive the story forward. And, in the case of the director’s cut, he also has a book (“The Philosophy of Time Travel”) that will serve as a (cluttered and almost unintelligible) source of information throughout the movie.



Psychology & Relatability


Whether you’re planning on watching the director’s cut or the original film, you may want to have your mind open to the different interpretations, meanings, and messages that may or may not have been purposefully inserted throughout the sci-fi thriller extravaganza. There are countless articles and YouTube videos speculating about the metaphors and mysteries of the film. The depth of the characters and their emotions are nearly equivalent to the complexity of the sci-fi and time travel mechanics.


So, even if you’re not that big into sci-fi and/or demonic rabbits, the characters and drama on their own could be enough to satisfy your entertainment needs.


For example, a lot of the movie is dedicated to Donnie’s relationships with his family, friends, and girlfriend. Jake Gyllenhaal’s actual sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal, plays Donnie’s older sister in the film, and their argument over a family dinner at the beginning of the movie is treated with importance (even though the substance of their conversation has no real relevance). The scenes with Donnie talking to his friends, bickering with his sisters, and having awkward teenage interactions with his girlfriend (there are a lot more little scenes like this in the director’s cut) give the movie an important sense of relatability, and that’s one of the many things that drives the movie forward.


Donnie’s sisters, Samantha (Daveigh Chase, left) and Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal, right)

This relatability is expanded on greatly in an article by Ko Lyn Cheang for the Yale Daily News about “Donnie Darko”. It goes over the emotional complexity and “psychological realism” of the film, about how Donnie’s emotions (and those of many other characters) play a large role in the movie and its plot. This may be a considerably strange thought to those who’ve seen or know of the film, especially considering this movie is very centered around mysteries and riddles. Arguably, though, the fact that it is heavily based in human emotion and interaction even with the unrelenting sci-fi-apocalypse plot is most definitely in its favor. The humanness that is added to the movie brings the audience closer to the story and characters.



The Ending [The following contains major spoilers. Skip to the end of this section to avoid them.]


“Donnie Darko” has countless twists and turns, important plot points and characters, and so many questions that still, even twenty years after the film’s original release, remain unanswered— including (but not limited to), the relevance of the numbers (28:06:42:12), “The Philosophy of Time Travel,” and so many more. Donnie Darko himself is a mystery, even without the demonic rabbit man (Donnie is also played masterfully by a 19-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal).


The ending of this movie still remains a mystery, even to those who claim to understand it, because there are many possibilities as to what the end truly meant. The plainest description of the ending is as follows: Donnie Darko realizes he must sacrifice himself to keep the world from ending. And so, he travels back in time to the beginning of the movie and lays down in his bed just before the airplane piece falls into his bedroom. One of the final shots of the movie is of Donnie laughing hysterically just before the jet engine crushes him.



I know, it’s a lot. Believe it or not, though, this is the most easily explained interpretation of the end of the movie — and yet, there are still so many different ways to read it, and so many different people explaining so many different things. Even if one has claimed to have understood the ending, there are still so many small, seemingly insignificant coincidences that could be seen as monumental if looked at from a certain perspective.


Because the movie starts with a Tangent Universe being created by a time loop via a wormhole, you’d think that the movie would end somewhere completely different, and/or at the end of existence. But it does not. In fact, the movie ends exactly where it started, with the jet engine crashing into Donnie Darko’s bedroom.



Even with all the different analyses, there is one inarguable point of the movie and its ending: it is full of questions. The seemingly anticlimactic ending of the film may cause some people to think that it was a total waste of their time, that they could have spent their two hours somewhere more important. But really, the movie takes you on a journey that you won’t be able to find anywhere else — and any movie like this should be appreciated, no matter how it ends or how it starts. Some questions don’t really have answers, and this movie may just be one of those many questions.


[Spoilers end here.]



Overall, Donnie Darko is definitely worth watching. It will likely leave you confused and needing explanations, but is that such a bad thing? And hey, there’s always a chance that you’ll be the one to finally crack the Donnie Darko code once and for all.



[The movie is free through Pluto TV, IMDb TV (through Prime), Tubi, and, if you’d rather watch without ads, can be purchased on Vudu, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime Video.]


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