Donnie Darko and The Psychology of Time Travel — 20 Years Since The World Ended

Laura Stewart
14 min readApr 13, 2021

It is Saturday 20 February 2021. “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. That is when the world will end”. I imagine those numbers are painted on the arm of an unknowing future superhero who will save the Earth by sacrificing themselves by telekinetically reversing time and closing a wormhole.

What are you on about woman? I hear you ask. Well, today I opened Twitter and noticed that Donnie Darko was trending. It was a bit of a coincidence because the film turns 20 this year and is being released on Limited Edition 4K UHD, thanks to Arrow Films on April 26th. Stranger still was that I had just sat down to begin writing a follow up to The Philosophy of Time Travel that I wrote two years ago to celebrate the film’s anniversary. But I was stuck. What do you say about a movie that has been written about thousands of times already, by myself included?

Then a Boeing 777 flying over Denver, Colorado, lost parts of its engine mid-flight. Properties in the Bloomfield neighbourhood were hit with huge chunks of the plane’s engine, but remarkably, no one was injured. The facts, like in the film, remain a mystery.

(Hashtag) #DonnieDarko.

Twitter didn’t even exist and Netflix had just launched (but more about that later) when Donnie Darko was released. Yet, 20 years later, when someone hears a story of parts of a plane falling from the sky, they immediately think of Donnie as his story so embedded in the minds of anyone who has watched the film. Why? What makes this movie resonate so well with people even to this day? People who saw it when it was released and those who watch it for the first time today all seem to fall into a melancholy love with Donnie.

I know why. Donnie Darko, the film is perfect. In contrast, Donnie Darko, the boy, was not — that’s why we love him.

Every single element of the film was created with intricate detail by Richard Kelly in his directorial debut. It was a story waiting to be told for years before finally, producer Adam Fields was brave enough to take it on after everyone else had turned it down. Fields raised the money to get it made, and so the tale of Donnie Darko, a character and story pulled from various parts of Richard Kelly’s youth, began to take shape.

Much of Donnie’s character is based on Kelly himself and his experiences when he was a kid. In his neighbourhood, there was a Grandma Death, an old lady who would stand at the side of the road, repeatedly opening and closing her mailbox. The jet engine idea was inspired by a true story of a piece of ice falling from the sky and into a boy’s bedroom — thankfully, he wasn’t in there at the time. He had a gym teacher in high school, much like Kitty Farmer in the film, who taught a self-help curriculum based on dividing human motivation into a love and fear lifeline. Kelly argued with her about it being overly simplistic and reductive.

On the flip side, his English teachers were a great influence on him. He did learn about Graham Greene’s short story, The Destructors, as depicted in the film, and Watership Down, which would inspire the idea of Frank the twisted bunny who became a caricature Kelly doodled for years before he brought him to life. It is these personal elements drawn into the narrative that makes it feel so authentic. It’s a life any of us could have led, one that we recognise, wherever we grew up. We all have those odd folks, strange houses and weird stories in our towns and villages that are the subject of urban myth.

Time Flies

Donnie Darko opens his fridge, ‘where is Donnie?’ is written on it.

Richard Kelly made a film about time travel but in a unique, ambitious and very human way. But Kelly’s film didn’t just portray time travel on the screen; he also wrote us, the viewer, into the story by allowing us to travel back to the ’80s while projecting thoughts of our futures into our minds and teaching us to cherish what we have in the present. It is a trip that feels so genuine and bittersweet that it creates a kind of existential crisis within its viewers but in the most beautiful way. It left people feeling confused not just about the story but how they felt after watching it. Few films manage to have such an emotional impact.

Donnie Darko captured the sort of magic that had been missing from cinema since John Hughes ruled the roost in the ’80s, and honestly, I don’t think anyone has matched it again since. I have been speaking to Adam Fields, the film’s producer, recently. He had kindly contacted me a few years ago to say that what I had written was the single greatest explanation of the philosophy of the film — a compliment that still astounds me to this day. Adam had found the script and was the Executive in Charge of the production of The Breakfast Club and said when he first read the Donnie Darko script it reminded him of that. How everyone could relate to a character in The Breakfast Club — the geek, the weirdo, the jock, the princess, the rebel — Darko had the same feel.

Adam saw similarities to John Hughes in Richard Kelly too, Just as Hughes was able to talk to the teen actors in his movie as if he was one of them, Kelly had a similar rapport. Like in the way he described the Smurfs and wrote the kind of dialogue kids would have with each other day to day, Kelly was very convincing and confident in his vision, enough for Fields to support him as a first-time director the way he had with John Hughes on 16 Candles. This clearly rubbed off on Jake Gyllenhaal, who won the part of Donnie after Jason Schwartzman pulled out.

Lucky for all of us that he did as this was Jake’s breakthrough role, delivering us not one but two of the greatest actors of our generation as it was Jake that got his sister Maggie cast to play his on-screen sister, Elizabeth. Jake told The Guardian that the Darko script had made him pull over on the side of the road to finish reading it as he was mesmerised by it. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role of Donnie now, as Jake couldn’t have been more perfect by being imperfect. For young gothy-geeky kids like I was in my youth, Donnie was the kind of boy I wanted to be with. He was handsome but a bit strange, kind, headstrong but not obnoxious (to anyone but his sisters). And Elizabeth was everything I had wanted to be growing up; cool, smart, independent and pretty.

Jena Malone was cast as Gretchen, Donnie’s love interest, and soon it became the indie film that everyone wanted to be involved in. Drew Barrymore joined the cast as teacher Karen Pomeroy, which helped secure the $4.5 million budget. Noah Wyle joined as Professor Monitoff and Mary McDonnell as Donnie’s mother, Rose. Patrick Swayze took the role of Jim Cunningham, which was a brave move for the man who up to this point had played masculine heartthrob roles, pushing that typecasting aside to play a creepy and patronising motivational speaker with a secret penchant for child pornography. If you look closely, you can also catch Seth Rogen in his film debut.

With a now very talented and cool cast on board, the shooting of the film began, and Kelly introduced what I believe was the magic formula that turned Donnie Darko from an already fantastic script and story to what would become a cult phenomenon: Music.

Bunnymen

A man in a terrifying bunny suit with a glowing white eye and big toothy grin

From the very opening scenes, as Donnie wakes in the middle of the road cliffside, — lucky that he wasn’t hit by a car or that he didn’t roll off the side as he slept — and gets on his bike to travel home, the unmistakable guitar twangs of Echo & The Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” drop. I’m not ashamed to say it almost brings me to tears every time. It sends me back in time to my youth, to my home, where I was lucky enough to be brought up on the music my two older brothers would play. Echo & The Bunnymen and Tears For Fears were staple sounds, along with The Church, Joy Division, Duran Duran and INXS — all of which feature on the Donnie Darko soundtrack. If anything can transport you back to another time and place its music, and the choice of songs that accompany the scenes couldn’t be more suited to the feel of the film. I read recently that Kelly’s original choice for Sparkle Motion’s dance routine was “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys, but he couldn’t get the rights. I am so glad. I love that song, but “Notorious” by Duran Duran is just so what a young girl dance troupe would choose to dance to.

It may be this heavily British soundtrack that nudged the films growing cult status in the UK. For Donnie Darko was first shown at The Sundance Festival on 20th January 2001, but every major distributor passed on it. It looked like the film would go straight to video, but thankfully Newmarket Productions picked it up for distribution. Coincidentally, Newmarket also released Memento in 2001 by another then-unknown young director, Christopher Nolan, who has made time travel the centre of many of his films since. It was Nolan that encouraged them to take a punt on Darko. Still, for every step forward, the film seemed to have to take two steps back. It was released in theatres on Halloween weekend, but 9/11 had just happened, and people weren’t really in the mood for the cinema, and the whole plane theme was really unfortunate timing.

It was about six months to a year after that the film really started to gain traction. It was this little known nascent company at the time called Netflix that really turned the movie into a cult phenomenon. Kids felt like they had discovered the company and the film there. It was at the time the biggest film in Netflix’s history (relative to their size at the time). Back then, Netflix was a DVD rental by post subscription service. In 2000, they introduced the recommendation system, which used members’ ratings on past titles to accurately predict future choices. I can only imagine that it had a massive effect on the right people finding out about Darko.

British audiences then got their chance to see it when it was released on October 22nd, 2002. From there, the film gained popularity by word of mouth and gained a huge following. From my own experience, I can remember my friends and brothers talking about how great it was. My eldest brother bought me the DVD for Christmas, and I was utterly smitten.

Michael Andrews composed the soundtrack, and he had his friend Gary Jules sing a cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” in a melancholic, slowed and stripped-down style. This version of the song plays at the end of the movie as Donnie’s world ends and the people in his life feel an overwhelming surge of emotion in his absence. They don’t understand it, and we feel the same way. The song, like the film, is beautiful, but it breaks your heart. The track was the UK Christmas number 1 single in 2003 and stayed at the top for three weeks, which was a huge deal back in those days. The song brought the film a lot more attention, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, you can stick great songs over any movie, but they wouldn’t have the impact they do in Donnie Darko. Donnie’s story, the music, the era, the style, the nostalgia, the low-budget, the unknown actors to the A-list stars in leftfield roles are all the ingredients for a perfect cult film. Donnie Darko became a genre-splicing science-fiction/coming-of-age/psychological drama/horror/indie love story all wrapped up in a big bow. And best of all, it’s a mystery.

Mad World

Donnie reads a note on his fridge which reads ‘Frank was here, went to get beer’.

This is another thing that Kelly got so right. Like surrealist/absurdist directors before him, such as David Lynch, Kelly has never given outright answers about what happened to Donnie. Leaving it open to the audience’s interpretation allows for its intrigue and phenomena to grow and never die. It’s up to you what you think happened.

Is it as simple as it would seem on the surface? That Donnie had paranoid schizophrenia, and his mental health was deteriorating rapidly? He began having hallucinations of a terrifying bunny and heard voices telling him to destroy school property, burn down Jim Cunningham’s house and take a gun from his parents closet, which resulted in him shooting the bunny (who turned out to be his sister’s boyfriend) in a rage after his girlfriend was killed. Were the whole time-travel concept and the tangent universe a figment of Donnie’s psychosis and delusions? Did Donnie himself decide that he only had 28 days left to live? Was the plane engine destroying the Darko family home a metaphor for the devastating impact that Donnie’s death had on the rest of his family? Did Donnie take his own life?

While that would all make perfect sense on paper — especially considering his psychiatrist, Dr Thurman (Katharine Ross), was giving him water pills and not medication to treat his mental illness — there are some things that Donnie cannot have imagined. Frank, for example. While it turned out that Frank was his sister Elizabeth’s boyfriend, he could have had no idea that he would wear that rabbit suit for Halloween. Frank had designed the costume himself, so he cannot have seen it before. We don’t even know if Donnie was aware of Frank’s existence. When she returns home just before the jet engine hits the house, Elizabeth’s behaviour suggests that this was a new relationship — perhaps even a first date — as she leans against the front door and giggles as he honks the car horn. It feels like the excitement of new love.

Talking of new love, in the 28 days that he is given before the (or at least his) world will end, Donnie doesn’t waste a second. He learns about time travel, black holes, tangent universes and whatever he can from Prof. Monitoff and Roberta Sparrow’s book. He meets a girl, falls in love and loses his virginity. Donnie learns to stand up for himself and question the authority around him without fear. He becomes an arsonist but, in doing so, reveals the truth about Jim Cunningham before he can commit any further abuse against children. All of that would make anyone feel like a superhero.

Two Worlds Collided

I like to run with the theory that I wrote in Donnie Darko: The Philosophy of Time Travel because it leaves us with Donnie as a hero with a purpose; even if that purpose was to die, at least he saved the world by doing it. Otherwise, it’s almost too sad a story to bear. Whichever way we interpret it, it’s ours. No one is right or wrong, and your opinion might change from one day to the next.

Whether you take Donnie Darko as a time travel movie, or as the sad story of a young man’s spiral into madness( perhaps ending with his suicide), a tale of good versus evil and the hypocrisy of Christianity, or even purely as a coming of age story, there is a thread that winds itself through all of those themes, and that is the influence of adults over young people.

Donnie Darko’s Dad opens his fridge with ‘vote Dukakis’ written on it

“The kids have to figure it all out these days, because the parents, they don’t have a clue” — Karen Pomeroy.

All of the adults in Donnie’s life were more interested in telling Donnie and his sisters what they should think and didn’t really listen to the children in their care. Even the otherwise laid back Darko parents were astonished to learn that Elizabeth was voting for the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis. They were Republican’s in the Reagan era who were more concerned about their daughter’s future husband’s tax rates than making the morally right choice. They had a future in mind for Elizabeth — she would marry someone wealthy and ‘push one out’ despite being a very bright girl on her way to study at Harvard who could look after herself and had bigger ideas for her life. Little sister Samantha too had a path set for her with Sparkle Motion and a dance career on the horizon.

It’s ironic then that Donnie, who could see bubble spears of intention energy protruding from himself and others, leading them along their predestined paths, had no future that anyone spoke of. Was that because subconsciously, everyone knew he didn’t have a future? Or perhaps they felt too awkward to talk about it considering his paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis. He had, for all intents and purposes, been written off.

Donnie was going through a massive period of change in his life. Puberty, self-discovery, love, sex, learning to question authority and form his own opinions of the world. Adults such as the intolerant God-loving gym teacher Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), motivational speaker Jim Cunningham and the spineless school principal tried to suppress that independent thought, and Donnie rebelled against them. Miss Pomeroy and Prof. Monitoff did a much better job encouraging the kids to think for themselves. Still, you could argue that it was them that planted the ideas of causing destruction and the theory of time travel in Donnie’s already fractured mind.

The overall message of Donnie Darko is that social conformity is dangerous, it is blinding of reality, and it ignores those who can genuinely contribute something special to society. While Donnie Darko is a film that infuses various genres, especially in the context of science fiction, it is also a movie that encourages deviation from the norm. The movie’s entire foundation is the people’s reaction when Donnie changes the world just a little bit. As Donnie says to Miss Pomeroy at the beginning of the film regarding Graham Greene’s short story, “Destruction is a form of creation…they just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart. They want to change things.” In that respect, Donnie does. He changes society directly due to his actions, and I’d imagine he indirectly changes his community after his death.

The inherent hope with the film’s conclusion is that society has learned something through Donnie and that change will occur as a result. Perhaps Donnie did, in fact, save the world. Encouraging younger generations to question authority and those in power will always be necessary but is perhaps even more poignant right now, as the world feels like it’s imploding in on itself. There are plenty of people out there making things happen. Some have sacrificed themselves to make a difference; some have faced extreme scrutiny and abuse standing up for what they believe in and in revealing less than pleasant truths. Maybe this is why Donnie Darko’s legacy lives strong because we all have the potential to be like Donnie, an everyday superhero, changing the future one small step at a time.

As recently as January of this year, Richard Kelly has confirmed that he has done a lot of work on a follow-up to Donnie Darko, which is just the kind of news we needed to hear. Twenty years after one of the greatest cult movies ever was made on a shoestring budget, fans might just get rewarded for their patience with a freshly squeezed journey through time or a new tangent universe to play in. I bet it won’t be as hard to find financiers and distributors for the sequel with Kelly attached to it this time round.

The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, used for the scenes of Donnie, Gretchen and Frank watching The Evil Dead, screens Donnie Darko every Easter Sunday (except this year because of COVID-19) because it’s a bunny rabbit movie, according to management. We may not be able to watch it at the cinema this year, but we can look forward to its new 20th-anniversary limited edition release with lots of tasty new extras. It is available to pre-order now via Arrow Films and released on 26th April.

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Laura Stewart

Writer, mother, goth wife, and Twin Peaks obsessive from South Wales, UK. Most of my writing will be about TV, Film and Music with a dash of personal reflection