Donnie Darko and the Appeal of Genre Transcendence

25 February 2016

Here’s the thing: teen angst sells. Even accounting for the ageing West, 35 per cent of the world’s population is under 20 – and at least 99 per cent of them are  angsty (*1). Teens are, or certainly have been in decades past (prior to the rise of Netflix and Co.), the main class of cinemagoers. So: take a healthy helping of teen angst, add just enough science fiction to appeal to the nerdgeist, then smother the whole thing in grit and darkness, and what have you got? The perfect recipe for a cult hit.

The feature debut of writer­director Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko bombed once in 2001 and again at the theatrical release of its (albeit better lauded) director’s cut in 2004. However, when – as these things go – its DVD release began to rally a following, the film hit a turning point: it scored the midnight slot. New York’s Pioneer Theatre started Donnie Darko midnight screenings, and that was it. The film’s cult status had been affirmed.

Peer back through decades of yore and you’ll see that the cult classic and the midnight screening go – quite romantically – hand in hand. Rocky Horror found its devotees in Greenwich Village at midnight. So – in other theatres, in other cities, but always at 12 am – did Eraserhead, Night of the Living Dead and countless B movies.

Now, in what is often deemed the age of nostalgia, the midnight movie has evolved, reviving previously mainstream films and awarding them fresh cult status. At the forefront of this group is just about any title preceding the words dir. John Hughes. (I digress.)

Donnie Darko follows its eponymous character (a then ­unknown Jake Gyllenhaal), a deeply troubled boy who has more reason than most teenagers to believe himself the centre of the universe. As it happens, Donnie’s actions determine whether or not the fabric of reality collapses in on itself (it’s a whole thing). Despite its nerdcore appeal, the overarching time travel plot – complete with terrifying six­-foot bunny guide – is perhaps the least interesting part of Kelly’s film.

Instead, what Donnie Darko primarily offered midnight viewers and their more introverted DVD ­purchasing counterparts was a macabre glimpse at a richly inhabited universe. In a thirty second, one­shot, dialogue­free high school montage, Kelly manages to tell us more about several characters than some films allow in an hour. And although for most of the film Donnie is ironic and sarcastic (*2), creeping moments of genuine vulnerability — the regret on his face after calling his mother a “bitch”; his heartbreaking response of, “Ooh, I have those too!” when Gretchen (Jena Malone) mentions her father’s ‘emotional problems’, and of “I’m sorry,” to “You’re weird” — give the film emotional credibility beyond its dark premise.

Cross­universal wormholes aside, Donnie’s struggle to interact normally and connect with his family and innocent, doomed Gretchen speak more to the existential and the Absurd than to simple teen angst. Teenagers live in an almost constant state of flux; to be between the ages of thirteen and twenty is to be ‘finding oneself’. Darko takes this option away from its protagonist, and asks, instead: who am I, if the world ends right now?

What are my choices?

One could call Donnie Darko a horror film, and shelving habits of DVD stores, when they still existed, might have given that categorisation credence. However, few pure horror films have room for the intricacies of character and interpersonal relationships that are somehow as potently felt through Darko’s two and a bit hours as its menacing countdown, “Twenty-­eight days, six hours, forty­-two minutes, twelve seconds”.

Where in horror tropes do we find poor Cherita “Chut up” Chen, earmuffed and teased and enamoured of Donnie, whose total of maybe five minutes’ screen time provide some of the film’s most profound insights into Donnie, the sulphuric pits of hell that are high school and into the world? (You’ll forgive me this overindulgence of phrasing; melancholic ‘Mad World’ is still muffled in my ears.) What about liberal English teacher Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), a frustratingly liminal character, young enough to understand Donnie and Co. but too young and powerless to intervene?

Similarly powerless, the audience can only absorb the cathartic “FUCK” she hurls into the sky, and watch as she and her science teacher boyfriend try desperately, and fail, to help the ghosts of children in front of them, “Crystallised in the pain of puberty”. Darko is a supernatural film of which the primary attribute is a very human dedication to character, not any tricks of the mind or the eye.

With the perfect soundtrack to the gloomy early ­noughties teen life (remember, in the noughties, when you woke up in your pyjamas on a mountain and biked home to your worryingly nonchalant family with ‘The Killing Moon’ ringing in your ears? No? True nineties kids do) and some excellent snippets of faithful teen dialogue – “please tell me, Elizabeth, how exactly does one suck a fuck?” – it doesn’t do well to dwell on what kind of film Donnie Darko is while you’re watching it. The atmosphere is too wholly mesmeric.

Donnie Darko is not a horror film; it is not sci­fi, nor a romance or a comedy. It manages, however, to weave elements of these genres gracefully, if not seamlessly, through its two­and­a­half hours. It might be this refusal to adhere to convention that makes it difficult to exorcise the film from your psyche for weeks after viewing; it might be the brain­aching physics content. For whatever reason, it’s exactly this longevity that affords Donnie Darko its continuing claim to the Cult.


  1. A true fact.
  2. The Teen AngstTM wet dream.

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