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The 365 Best Films of the 2000s

Heroes of the Zeroes: Donnie Darko

Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

“Donnie Darko”
Rated R
2001

Maybe Richard Kelly’s fate is to be the cult circuit’s Michael Cimino — forever admired for one great film amid subsequent missteps, including a director’s cut of the same movie.

Kelly has yet to match the mysterious mood or magnitude of his filmmaking debut, 2001’s “Donnie Darko” — a collision of time-travel sci-fi, commentary on ’80s Reaganomics malaise and teen angst that’s simultaneously witty and poignant.

Non-Darkolytes should start with the enigmatic theatrical cut and proceed further if curious. Kelly’s cut nicely richens the titular teen’s family bond but literalizes the ending to excess. (Both preserve a solid soundtrack with scenes set to “Head Over Heels,” “The Killing Moon,” “Under the Milky Way” and “Notorious.”)

Jake Gyllenhaal is Donnie, a sleepwalking teen told the world will end in 28 days — news given him on a night he escapes death after a plane engine falls into his room. As visions of a demonic rabbit named Frank persist, Donnie must decide if this apocalypse is a delusion or destiny.

Kelly’s labor of love included his sharpest cast — Noah Wyle, Beth Grant, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Patrick Swayze, Jena Malone and Gyllenhaal himself, strikingly sensitive to the persecution of others for a lack of adherence to “normalcy.”

And what works as nervy comedy also foreshadows Donnie’s burden and reinforces Kelly’s thematic idea that teens can be capable of amazing, world-changing things. Concluding with compassionate nobility and an unforgettable epilogue, “Donnie Darko” represented the one moment when Kelly’s eccentricities weren’t extraneous and ambition matched his grasp.

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12 Responses to “Heroes of the Zeroes: Donnie Darko”

  1. […] Deep End Departures The Descent Dirty Pretty Things District 9 The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Donnie Darko Doomsday Down With Love Downfall Drag Me to Hell Drumline Duplicity Eastern Promises An Education […]

  2. […] all of the characters are very engaging and it is very sexy. This film is like the antithesis of “Donnie Darko.” That film is remembered and adored because people liked the result of the mythology, but they […]

  3. Pete Rogers says:

    Thanks for that observation. The man to know, other than Richard Kelly himself would be Martin Scorsese who clearly understood Kazantzakis covert point about the corruptness of officialdom within "Last Temptation". When Christ reveals to St Paul that he didn’t die and points out that he is corrupting his message, St Paul says "we don’t need you any more" because he now owns the message and has the power to interpret it and so control the flock for his own ends, which is what he really wanted according to the book. Jim Cunningham is Kazantzakis’ St Paul character. In last temptation it is a beautiful child angel that tells Christ that he need not endure his fate and can come down off the cross, but she is a manifestation of the Devil, this is Frank Bunny in Donnie Darko context; and just as the temptation proves to be a parallel universe and Christ has to get back on the cross in the real one, so Donnie ultimately has to endure the fate that we thought he had escaped. A summary of the message is that for evil to prevail all we have to do is be a bystander, but the problem is that even if someone is clever enough to expose it like Donnie is, convention will not understand them and they will be rejected as nuts rather than seen as the guys who have it right. They will be forgotten and we will sleepwalk on at great cost to ourselves. The viewer is being left to work out that there is nothing wrong with Donnie, he is just clever enough to recognise the cant that we all fall for and authentic enough to fight it absolutely; which gets has got him sectioned as a dangerous person. We are being divided by Kelly into those that see through that he should be supported and those who accept the official view that when it comes to it he should be avoided as a nut after all. Just like the way real life politics divides and rules us even though the modern evils are plain to see.

  4. Nick Rogers says:

    Pete: I love looking at what’s playing on marquees in films, too, and this is a eloquent, well-thought-out read of what that might mean to "Donnie Darko." Again, I want Richard Kelly to again succeed the way he did with "Darko," so I’ll support him as long as he gets to keep making movies. Thanks for the great comment, and thanks for reading!

  5. Pete Rogers says:

    Donnie Darko is much cleverer than people realise. It is a temporal take on "The Last testament of Christ" adapting Kazantzakis’ central point to illustrate the notion that, unless they go long with them, honest authentic and good people will be destroyed by those in power and authority.

    If you look at the scene where Donnie leaves the cinema to burn down the Evangelical’s home, you will see that the film being featured on the Cinema sign is indeed "The Last Temptation of Christ".

    What Kelly is saying is, "whatever you do, protect the Donnie Darko’s of this world if you want it to improve, otherwise our fate as a second rate moral force is sealed and corruption will always trump what is best in us".

  6. Ha, I actually liked Jarhead–though that might have been because JG was all ripped and half-naked. Yum yum.

    I agree, Bubble Boy was funny! And he did a good job in The Day After Tomorrow–definite paycheck movie, but he made it work, and hey, we all gotta pay the rent.

  7. Joe Shearer says:

    I think Gyllenhaal is underrated as an actor. I liked "Jarhead," and as for those two that you mentioned, I enjoyed "Tomorrow," though I think he was doing a paycheck movie, he was still good in it. He doesn’t typically make bad movies, "Prince of Persia" notwithstanding (though I guess there’s always a chance that will be good…right? Any chance?).

  8. Nick Rogers says:

    mia: Thanks! I think Jake Gyllenhaal gets a bum rap on the acting front. Just about half of the movies he made last decade are on this list, and "Jarhead" was his only film from the time period that I truly disliked. (Yes, I enjoyed "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Bubble Boy.")

  9. Great review, Nick. This movie MADE my early twenties. I was so obsessed with it. I remember telling people how good Jake Gyllenhaal was, and getting the "who?" reaction more often than not. Funny to think of now . . .

  10. Nick Rogers says:

    Wow. That interpretation had, uh, well, never really crossed my mind. Godspeed, though, to Jim Emerson, for embarking on a several-thousand word exploration.

  11. Joe Shearer says:

    I read something online (a scholarly-type breakdown of the film) that said that one of Donnie Darko’s themes was fantasy incest, that Donnie had a sexual attraction to his sister (played by his real-life sister, which makes things all the more creepy). I only saw the movie once (a long time ago), so I can’t really comment on it (other than it centered around the "suck a f*ck" scene at the dinner table), but I thought it was interesting. Maybe I can track down the original online.