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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 a