Donnie: Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit? Frank: Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?
A cult Mind Screw film, set in October 1988, about a schizophrenic teenager called Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) who 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 the author Richard 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:
Actually Pretty Funny: Debatable. Donnie's father, Eddie Darko, chokes out a chuckle at the "he told me to forcibly insert the lifeline exercise into my anus" line. However, he's actually rather crass for an 80's dad, if the opening montage where he blasts Elisabeth with a leaf blower didn't already clue you in.
The Anti-Nihilist: Arguably, 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.
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: Arguably 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.
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.
Though it may be a Shoot the Shaggy Dog, depending on whether you understand the foretelling to mean "You need to have completed the cycle or everything would have gone kablooie." Or possibly, to mean that world or Donnie's Deadly Euphemism world.
Downer Ending: One interpretation makes it this, though not in the way it seems to be: The end of the world Frank was talking about was actually the end of the time loop, meaning that the events of the film will continue to repeat over and over again, with different variations each time. This literally ends the universe, as time will never advance beyond the appearance of the portal. By dying, Donnie has only created another variation, and he'll be alive again the next time the world resets, making the ending comparable to Memento.
The overly explained canon ending makes the above interpretation moot, but is still depressing in its own right. Donnie corrected the flaw in the branch universe, preventing it from turning into a black hole, and effectively saving the prime universe. Of course, in the prime universe, he's still dead.
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.
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.
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?
Complete with a TV debate between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.
Word of God says that it was set in The Eighties 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.
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.
Faux Horror Film: This movie was marketed in every way as a straight horror film instead of the dream-like, supernatural mind-screwy coming of age high school movie it is. It's creepy, but never really horror.
Goshdang It To Heck: Mrs. Farmer doesn't swear; 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!"
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.
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.
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:
The whole "Sparkle Motion" subplot was a huge reference to Graham Greene when he was sued by Shirley Temple's lawyers for libel when mocking her middle-aged admirers. He's often cited as one of the first to criticize the sexualization of children.
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 said.
Nothing but hits in 1988 would have been Def Leppard, Guns and Roses. Echo and the Bunnymen, The Church, And Joy Division are much more popular now than they were in the 80s, where they were at best MTV novelties in American suburbia at the time. It is notable that most of it, with the exception of 'Under the Milky Way" had been released several years before the events of the film, which would be realistic for the time.
Surreal Symbolic Heads: Frank; see the cover above. It's the reason he is initially mistaken for an hallucination.
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.
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.
Throw It In: Noah Wylie deciding his character was diabetic (watch for the Jolly Rancher candies).
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: Donnie is convinced that the gun he finds is the artifact described by The Philosophy of Time Travel, because the artifact must be made of metal. The film suggests that a Deus Ex Machina is necessary in order for a story to have a conclusion. The reality is that the Jet Engine that almost fell on Donnie Darko is the true artifact, that it will time-travel to the past and must land on Donnie Darko in order to save the future from his own actions. The Philosophy of Time Travel is a thinly veiled approximation to The Hero's Journey, from the work of Joseph Campbell; the artifact is introduced in order to serve the purpose of defeating the villain of the story, usually taking on the form of a weapon. Regardless of Donnie Darko's intentions (and the temporary positive results of his rebellion), the end results of his actions demonstrate to himself that he is not the hero he perceives himself to be, thus requiring the Deus Ex Machina to save the world from him.