Film / Donnie Darko

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Donnie: Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?
Frank: Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?

A cult Mind Screw film from 2001, written and directed by Richard Kelly and starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the title character. Also featured in the cast are Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

In October 1988, schizophrenic teenager Donnie Darko sees a demonic rabbit figure named "Frank" while sleepwalking. Frank tells him that the world will end in 28 days, just before a jet engine crashes into Donnie's bedroom. Donnie credits Frank with saving his life by causing him to sleepwalk out of the house, and begins to do Frank's bidding, while gradually trying to uncover the strange events around him which may or may not be related either to Time Travel, an Alternate Dimension, or Donnie's worsening Schizophrenia.

A director's cut version was constructed by Kelly several years after the original release. It greatly alters the pacing of the movie by the addition of deleted scenes, new digital effects and soundtrack alterations. The author considers this version not a director's cut but rather an "extended special edition". Fan opinions are somewhat divided as to which version is better.

Rumors of a sequel have been vehemently denied by fans for years.


This film includes examples of:

  • The '80s:
  • Actually Pretty Funny:
  • Age-Inappropriate Art: Cunningham (who turns out to be a pedophile) hosts an event where local elementary school girls perform pop songs en masse in heavy makeup and skimpy clothes. The parents love it.
  • Alliterative Name: Donnie Darko, Cherita Chen, Frankie Feedler, Daye Dennis, Joanie James, Sean Smith, Donnie Dickson.
  • All Therapists Are Muggles: Dr. Thurman initially characterizes Donnie's visions as "daylight hallucinations" but eventually comes to believe that they're genuine.
  • All There in the Manual: The book The Philosophy of Time Travel, alluded to in the theatrical version and quoted briefly in the Director's Cut explains the plot (or at least the Director's interpretation of it) and removes all the ambiguity with a lot of hand-holding.
  • The Anti-Nihilist: Donnie. His whole life seems to be one big, cruel cosmic joke. No matter what he does, he's apparently condemned to repeat the same loop over and over again... unless he kills himself beforehand. Meanwhile, his school life is spent constantly at odds with crusading teachers and motivational speakers. Yet this doesn't stop him from enjoying things while they last, and in his final scene, before getting crushed by the jet engine, Donnie just... laughs.
  • Arc Number: Frank the Bunny tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Donnie then writes these numbers on his arm to remember them.
  • Atomic F-Bomb: After Donnie's English teacher loses her job, she runs outside the school and screams "FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK" at the top of her lungs.
  • The Atoner: Frank. His actions in helping Donnie seem to be his way of making up for accidentally killing Gretchen — and eventually preventing her death from occurring in the first place.
  • Author Avatar: Richard Kelly describes the nameless kid who shows up at the end of the film as this.
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: Discussed.
    Gretchen: What kind of name is 'Donnie Darko', anyways? It sounds like a superhero name.
  • Big Damn Kiss: Between Donnie and Gretchen in front of the school building half-way through the movie.
  • Big "SHUT UP!": Poor old Cherita Chen yelling "CHUT UP" at Donnie after he tells her that things will get better.
  • Bittersweet Ending: If you think about it, the whole movie is this. Donnie would have died outright had Frank not spoken to him and gotten him out of bed: thus the entire rest of the movie. The whole purpose of the film seems to be allowing Donnie to come to terms with his premature death, and to realize that sad as it is, it's way better than the alternative of the world ending. Furthermore, Donnie's survival results in the deaths of his girlfriend, mother, sister, and Frank, as well as his English teacher losing her job. Patrick Swayze's character, on the flipside, gets away with his nefarious activities, at least for awhile.
  • Black and White Insanity: Why Donnie is a fan of the Grey spectrum; attempting to divide things into two emotions only is a great way of ignoring well, human emotions in general, as well as the fact that there are almost always more than two choices to any given real-life interaction. The question he's given to assign on the Life Line is what provokes him into the rant is an instance of this not working, for the simple fact that neither fear nor love is involved directly at all-it's a question of raw greed.
  • Black and White Morality: The Life Line scene (see Crowning Moment of Awesome) has the teacher arguing this (Fear vs. Love), while Donnie asserts that the world revolves around Grey and Gray Morality.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Another interpretation of the Life Line scenes are that the teacher is trying to assign all things a moral weight based on their positions between Fear and Love as opposed to a broader worldview which includes not only traditional moral concepts such as right and wrong as well as other emotional components such as greed, joy, anything, not simply things that are sourced in Fear or Love.
  • Break the Motivational Speaker: Donnie undermines Cunningham's methods, attacks his very simplistic "fear vs. love" spectrum and eventually calls him "the fucking Antichrist". It turns out that the guy is a kiddie porn enthusiast, so Donnie was sort of right.
  • Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: Sums up the relationship between Donnie and Gretchen.
  • The Bully: A cliche not absent from this movie are the two school bullies going after Donnie and Gretchen.
  • Butterfly of Doom: Take your pills one night, doom the universe.
    • May not be the case. In the director's cut, Dr. Thurman tells Donnie that the pills are not actually antipsychotics but placebos.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: Donnie almost starts masturbating during a hypnotherapy session.
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: The expression on Frank's mask is a rather disturbing parody of a cutesy buck-toothed rabbit.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Donnie. He could also be interpreted as a Deconstruction, as his behavior has him sent to counseling and diagnosed with schizophrenia, as well as the isolation leading him to violent behavior in his youth and adolescence. However, there's a possibility that he's not even one of these at all...
  • Corpsing: Beth Grant made Richard Kelly laugh so much when reading her line "he told me to forcibly insert these cards into my anus!" he had to leave the set.
  • Crapsaccharine World: The seemingly idyllic Stepford Suburbia slowly unravels over the course of the film. One of the arguments for starting the film without "The Killing Moon" is that it allows things to seem much more normal at first and gradually get twisted as the month goes on.
  • Culture Police: Kitty Farmer wants to ban certain "offensive" books from school. Her engagement leads to Ms. Pomeroy losing her job.
  • Curse Cut Short: The scene cuts away before Donnie can tell Kitty Farmer to shove her learning material up her ass.
  • Deconstruction: Of coming of age movies, time travel, and the concept of alternate universes. What happens when an alternate universe is abandoned? Does it keep going, cause a Time Crash, or more? Most importantly, what happens to the ''people living in said universe?''
    • In the director's cut, it is revealed that alternate ("tangent") universes are inherently unstable and can only last, oh, about 28 days before collapsing, which can endanger the existence of the primary universe. Once the artifact (the jet engine) is returned to the primary universe, the tangent universe no longer contains the anomaly of having a duplicate object from the primary universe (the artifact) in it and unravels without forming a black hole. Presumably, the people in the tangent universe cease to exist in the tangent universe but go on living in the primary universe.
  • Deus ex Machina: Lampshaded when Donnie murmurs this as Frank arrives to solve (sort of) everything.
  • Dying Alone: An expressed fear by Donnie. And indeed we see him die alone at the end of the movie.
  • Einstein Hair: Roberta Sparrow has it.
  • Epilogue Letter: We hear Donnie narrating his letter to Roberta Sparrow right before committing his Suicide for Others' Happiness in the final act.
  • Evil Laugh: After Frank is killed, a shot of his mask on the ground pitching slightly back and forth in the wind conveys this trope very well.
  • Exploding Calendar: The calendar in Donnie's room counts down to the end of the world.
  • Eye Scream: Frank gets shot straight through the right eye.
  • Feedback Rule: Downplayed. There is a slight feedback when a student grabs a mic to ask Cunningham a question during the talk he gives at the school.
  • Fired Teacher: Ms. Pomeroy is fired from her job for teaching "offensive" literature.
  • Flash Sideways: As suggested by the hand waving in the last scene, some characters retained vestigial memories of the parallel timeline.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Donnie tells Gretchen he once accidentally burned down a house, they are walking directly in front of Jim Cunningham's house.
    • The Life Line Exercise Card that Donnie reads is about a girl finding a lost wallet. Later, Donnie finds Jim Cunningham's wallet on the sidewalk outside his mansion.
    • Donnie's friend suggests that "someone oughta write that bitch [Grandma Death/Roberta Sparrow]." Later in the film, Donnie does just that.
  • The Fundamentalist: Ms. Kitty Farmer, the school' crusadingly Puritan teacher.
    • Jim Cunningham seems to be one at first, but then he's revealed to be merely a hypocrite and pedophile.
  • Funny Foreigner: Cherita Chen has an accent that doesn't exactly match her (presumably) Chinese heritage, and is bullied.
  • Gainax Ending: And beginning. And middle.
  • Gilligan Cut: When Donnie suggests to throw a party while his parents are away, his sister agrees under the condition it would be a small party. Cut to the next scene revealing that half the school is attending the party.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Donnie dies at the end while laughing hysterically, presumably out of relief that he has fulfilled his role as the Living Receiver.
  • Goshdang It To Heck: Mrs. Farmer doesn't swear, so when Donnie is sent to the principal's office after snapping at her, she claims that "he asked [her] to forcibly insert the lifeline exercise card into [her] anus!"
  • Hollywood Driving: Donnie's father almost runs over Roberta Sparrow because he too busy talking to Donnie in the co-driver seat.
  • Iconic Outfit: Donnie's skeleton outfit, and Frank's bunny rabbit costume.
  • Imaginary Friend: Frank is Donnie's imaginary guide in a man-sized rabbit costume.
  • Innocent Swearing: "What's a fuckass?"
  • I Owe You My Life: Frank seemingly saves Donnie from a very bizarre death, which prompts the latter to carry out any task Frank orders on him.
    Donnie: I have to obey him. He saved my life.
  • Jump Scare: When the school bully jumps out of the dark at Roberta Sparrow's cellar.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Jim Cunningham is a pedophile with a large stash of child pornography in his mansion which is discovered. In his final scene it sure looks like he's on the frayed end, however, due to the paradox causing it never to happen, nobody finds out that he is a pedophile. This is just invoking Death of the Author, however, as...
    • Word of God confirmed that he got caught on the day after Donnie would have burnt down his house. It also says that he commits suicide out of self-loathing not long after his vague dream-recollections of the Tangent Universe.
    • It's because of Seth and Ricky's bullying that Gretchen gets run over by Frank, yet we don't see them get any comeuppance at all.
  • Mental Time Travel: Suggested in the epilogue.
  • Mind Screw: For your sanity, we recommend that you do not try too hard to make sense of the plot.
  • Mind Screwdriver: Donnie receives a book on time travel from his science teacher, time traveling also being the central plot driving device of the movie. A director's cut released a few years after the original DVD release briefly cuts to pages from said book, where the mechanics of time travel in this movie are explained - which is vital to figuring out what the hell is going on. The book was later actually published and released. It explains most of the background and events present in the movie. Yet while it explains some of the time travel mechanics, the closest thing we have to an explanation of where Frank came from or who is manipulating Donnie is a couple lines in the commentary saying that maybe it's God. Or aliens. Whatever.
  • Montage Out: The movie ends with a montage of all major characters lying awake at night while Gary Jules' "Mad World" is playing.
  • Music Video Syndrome: "Head Over Heels" during Donnie Darko's first scene in the school.
  • One-Eyed Shot: Gyllenhaal's left eye is shown whenever he has nightmares.
  • One-Woman Wail: "The Portal (For Whom The Bell Tolls)"
  • Only Sane Man: Deconstructed in Ms. Kitty Farmer, who believes she is, but is shown instead to be suffering from Black and White Insanity.
  • Popcultural Osmosis Failure: When Donnie's mother asks Kitty if she has heard of Graham Greene, she replies that she has, since she's seen Bonanza (1959). However, Kitty is getting him confused with Lorne Greene who appeared in the series.
  • Portal to the Past:
    • Frank is capable of opening these.
    • So is Donnie, by the end.
  • Power Hair: Ms. Farmer. Only scene (not including the end) when she doesn't sport it, she's at the end of her rope.
  • Precision Crash: The film's plot begins when an engine detaches itself from a plane flying far overhead, and crashes directly into Donnie's bedroom.
  • Precision F-Strike: "What's a fuck-ass?" and "...I think you're the fucking Antichrist."
  • Psychotic Smirk: When Frank gives him orders, Donnie's expression changes to one of these.
  • Re Cut: The Director's Cut greatly alters the pacing of the film, adding deleted scenes and new special effects, and switching the soundtrack of the movie around. Richard Kelly regards this version not as a director's cut (this title was the publisher's idea) as he considers the theatrical version just fine in its own right. Instead, to him the new version is a special edition of sorts.
  • Rubik's Cube International Genius Symbol: While Donnie is lying down in bed, thinking, he is playing with a Rubik's cube. Notably the Rubik's cube is a black and white one, quite possibly with M.C. Escher paintings on each side of the cube, instead of the regular white-blue-red-green-orange-yellow ones.
  • The Schizophrenia Conspiracy: Donnie's psychiatrist suggests that his paranoia is caused by his schizophrenia. To be fair, she brings up the hallucination of a giant talking bunny rabbit first to justify her diagnosis. To be fair to Donnie, this part of the plot makes far more sense than the Black and White Insanity that he contends with at school.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: While Donnie and his friends are drunk...
    Sean: We gotta find ourselves a Smurfette.
    Ronald: Smurfette?
    Sean: Yeah, not some tight-ass Middlesex chick, right? Like this cute little blonde that will get down and dirty with the guys. Like Smurfette does.
    Donnie: Smurfette doesn't fuck.
    Sean: That's bullshit. Smurfette fucks all the other Smurfs. Why do you think Papa Smurf made her? Because all the other Smurfs were getting too horny.
    Ronald: No, no, no, not Vanity. I heard he was a homosexual.
    Sean: Okay, then, you know what? She fucks them and Vanity watches. Okay?
    Ronald: What about Papa Smurf? I mean, he must get in on all the action.
    Sean: Yeah, what he does, he films the gang-bang, and he beats off to the tape.
    Donnie: [shouts] First of all, Papa Smurf didn't create Smurfette. Gargamel did. She was sent in as Gargamel's evil spy with the intention of destroying the Smurf village. But the overwhelming goodness of the Smurf way of life transformed her. And as for the whole gang-bang scenario, it just couldn't happen. Smurfs are asexual. They don't even have... reproductive organs under those little, white pants. It's just so illogical, you know, about being a Smurf. You know, what's the point of living... if you don't have a dick?
    Ronald: [pause] Dammit, Donnie. Why you gotta get all smart on us?
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: In a particularly dark version of this, Donnie has to let himself be impaled by debris from the falling jet engine, as by not dying when the engine hit the house, Donnie has doomed the universe.
  • Shout-Out: Many. Many. Many. Some that aren't referenced directly are:
  • Silent Whisper: Donnie walks up to Roberta Sparrow and she stands on tiptoe to whisper, "Everything on this earth dies alone." Donnie's dad asks what she said and the scene cuts without revealing (until later). New viewers will almost always ask prior viewers what she saidnote .
  • Small Reference Pools: Most of the music in the film is Nothing but Hits, and as soon as Time Travel is brought up, Donnie references the infamous De Lorean.
  • Some Kind of Force Field: Donnie encounters one in his bathroom. Except it's a hallucination. Well, maybe. He does the logical thing: Stab it repeatedly with a butcher knife while sporting a slightly deranged Kubrick Stare.
  • Stable Time Loop: One exists entirely inside the alternate universe: Frank saves Donnie from being killed so that Donnie can be there to send the engine back. Along the way Donnie shoots Frank in the eye and kills him. Frank's ghost, still in the bunny suit and still missing an eye, then travels back and saves Donnie, starting the loop over.
  • A Storm Is Coming: Mentioned by Frank. And indeed, a supernatural vortex shows up during the movie's climax.
  • Stranger Behind the Mask: Frank, the masked stranger, knows Donnie — but Donnie (and the audience) hasn't met him yet.
  • Suicide for Others' Happiness: Donnie allows himself to be killed by the falling plane turbine to allow the various people in his life to live/be happy.
  • Surreal Symbolic Heads: Frank; see the cover above. It's the reason he is initially mistaken for an hallucination.
  • Teen Genius: His test scores were "intimidating".
  • Temporal Paradox: Donnie is caught in an unstable time loop that he must close. When he moves himself and the jet engine that should have killed him back into the past, he closes the loop by dying in the way that he should have from the beginning, negating everything in the time loop. This causes everything that was changed by his time travel to exist outside of the normal timeline without affecting it.
  • There's No "B" in "Movie":
    • The director's first choice was C.H.U.D., but there was a problem with the rights. Nevertheless, Donnie still compares Mr. Cunningham to a chud in one scene.
    • Actually, the reference to "Last Temptation of Christ" makes sense, if you've seen the movie. First off, Donnie is essentially a Christ figure who saves the world by sacrificing himself. Secondly, in Scorsese's film, Jesus has an extended dream of an alternate life while he is dying on the cross. He must choose whether to live as a normal mortal man or to die to save everyone else—essentially the same choice Donnie had to make. The extended dream sequence is basically analogous to Donnie's time loop in that it gets reset at the end when Jesus chooses to die.
  • This is for Emphasis, Bitch!: Donnie to his mother: "Then why don't you start taking the goddamn pills, (pause) bitch? "
  • Timeline-Altering MacGuffin: The jet engine has caused a paradox by falling back in time which will destroy the universe unless it is dealt with.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: The ending reveals that Gretchen's death was the result of Donnie's own actions, that he is the villain of this story and that he must save the future from himself.
  • Two Decades Behind: Reportedly, the movie was set in The '80s because that's when Richard Kelly grew up and he wouldn't be able to write a coming of age story in the 2000's due to lack of frame of reference.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Jim Cunningham, a motivational speaker who is adored by the school faculty. He's also a closet pedophile.
  • What If?: The main plot is essentially a few days of a "What If" scenario for a handful of people, eventually ending by returning where the tangential universe started in the first place and avoiding the "What If".
  • What You Are in the Dark: Donnie sacrificed his life to save the world, and no one will ever know.

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