Donnie Darko: Genius Film or Overly Pretentious?

Donnie Darko recieved mostly high reviews from both the critics and the audience.

edited by Jacob Williams

“Donnie Darko” recieved mostly high reviews from both the critics and the audience.

Jake Williams, Journalist

Recently, I’ve felt motivated to watch some of what are considered “classic” or “highly rated” films that I haven’t seen, or ones that I’ve seen before, but was too young to fully appreciate. With the help of the Rotten Tomatoes Top 150 Best Sci-Fi Movies list, a cult-classic film by the name of Donnie Darko from 2001 stood out to me with a very high 86% rating, with the critics consensus deeming it “… a daring original vision, packed with jarring ideas and intelligence and featuring a remarkable performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as the troubled main character.” Considering that the plot revolves around a teenager hearing news from a six foot tall rabbit that the world will end a little under a month, I struggled to see how this film could possibly pack an intellectual punch, but I was curious enough to watch the film myself. So how does it hold up?

It depends. From my point of view, it was a good film, though it remains a very confusing one. I’ll try and avoid giving any spoilers, but there are a lot of loose ends that the movie doesn’t tie up, and there is a lot of existential angst that can be off-putting to some viewers. It’s certainly not a happy film, with many dark themes and a sense of nihilism throughout it’s runtime. Our main character, Donnie, is not a likeable lead, he’s angry, mean spirited, and immature, and hangs out with people that are somehow worse people than he is. This stylistic choice regarding the characters within the story make it difficult to care about the well-being of any of them, but I still liked it, and I like it more and more as time passes. But why?

After seeing the movie, I had immense difficulty articulating my thoughts in a coherent way, but it’s a wildly incoherent movie that takes a lot of time to fully understand. As time passes, I came to the conclusion that it was this way by design and not necessarily poor film making.

Donnie is a complicated character who is clearly struggling both mentally and emotionally, and the movie is a reflection of his current state. He is afraid of being alone and is struggling with the idea of death and the idea of predetermined destiny. As the film progresses, Donnie’s schizophrenia gets worse and worse, and eventually he must grip with the fact that he has very little or no control over his life. It dabbles in the philosophy of existence, death, and time travel. Yes, time travel. As if the movie wasn’t baffling enough, time travel and alternate universes are additional themes within the movie, and are vaguely explained by Frank, the giant rabbit.

Avoiding spoilers, the point of the movie I believe is about the journey of Donnie Darko, and him beginning to accept his destiny and his purpose in life and in the universe, even if he never learns why he’s destined to do certain actions. Not only that, but Donnie coming to the realization that fatalism is inevitable, and that many of the adults who are viewed as wise and claim to know so much about the world, are often dismissive to critiques of their way of doing things, hypocritical, and oblivious to how the world treats younger generations of people.

One scene from the movie (top), as well as artwork from a fan (bottom), artist is unknown. (edited by Jacob Williams)

This is where the debate begins. Some people believe that this movie is one of greatest and most profound movies ever made, and others chalk it up to be an overly edgy movie that pretends to have more significance than it actually does. On this spectrum, I would fall slightly towards the former than the latter, but relatively near the middle.

I enjoyed the film a good amount, but I didn’t really understand why I did at first. After a while I began connecting more of the dots, and I can appreciate the film more. It’s about a 7/10 for me, which is above average in my ratings system (6/10 being perfectly average).

I can certainly see why some people don’t like it however, there are loads of problems with the movie, such as the ones I mentioned earlier towards the beginning. Plus, the director of the film was only 24 years old at the time and was his first film. My dad even described the style of film making of being “made by someone on drugs” and “having three or four starting sequences before actually starting.” Despite it only being a 7/10 for me, it’s one of the most interesting and complicated films I’ve ever seen, though I think it had some missed potential. I certainly will not be forgetting Donnie Darko¬†anytime soon.

James Plath of Movie Metropolis describes the film as being “a bit like a teenager: brooding, complex, rebellious, and difficult to comprehend”. Those words are a pretty good culmination of what my thoughts are on my viewing experience.

If you appreciate that style of film making, then you should really enjoy Donnie Darko. If not, then you may walk away unsatisfied.¬† There’s a good chance that you may love the themes of alienation and how the film challenges those in power, but your parents will absolutely despise it, calling it unwise and distasteful. Overall, I’d recommend you watch the film if you’re curious, but understand going in that this movie is not for everyone.