The remarkable thing about Donnie Darko is that it's impossible to classify. Is it a horror movie? A teen drama? Science fiction? In the end, it doesn't matter. It's simply a film of transfixing beauty.
Trying to explain the plot is a fruitless exercise. In short, an intelligent, independent, sensitive teen named Donne Darko is haunted by a giant rabbit. He sleepwalks and wakes up in strange places, like the local golf course. Lucky for him, because one night a jet engine falls from the sky and crashes through the roof of his bedroom.
I'll save the rest for the end, where I give my theory on the film's meaning. The plot is secondary, anyway. What makes the movie great is its sheer artistic vision.
For whatever reason, writer/director Richard Kelly chose to set the movie in the 80's, which makes it a nostalgic pleasure for people of my generation. I believe I owned the aqua Hobie T-shirt that Donnie sports in one scene. It also allows the characters to make clever observations about pop culture relics such as the Smurfs (more specifically, Smurfette's role) and Married With Children.
The 80's soundtrack is also a large part of the film. I'm not sure if Kelly directed music videos before his feature work, but his mixing of songs with visuals is unparalleled. Classic 80's bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, The Church, and Duran Duran all provide tunes that set the film's melancholy tone. However it's this jaw-dropping scene in which Kelly documents the daily minutiae of high school life to Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels" that is the film's defining moment.
Jake Gyllenhaal does a nice enough job with the title character that I continue to call him "Donnie Darko" no matter what movie he's in. His real-life sister Maggie plays Donnie's sister in the film. They get off one of the film's best exchanges over the dinner table.
Donnie: You are such a fuckass.
Elizabeth: Did you just call me a fuckass? You can go suck a fuck.
Donnie: Oh, please, tell me Elizabeth, how exactly does one suck a fuck?
Little sister Samantha, after a pause: What's a fuckass?
The rest of the film isn't nearly as profane (with the notable exception of the aforementioned Smurfette rant), but it's consistently clever. By the end, I found myself mesmerized, even though when it was over I honestly had no idea what had happened. After watching it a half-dozen more times and talking it over with other Darko junkies, I've formed a theory; major spoiler alert.
Basically, the film boils down to Donnie making the choice to allow himself to be "squished" by the jet engine. The jet flies through a wormhole, losing the chunk of itself that crashes through Donnie's bedroom. Due to Frank's interference, he's not there the first time it happens. Frank warns him that "the world will end" in about a month. This is an overstatement; the world will end only for Donnie, if he chooses "God's path."
Over the next month, he is shown what will happen if he's not in his room when the engine falls on it. His girlfriend will be killed by a car, Donnie will shoot the driver, and his mother and youngest sister will be on the fated aircraft which will breach the wormhole (and presumably disappear). He alone is able to see the worm-like apparitions that emanate from every person, marking their path in the universe. As he sees the wormhole forming over the town, he makes the decision to allow himself to be killed in order to save the people he loves, negating the events of most of the film. The excellent final scene reveals this when his girlfriend rides up to the scene of the crash on her bike and doesn't know who Donnie is.
Essentially, some sort of higher power gives him a choice, and he chooses others over himself. This makes the film more satisfying for me, but it's not necessary in order to love the film. Just sit back and let it wash over you. Save your questions for when the credits roll.
Nolanometer Final Grade: A-