No film festival seems to launch independent films and filmmakers into stardom quite as consistently as the Sundance Film Festival. Since its inception, the festival has started each year with a diverse showcase of independent film, catapulting some of its more high-profile entries into Academy Award contention and huge box office success. Others garnered their acclaim at a slower pace, eventually establishing themselves as cult classics.
One of the “little films that could” of the 2001 Sundance Film Festival was Donnie Darko – and it was pretty lucky to get there. Director Richard Kelly only secured his $4.5 million budget via one financial backer: eventual co-star Drew Barrymore’s production company, Flower Films. Even after securing its place at Sundance, Donnie Darko seemed destined for a life on home video: its plot’s complicated nature mostly turned off potential distributors at the festival. The film ultimately found theatrical distribution in October of that year, and misfortune continued to follow: audiences proved to be especially disinterested in a movie whose catalyzing plot point was a jet engine falling onto a suburban house in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. By the end of Donnie Darko’s six-month theatrical run, its domestic gross was just half a million dollars.
It’s a very dense, layered film, and there’s a much bigger world beyond the film. Some moviegoers wanted to dig deeper. I appreciate that, and I want to provide that for them. But at the same time, other people want to get in and out. They want to leave things mysterious, have the emotional experience, and then walk away from it. I see value in both kinds of experiences.
Richard Kelly on the two cuts of Donnie Darko (via The Observer)
It’s not hard to see why the film struggled so heavily: Donnie Darko is a confounding, genre-mashing mind-bender of a movie. It follows the titular character, a mentally and emotionally troubled high schooler (Jake Gyllenhaal, fantastic in his breakout role) plagued by mysterious visions of a figure in a rabbit costume known only as “Frank.” Frank foretells the end of the world in 28 days (and 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds, to be exact); eventually, the plot incorporates parallel universes, time travel, and manipulation of the fourth dimension, and becomes the kind of film better suited for explanation through complicated diagrams on a whiteboard.
Twenty years later, much of the temporal mystery that puzzled viewers of Donnie Darko has cleared up. Primarily by the intensely dedicated fanbase that discovered the film via word-of-mouth after its release, but also through the divisive 2004 Director’s Cut, whose twenty minutes of new footage put definitive answers to the theatrical version’s ambiguous nature. What has emerged is the revelation of the film’s discreet human side: the story of a teenage cynic’s journey of self-discovery.
Donnie’s eventual girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone) claims that “Donnie Darko” is a name fit for a superhero; Donnie replies: “What makes you think I’m not?” It’s an exchange mostly rooted in quiet levity, setting the foundation of the blossoming relationship between the two characters. Upon closer inspection, Donnie Darko has a lot in common with the superhero films surrounding the film’s release. Selected as this story’s “Chosen One,” Donnie is forced to put aside his reputation as an outsider not just to prevent the impending apocalypse but also defeat the darkness bubbling under the surface of his hometown: a motivational speaker harbouring dark secrets, a self-righteous parent ignorantly calling for censorship of school teachings, etc. It’s through his sacrifices that he realizes improving others’ lives is often the quickest way to self-improvement, too; if this sounds rooted in spiritual values, keep an eye out for a brief hint of symbolism on the theatre marquee midway through the film.
Laying so much burden on the protagonist’s shoulders calls for an immensely talented lead performer, and Kelly finds that entirely in Jake Gyllenhaal. Kelly’s smart character writing and Gyllenhaal’s committed performance create a fantastic, subversive hero. Donnie is filled with angst, but rarely in a way that comes across as pretentious: he’s also effortlessly charismatic, perhaps a bit naïve, and at his lowest points, sympathetically vulnerable. It’s the kind of offbeat character Gyllenhaal has revisited multiple times in the two decades since (Zodiac, Prisoners, Nightcrawler) to similarly great effect.
In his directorial debut, Kelly displays a level of confidence any first-time director should. Along with the impressive level of attention to the more supernatural elements, Kelly’s script blends conflicting tones wonderfully: the scenes featuring, and directly influenced by, Frank have an appropriately surreal, nightmarish quality, while interpersonal moments in the sunlit suburbs or high school hallways are not far removed from other coming-of-age tales of the 80s (the film takes place in 1988). Kelly’s sense of humour is dissonant and quirky but consistently amusing, with character actress Beth Grant supplying multiple moments that remain quotable among Donnie Darko’s cult of fans, most famously her over-the-top confession to Donnie’s mother regarding their daughters’ dance team: “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.” Such an amalgamation is a recipe for a tonal mess but instead combines into a hypnotizing dreamscape.
Richard Kelly has directed just two more features since – 2006’s Southland Tales and 2009’s The Box – neither found the same level of acclaim nor the same afterlife glow as Donnie Darko. The director has subsequently been declared a “one-hit wonder” by many. Maybe it’s an applicable term, but it shouldn’t be one rooted in negativity: Donnie Darko is the product of a truly gifted filmmaker.
Very few films effectively pull off the same balancing act of genre and tone Donnie Darko does, and time has only done Kelly’s film favours in bringing its maturity to the forefront. Perhaps he’ll someday reexamine this strange cinematic world he created (he was uninvolved in the 2009 direct-to-video sequel S. Darko; the less said about that one, the better), but whether he ever returns to the director’s chair or not, Donnie Darko is an accomplishment worthy of utmost pride.