Donnie Darko is the Ultimate October Movie
Richard Kelley’s 2001 cult classic Donnie Darko is the ultimate October movie and it scratches all those “early fall itches” we have at the end of a long summer.
An excellent blend of thriller, sci-fi, psychology, and high school movie blended with extra weirdness and cool music, it keeps me coming back at least once every year. It becomes a must-watch once October rolls around and along with just a couple other movies like Independence Day and House of 1000 Corpses, it’s probably the only other movie I watch on a calendar schedule.
Donnie Darko has been out since 2001 (though the Director’s Cut has been out since 2004)…so why do I keep coming back the first week of every single October to watch?
One reason is I think it’s a great movie—excellent cast, good acting, intriguing plot, neat visuals, et al. In case you need a refresher, the movie takes place over the course of 28 days in October 1988 follows Jake Gyllenhaal’s titular character, a “troubled teen” and tortured genius whose Iowa test scores are “intimidating,” according to his principal.
He is warned of the impending end of the world by a 6-foot-tall creepy bunny rabbit named Frank, avoids being crushed by mysterious jet-engine falling from the sky, and must learn what he can about time travel to save the people he loves. Or something.
Full disclosure: most of my experience is with the 2004 Director’s Cut. I’ve definitely seen the original and it’s definitely great and more mysterious. However, I think the Director’s Cut has a slightly better soundtrack and provides helpful and necessary supports for the plot (via more specific references to the role of the manipulated dead, the prime vs. tangential universe, and an explanation of the artifacts that herald the creation of an alternate timeline).
If that last sentence doesn’t make sense then borrow the movie and check it out. I’ll wait.
Donnie Darko uses the whole month to tell the story, not just Halloween.
One of my favorite things about Donnie Darko is that it takes place over the whole month of October. There’s so much more to October than Halloween.
In addition to my birthday (10/10!) the nostalgia of October may be a shared experience, stated best by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby: “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
In addition to activities associated with fall that often evoke strong feelings, like football, Homecoming, and an impending presidential election, there are other physical changes that evoke a feeling for nostalgia for some: the days are getting shorter, the weather cools off, and the leaves start to fall in an otherwise sleepy American suburb.
It helps that I come from a part of the country that gets about one week of “autumn” between blistering heat and boring, dreary winter…plus we didn’t have those cool ridge tops and peaks that Donnie overlooks when he “sleep-bikes.” The story pulls in visuals and background content of the movie make it a full-on October (and therefore, autumn) experience, except while everyone else is preparing for the semester, sending in college applications, planning fall festivals, or making their costumes Donnie is tasked with trying to figure out how and why the world is ending.
It’s an interesting take on paranoia and delusions.
So Donnie’s definitely “going through some stuff” in this movie.
He’s already experienced a history of “emotional problems” that resulted in the involvement with the juvenile justice system, being held back, and being unable to drive till he’s 21. But he’s over all that now and communicates though his art…right? Maybe not.
Donnie’s struggles begin with a vision of Frank, a giant rabbit with a creepy face, who coaxes him from his room, sparing his life from an mysterious falling jet engine. Donnie continues to see visions of Frank who helps him discover and understand special powers he can use, like finding time portals. He is also the only one privy to the exact date and time that the world will end. Sounds like a delusion to me.
Delusions are defined by the DSM-5 as a “false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.”
Although I think Donnie Darko is somewhat guilty of romanticizing mental health symptoms, it does a lot of things right, like showing the ways Donnie copes with his visions during periods of lucidity. Instead of depicting him as a raving lunatic all the time, the movie is well balanced in the way that it shows Donnie hanging out with friends, awkwardly trying to impress a girl, dealing with an annoying teacher, and even standing up for a bullied classmate…stuff to which we can all relate!
Another interesting depiction in the movie is that the rest of Donnie’s family seems pretty typical and loving; by all accounts they as struggling as much as Donnie to understand him but want to be supportive however they can, even to the point of staying engaged in this therapeutic progress. Contrast this with other thriller or horror movie characters who have experienced emotional abuse (seen in Carrie) or even murder (shown in The Ring) at the hands of their families.
By the way, on the topic of his psychiatrist: decently realistic portrayal of psychotherapy aside from the whole overly dramatic hypnosis thing. Her choice of medication for schizophrenia is…interesting. And of course, Donnie doesn’t always remember to take it anyway.
The original score and soundtrack are great.
Donnie Darko’s soundtrack is a huge reason why I keep coming back to it. In addition to the numerous references to the late 1980’s on-screen and in dialogue (by the way, “I’m voting for Dukakis” is my favorite opening line in a movie), the music perfectly sets the tone.
Others have written well about why music and memories are often so strongly tied but I credit Michael Andrews, the film’s composer, for picking such a great list of tracks for this autumn movie. Being an angsty teen like Donnie is timeless, but combining the melancholy new wave and post-punk soundtrack, including a powerful piano-driven cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” sung by Gary Jules, with a haunting original score, music plays a huge role in putting the audience right back in high school in the 80s set…even if they’ve never been there.
To be honest, I’d put the Donnie Darko soundtrack up there with other great teen/coming of age movies of the 80’s, 90s, and aughts, like Dazed and Confused, Juno, Empire Records, and most John Hughes movies. (Unrelated, if anyone happens to have an original pressing of Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division, please send it to our Nashville office.)
Donnie Darko’s ending gets stuck in your head.
In addition to using the whole month of October to tell the story supported by great period music, Donnie Darko’s story itself is bizarre and difficult to unpack unlike some of the horror/thriller fare of the month.
There are a lot of really great horror and thriller movies out there that go out there, do their job, and wrap it up in the end—the slasher gets caught or killed, (but wait not really!) or the psychopath is almost stopped by the good guy but ultimately escapes.
Even if the movie sets itself up for a sequel (or, like, 10 if you’re Jason Vorhees) there’s some closure and you can turn it off and move on. Donnie Darko is not this kind of movie.
As the movie twists and turns toward the end of the countdown it, at times, is tough to say whether Donnie will be the hero is awesome alliterative name suggests or whether he will be consumed by the darkness of his bizarre and unsettling visions. Although there are critics who pan the ending as a poor payoff I think the uncertainty is pretty cool.
One of the things I love about the movie is that every time I watch it I think I’ve got it figured out but then I don’t. If anything can be said about Donnie Darko it’s that any number of interpretations of the plot and ending are simultaneously right and wrong.
Of course, everyone on the Internet has a theory and they’re all interesting to consider. The important thing though is that Donnie Darko isn’t meant to be “solved” or “explained” to “experienced” and “re-experienced.”
I’ll take that any day over unaware campy horror movies packed with forced pacing and cheap jump scares.
So, in a month filled with many very excellent spooky and scary movies, I don’t mean to argue that Donnie Darko is the “ultimate horror movie” or “ultimate thriller.” That would be The Shining or Halloween, The Exorcist, or any number of other great and terrifying movies that blend elements of thrills, horror, and gore, and make me want to never sleep again.
I just think it’s a great encapsulation of one angsty teen’s journey through one of the more nostalgic times of the year. In between all the psychopaths, slashers, and creepy clowns check it out…
Just make sure to watch in the next 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds.