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TRCH The Da Vinci Code

20 Years Later: Donnie Darko

26 October 21 words: Yasmin Turner

Richard Kelly’s coming-of-age science fiction psychological thriller is just as relevant today…

Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Seth Rogen, Drew Barrymore
Running time: 113 minutes

Released in 2001 and starring the fantastic Jack Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, Nightcrawler), this pop/cult classic located in American suburb angst is an inventive and chilling piece of cinema, eagerly waiting to be unravelled by its audience. Combining elements of Back to the Future, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and American Beauty, Donnie Darko is the missing link between Spielberg, King and Stranger Things with its intriguing mix of time-travel, mental health issues, teen romance and giant bunnies. 

From the outset, complexities in teenage years, coupled with paranoid schizophrenia, mirror the uncertainties of the political landscape of the late 1980s as America faced the end of the comforting reign of the economically impactful Ronald Reagan years. The film opens with a social comment about the flawed system that lay underneath the surface of the middle-class suburban community in light of the Reagan/Bush neo-conservative politics of 1988. The dining table conversation, opening the film, discusses the upcoming presidential election, with Donnie’s patriotic father favouring George Bush Sr. and Donnie’s sister challenging her father as she argues for Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis.

When a 747 jet engine crashes straight through Donnie’s bedroom – an event that would have killed him if he had not been sleepwalking around a local golf course – his already fragile mental health reacts by producing a hallucination of a large rabbit-headed figure that informs the teenager the world is going to end in 28 days. As his psychological state worsens throughout the duration of the film, his hallucinations become increasingly violent and he is urged to commit crimes such as flood his school and set fire to motivational, authoritative speaker Jim Cunningham’s house. The political comments are continued, Donnie prompted by his radical opinions about the morally lacking conservative powers that surround him, such as the law and school.

Submit to the atmosphere and try not to worry too much about the headache-inducing details of the plot

The whole commentary is full of complexities, but if you strip it down to its bare themes, what you can take away from the film is quite simple: it is the story of the struggle of a boy growing up, charged with puberty and rebellion. Donnie embodies the mindset of a teenager, riddled with anxiety and anger, devising its cross-generational appeal as it resonates with the majority. Time-travel adds another dimension to the film and further amplifies the themes of searching for purpose and finding acceptance. 

Kelly provides clever direction and great casting, accompanied by nostalgic new wave Eighties music including Echo & The Bunnymen’s cutting romantic 1984 hit The Killing Moon. With its gloomy music and eerie storyline, this is the perfect film to watch as Halloween nears, but make sure to submit to the atmosphere and try not to worry too much about the headache-inducing details of the plot.

Did you know? Jake Gyllenhaal and Seth Rogen both admitted at the wrap party to not knowing what the film was about.

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