Within the first five minutes of Donnie Darko we are placed into a whimsical, hallucinatory world of faded pastels, a family that argues at the dinner table, and the soft hum of an Echo & The Bunnymen song playing against leaf blowers, trampolines, and morning joggers. The setting is ambiguous, late 1980s. Writer and director, Richard Kelly nailed it on the head. The aesthetics are quiet and familiar.
We peel back layers to understand the complexities of the movie. And sometimes it drains to a stop. One scene in particular begins with a crooked view of a school bus; Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) leaps down and the camera angle turns upright. Kajagoogoo isn’t playing behind a John Hughes high school, instead, we hear “Head Over Heels” by Tears for Fears, we see the banter of kids in the hall, boys snorting up drugs before the principal mindlessly walks past, Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) staring in confusion at a group of cliquey girls. When the music breaks, Ms. Pomeroy is reading a passage and asks Donnie what he thinks it means. He says, “Destruction is a form of creation…they just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart. They want to change things.”
We can understand a few things: Donnie Darko is a disturbed teenager, and is having visions of a man dressed in a morbid looking bunny suit. The creature’s name is Frank. Donnie sleepwalks outside to meet with Frank. And he tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. Meanwhile, a jet engine falls into Donnie’s bedroom from the sky. After this, there are a string of situations that happen, more or less because Frank tells Donnie to do it. Donnie is able to soothe some of his wounded thoughts by beginning a relationship with a girl named Gretchen (Jena Malone) who appreciates his weird behavior. His teachers recognize his advanced thoughts, too. Ms. Pomeroy is impressed with Donnie’s capacity to understand her motley reading assignments. And a science teacher (Noah Wyle) is forced to put boundaries up on Donnie’s questions on time travel and religion.
So, suddenly, our eyes open a little bit more. There are two worlds within a world colliding: the world of Donnie Darko’s, and the world of subservient order and reason. When these worlds bend together, it takes the vulnerability in a character to recognize it. Health teacher and parent, Kitty Farmer, is an example of someone who cannot recognize it. Donnie’s youngest sister is on a dance team, “Sparkle Motion” with Kitty’s daughter. “Sparkle Motion” does a killer dance number to “Notorious” by Duran Duran, by the way.
What brings this story together is, in my opinion, “Grandma Death” who tells Donnie, “Every living creature dies alone.” Foreshadowing something? Hmm. In the final scene, Donnie sees a portal opening above the city, and with it, the impending death of all the people he loves. He travels back in time, 28 days, and stays in his bed instead of meeting Frank. The jet engine crashes down onto him. All of the other characters awake with no more than an instinct that something has changed. Their memory of the past 28 days has vanished. Gretchen bicycles past the Darko house and waves to Donnie’s grieving mom, for reasons she cannot comprehend. And the world as we know it goes on.