Donnie Darko premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. Written/Directed Richard Kelly (who was 26 at the time) and backed by veteran Drew Barrymore, the film sparked intrigue from the onset – earning nominations for best picture at Sundance and at the International Catalonian Film Festival. Donnie Darko opened to the public in October of 2001 to a disappointing box office of $517,375. A month post 9/11 and a plot that begins with an airplane remnant falling from the sky, there was little interest in reliving anything close to the horror our nation had just experienced. Response to the film got interesting, however, once the film hit DVD. In conjunction with its release, a handful of art houses across the country began midnight showings and a cult-like following began.
Since arriving on DVD in 2002, the film has earned 10 times its theater earnings – raking in more the $10 million. Within the last 5 years, Donnie Darko has slowly become this (adolescent) generation’s anthem; much like Breakfast Club did in the 80s. Why did this happen? Along with the inevitable “what is” and “who is” questions, “why” seems to be the common thread of any viewers experience of the film. Questions quickly arise around the film’s use of non-linear storytelling, a rampant amount of symbolism, the possibility of multiple versions of characters (Frank), and Kelly’s love of Deus Ex Machina, which certainly does not help ease the weight of the film.
In fact, the film is so complex that countless theories have emerged attempting to explain and/or give meaning to the visual experience; several that actually refute Richard Kelly’s own commentary. And here lies the beauty of the film.
Not only is there debated dialogue around the film, there are intentionally multiple viewpoints and/or take aways.Donnie Darko is a wonderful example of the both/and. Multiple realities are at play : the prominence of fear AND love; the exploration of time through the past AND future AND present; the possibilities of a primary AND tangent universe; the convergence of human interaction AND the involvement of the transcendent; the irony of life AND death; and so on. Life embodies the both/and. It’s complex; a complexity that often lends itself to the absurd. The rational and irrational have battled it out, and in many ways it just does not make perfect sense. It just is.
The hotly debated question of the film: Is there a correlation between Easter weekend and Donnie Darko? To be honest, I am hesitant in making direct associations. Christians are often quick to find the Christ figure and draw out the Christian meaning in a film, consequently missing the broader experience. This said (and being a follower of Christ), Donnie Darko undoubtedly explores questions of God’s presence in the the hear and now. In many ways, it resurrects new visuals for questions frequently found in my own faith: What does life through death look like? Why am I interested in something other and/or the transcendent? Where does humanity’s linear view of time merge with a God that is infinite? Why is life so complex? And the big question on hand, does everyone die alone?
So, who/what/why is Donnie Darko? I think if there is anything conclusive to be said, it’s that interpreting the film “correctly” only concludes one’s experience and Richard Kelly wants nothing of the sorts:
Maybe it’s the story of Holden Caulfield, resurrected in 1988 by the spirit of Philip K. Dick, who was always spinning yarns about schizophrenia and drug abuse breaking the barriers of space and time. Or it’s a black comedy foreshadowing the impact of the 1988 presidential election, which is really the best way to explain it. But first and foremost, I wanted the film to be a piece of social satire that needs to be experienced and digested several times.