Donnie Darko? What the Hell kind of name is that?

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By Jay Hunter December 2016, the English winter air rasps and whistles around an intimate crowd heading toward the British Film Institutes Southbank cinema. Rain kamikaze’s South Block, Belvedere Road, London. But the ardent cluster of thirty eight dedicated fans soldier on into the warm repertory cinema. They’re primed to be taken on a contemporary superhero journey, that of time-travel and self discovery. But their champion won’t be taking billions at the box-office or battling an incoming alien invasion in the heart of Chicago. After all, not all hero’s wear capes.

Travel fourteen years into the past. May 2002, 155 East 3rd Street, New York. The same picture is screening at the Pioneer Theatre. A man walks by and notices a face staring at him from the window. Leporidae yet human. A face he knows. As he enters, he is greeted by a congregation, all here to see the familiar face, the bunny-man. He is informed that crowds have been coming every midnight for the last dozen weeks, selling out the theatre in the process. He smiles, turns and walks back out to the city that never sleeps.

The man was Richard Kelly and the movie in question was Donnie Darko, the movie he wrote and directed. It was a far sight removed from what he experienced just six months prior, when the movie garnished little to no box-office success. Earning back just $515,000 of it’s $4.5 million budget. 

Jump fifteen years into the future and Donnie Darko is now arguably the most famous midnight movie of all time. A monolith that embodies what cult-cinema means in the modern day. In fact, art-houses, festivals and universities all still play it at midnight for this same reason. 

But in 2016, when cultural bonds and now more tentative than ever, would it suffer the same fate?



It’s like a superhero or something…How do you know I’m not?

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An eerie fable of alienation and solitariness, Donnie Darko is the perfect teen-angst movie. We follow our hero on his yearning for belonging and identity, wrapped in a package of 1980’s nostalgia and genre cinema. 

It’s a lonely work regarding a suburban teenage boy battling his demons and psychological traumas. Awaking one night to be told by his friend (a Frankensteinesque bi-pedal rabbit) that the end of the world will arrive in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. The occurrence of a jet engine falling from the sky into Donnie’s house signals the beginning of this countdown. Forcing him to become the ‘Living Receiver’, who is chosen to guide the Artefact (the jet engine) into position for it’s journey back to the Primary Universe. This is because he was immediately effected by the Artefact making him the centre of the Tangent Universe. In doing so he sacrifices himself, but saves those around him.

It’s haunting and bleak, not something Hollywood would rush to invest nearly five million dollars into. It’s essentially structureless and unmarketable. However, it’s evidently enthralling and speaks to millions of people, even if they don’t fully understand it. A personal story of individual exploration and alienation, embellished by multi-verses and the end of time. Kelly stated:

“The film has multiple perceptions.”

Which makes it the very definition of art, a completely subjective piece that gives back what you put into it.

It’s a very very, mad world

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With that being said, about the movie being resplendent and splendiferous. The most important factor is Hollywood couldn’t market it (we’ve discussed this before). Donnie premiered January 2001 at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was widely tipped to join the decorated company of The Blair Witch Project and Memento as a Sundance success story. Even illustrious independent tycoon, Harvey Weinstein took his place in the audience wearing a Donnie Darko cap as the movie screened.

Two hours and fourteen minutes later, the credits rolled. Kelly waited excitedly. But no offers came in. Weinstein removed his cap and audibly passed on the movie. Donnie was a flop. America was still reeling from the Columbine massacre just 20 months earlier, where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gunned down thirteen students in their school. For Hollywood executives, Donnie’s nihilistic lone wolf tone set off a morbid deja-vu that they weren’t willing to risk their finances upon. In 2001, not finding a distributor meant certain death for your movie. It would be released on home-video and disappear into the void.

Thankfully, Christopher Nolan saw something in the movie and due to his success with Memento, he was able to convince Newmarket Films to pick Kelly’s movie up. The twenty something director geared up as his project was set for the silver screen, the release date would be October 26th, 2001.


Kelly’s ‘end of the Regan era’ superhero movie, was sideswiped the beginning of post 9/11 America. Naturally, any movie released in the final third of 2001 suffered a terrible fate. But an apocalyptic low-budget movie about a jet-engine falling from the sky was all but dead in the water.

Newmarket done all in it’s power to distance itself from the tragic events on the 11th September 2001, changing the poster art from Arabic font to Trajan. The movies star Jake Gyllenhaal pointed out that despite the falling jet-engine never being a part of the movies marketing, pointing out

“It was a very sensitive time”

But it was all in vein, the movies content was grim and apocalyptic. Even with it’s release set for Halloween weekend, the movies dark tone was no longer what audiences sought. As Guardian journalist Danny Leigh put it:

“why seek out talking rabbits warning the end of the world when it already seems to be happening?”

The topography of New York was altered with the destruction of the towers and so too was the public consciousness. Research has found that nations seek to repair and change their identity after times of staggering loss and despair to renew a sense of normality and regulation. Donnie Darko is many things, but normal and regulated it isn’t.

You’re weird

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The turbulent state of America at the time of Donnie’s release has often been sighted as the reason for it’s failure, current affairs are able to direct a movies trajectory with great vigour, but it’s hard to measure to what extent. Movies around Donnie Darko’s premiere date; Training DayFrom Hell and Monsters Inc all made between $10-$60 million at the box-office. The world climate scapegoat only gets you so far.

Newmarket frontrunners blamed critics. With Bob Berney saying:

“the key factor (was) critics either just didn’t get it or weren’t in the mood to accept it”.

However digging up reviews from 2001, the movie was a critical hit. With journalists lauding the blend of Lynchian imagery and comic-book undertones. Entertainment Weekly’s, Lisa Schwarzbaum said:



“a marvelous, messed-up antidote to the sitcom alienation of ‘American Beauty’, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a sullen, schizophrenic teenager who hears voices in his head from a man-size rabbit with a twisted-mask face.”

The San Francisco Chronicle eloquently and simply stated:

“Donnie Darko may be the Everest of adolescent angst movies”

Intrinsically, the movie was manufactured to become a cult hit, it’s in it’s very DNA to be a commercial castaway. Even in todays superhero heavy world, it could never of been a contender. You could argue that audiences today are far more accustomed to non-linear narratives and more complex storytelling, making an argument for Donnie to be a financial success in today’s world. But just a year before it’s release, audiences proved they were ready for intellectual storytelling, as Memento made nearly $40 million at the US box-office. Simply, like it’s title star, who is a poster boy for all the outsiders, the movie itself is outside the Hollywood social circle, always destined to fail. As Roberta Sparrow told Donnie, “every living creature dies alone”and commercially, the movie was alway set on that same path.

Movies like Donnie Darko owe their cult reputation because of their omnipresent qualities to germinate into different subcultures. It links to different cultural communities, whether it be horror, goth, loners, science-fiction affectionados or those dealing with their own psyche. Allowing the building of bridges between many different factions.

Trawl through Donnie Darko message boards and you’ll find a narrative of teens who find it speaks to them for a deluge reasons. As Cyclops points out:



“There’s impending doom for our hero, and Donnie’s basically a paragon of what we all want to be as high schoolers: he’s painted almost as superhuman, he’s mentally f*cked up (I can remember almost wanting to be mentally f*cked up in high school just to be special or something), having hallucinations, he’s smart, he tells off some public speaker at school (something we all probably thought of and never did), plus he f*cks sh*t up (burns a house down, floods the school). Teenage me ate that up. And the movie seemed a lot smarter than it is at the time, probably because I related to Donnie so well.”

Essentially the film is meaningless, unless you imprint yourself on the celluloid and get what you want out of it. There is no ex-cathedra definition. It’s so anti-Hollywood it would never be able to succeed, real world tragedies or not. It has no beginning, no middle and no end. Questions are left hanging with no answers and it’s hero dies (laughing) at the end, alone. But because of this, it is able to speak to a variety of subcultures, who are perfectly happy to analyse and dissect in the comfort of their own homes. Donnie was never intended to be plastered all over E! News, raking in franchise deals. It was conceived to help lost souls talk about death and teenage loneliness in the safe haven of midnight cinema showings and we have a six foot rabbit to thank…his name is Frank.



“You’re weird”

“Sorry”

“No, that was a compliment”

[Source – Cult CinemaThe Guardian, RedditEntertainment Weekly, San Francisco Chronicle]

(Originally posted by Jay Hunter, 16th December 2016 on creators.co)

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