Donnie Darko, 2001, and the Beginning of Time

Kubrick was right in one sense. The new millennium may not have seen man venture beyond the infinite of space but a series of film-makers made cinematic explorations in time very nearly as transcendent as those of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s David Bowman. A golden period between Cannes 2000 and 2001 saw the release of five screen classics – Yi Yi, In the Mood For Love, Memento, Mulholland Drive, and Donnie Darko – each of which make time a central concern. The directors behind the first four – Edward Yang, Wong Kar-wai, Christopher Nolan and David Lynch – either had already established, or would go on to establish, themselves as part of the canon. The maker of the last, Richard Kelly, must look to his accidental masterpiece for satisfaction that though his film career burned briefly, it burned very brilliantly indeed. 

Twenty years on, it feels appropriate to take a worm-hole peep back at Darko, and not just because anniversaries make for nice hooks. This is a film deeply invested in traversing past and future and connecting the dots. Made by the then 25-year-old Kelly – a USC film school graduate – on an indie budget with support from two Hollywood big-hitters of the 1980s, Darko is a film fascinated by the world of two decades earlier. The story is set during the run up to the ‘88 presidential election and the wardrobe, music and mise-en-scene are directly lifted from a mainstream vision of ’80s US suburbia: palatial family homes, well watered lawns, and spacious bedrooms where the kids brood on their teen angst while listening to English synth pop.

Darko’s story revolves around the daytime struggles and nighttime dreams of the eponymous teen. Donnie longs for both God and sex during bouts of therapy, pops pills for his anxiety, and is plagued by visions of a bizarre giant rabbit called Frank. Thanks to one rabbit-inspired somnambulation, Donnie cheats certain death only to be told that the world will end in 28 days time. Voices and visions continue to guide Donnie’s morally ambiguous behaviour over the course of the month, leading to final calamity and a scarcely-explained reversion to the story’s beginning and the suggestion of a new timeline of events.

Working within several genres – horror, teen, mystery, sci-fi – the film appeared to confuse the few critics and cinema-goers who saw it on release. It struggled at the box office, only to enjoy a glorious afterlife, resurrected by word-of-mouth support and early Web forum fame. The distinct genre-bending may be one of the reasons the 2001 audience found the film difficult in a way that a 2021 audience surely would not. The experimental blurring of strict genre boundaries may have begun in the 1990s, but the principles of ‘convergence’ – the soon-to-become pre-eminent paradigm of media production – had not yet been formalised. One of these, the cross pollination of genre-spanning idioms and tropes, now appears part of the the basic template for all mainstream screenplays. Indeed, audiences now expect genre fluidity, in-jokes and widely dispersed cultural references across all forms of pop culture. In 2001, the combination startled.

Darko’s trailer and poster art suggest marketeers saw value in emphasising the film’s fleeting horror elements, evoking the spirit of the 80s-style video nasty. Aficionados of the macabre may have been puzzled, then, on viewing what is – on some levels – a rather fine high-school film, replete with a generous dusting of romance and comedy. There are cultural touchstones that will have assisted navigation back in 2001. Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) may have helped soften up the audience for the horror-teen-comedy blend, while Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988) – made in the year of the story setting – appears a deliberate reference point both in terms of attitude, aesthetic and character types. Kelly’s real innovation, however, was to drop large dollops of sci-fi into this mix. While dealing with nighttime frights and classroom bullies, Donnie Darko ventures into Einsteinian space-time theory, wormhole time travel, and the multiverse. If the idea sounds absurdly ambitious, it probably was. Though such concepts may have roamed free in the pages of physics journals for decades, and found limited public purchase thanks to the celebrity of Stephen Hawking, these were not – in 2001 – staples of popular culture.

That the horror/high-school/time travel combo worked – and continues to stand the test of time –  is a marvel, and, perhaps, an accident. Donnie Darko’s real magic is in the narrative gaps. There is, perhaps, another universe where the same film fades into obscurity, derided for its incoherence and naivety. In this one, the gaps and the omissions create the spell.

The original film offers suggestions, and no more, for how and why certain plot points connect. By the film’s end, for example, we dimly grasp where the mystery jet engine that should have killed Donnie the first time around came from, but the paradox of how it was pulled from the present into the past (or perhaps from the future into the present?) isn’t explained. The extent to which Donnie actively controls this process isn’t made clear; is this fate, or a science experiment? What is the significance of Donnie’s mental health struggles – another trope that feels remarkably prescient from the perspective of 2021? Do the pills allow him to access future events, and see across time horizons? Is the rabbit a hallucination, a spiritual messenger or the psychological residue of time-hopping? 

Neither of the twin timelines – one we get to view in full, and the other only hinted at in the final scene – offer resolution. In the film’s ‘main’ timeline, Donnie evades an early death and uses his extra time to do much good, exposing paedophile Jim Cunningham, finding love with a fellow lost teen, protecting a bullied classmate, and preventing a home invasion. But he is also drawn inexorably towards a tragic fate; his actions inadvertently lead to the sacking of his favourite teacher, the death of his new girlfriend, and Donnie condemning himself by shooting a man dead. The ‘new’ timeline results in his own death, his family bereft, his classmates unloved or unprotected, and the local paedophile unexposed

Paradox and ambiguity are certainly part of the film’s enduring appeal. Like most teens before him, Donnie yearns for a better, more moral world, and uses his power – apparently the result of a blend of drug-addled hallucination and serious scholarship – to aim at better outcomes. Ultimately, these are to no avail. Darko seems to be a film about the way in which scientific assurance, spiritual voices and free-will may, on occasion, tease us with visions of better choices and life paths, but ultimately lead to a different configuration of the same injustices – alongside an equal sense of doom.

Though Darko may be most easily understood as a ‘simple’ sci-fi movie (encouraged by the inferior 2004 director’s cut) in which time travel is invoked as a fix for specific narrative problems, the notion of co-existing and co-equal multiverses may be a more fruitful way to read the film. The significance of the 1988 election setting, for example, initially appears arbitrary but the multiverse model suggests an importance to this particular historic juncture. In a post-Trump world, the Dukakis-Bush election seems almost quaint, but the film wants to ask if that election might have been a point of radical departure in the way that 2016 certainly was – at least in this universe. How different might the world have been given a Michael Dukakis win, a question pondered by the Darko clan in terms of the tax-and-spend implications? The story is set before the Berlin Wall had fallen and the ‘end of history’ declared by the Cold War victors. Is there another world out there where Soviet communism survives and Donnie Darko languishes in a jail cell for shooting ‘Frank’? 

At the film’s release in January 2001, the print had scarcely dried on the epochal Bush vs Gore Supreme Court decision and the Twin Towers still stood. A 2021 viewing forces a similar question. Is there a universe where Gore’s green revolution averted climate catastrophe, where Al-Qaeda’s monstrous bait was not taken, and where military order continues to reign in Libya and Iraq? To write these words on the day where the Taliban have swept back into Kabul after a(nother) two-decade gap feels particularly poignant. 

It is difficult to pin down a specific message, but Donnie Darko seems to want to suggest that every year, every month, perhaps every moment is a potential point of radical departure where new futures are created. But at every point of departure, threads form between the universes that unspool. This appears to be the most obvious way to understand the film’s strange, beguiling final moment where, as if on autopilot, mother and girlfriend wave to one another, bound by the threads that exist between the two timelines but – like the audience – unable to quite grasp exactly what they are.  

Like the best sci-fi – indeed, like the best science – the ideas in Darko force a confrontation with profound questions: What is the nature of time? Where does free-will fit in a universe built on four dimensional space-time? And where is God in the picture? Despite the ostensibly odd collision of sci-fi and high school film, this is where the film finds emotional coherence. Donnie Darko is, at heart, one of the great high-school films because it finds a way to dramatise the questions that many teens – at least those of a certain sensibility –  are destined to ask. Beyond the trials of sexual awakening and social navigation, adolescence is defined by rage at the injustices of the seemingly Godless adult world and fuelled by a hope that things could be, indeed should be, done a whole lot better. Donnie stews in these doubts and is granted access – whether it is through God or through science – to a radical solution.

The way this plays out has the flavour of parable. There is a Christ-like process of corporeal doom and personal sacrifice. Donnie takes on the sins of others as he hurtles towards his demise, appearing to gladly, almost triumphantly, accept his own premature death as a means to cleanse the world – his world, at least – of its hypocrises. The film’s stunning final scene begins with a whirling series of tilts and pans across the bedrooms of the story’s cast of secondary characters. Each is seen in isolation, faces struck by a shared – and, again, scarcely explained – look of grief. Gary Jules’ and Michael Andrews’ haunting piano rendition of the Tears For Fears 1983 hit Mad World plays – the only place where the all-’80s synthpop soundtrack drops – and, in this moment, Donnie’s demise appears a moment of potential positive transformation. Through a sacrifice, the slate is wiped clean, the future erased, and a chance for redemption offered. 

It would take a brave reviewer to argue that Donnie Darko represents the best of the remarkable crop of time-obsessed movies produced in the golden year of 2000-2001. Each of those mentioned tackles the subject with slightly different interests: Memento plays masterfully with audience perception and memory by running narrative time forward and backwards; In the Mood for Love dives deeply into the rich hues of nostalgia, and breaks hearts along the way; Mulholland Drive beautifully evokes the quick-quick-slow rhythms of dream time; while Yi Yi – perhaps the greatest melodrama ever made – examines its characters swept along in the eddies and currents of passing time as experienced across four generations. 

Donnie Darko’s power is in its capacity to afford insights and meditations on time without demanding a single line of interpretation. The film can certainly be enjoyed as a nostalgia piece; indeed, there is a sense of Kelly using the power of the director’s chair to roil once more in the bitter-sweet pleasures of a late-80s suburban youth. It also works as a great high school film, a genre which – by definition – appeals not only to those in the audience who are still grappling with traumas of adolescence, but also those who may reflect, with gratitude, on their escape from that mixed-up era. The film works as a straight time-travel movie in the Back to the Future or Terminator mould, gently prompting questions of free-will and destiny along the way. But it is in its unstable connections, obscure speculations and acres of narrative negative space that the film beguiles. 

Repeat viewing is recommended and there may be no better time to revisit this genuine American classic. After all, what could be more 2021 than a film about mental-health ravaged teens contemplating global apocalypse? A pandemic, perhaps?