Desert Island Picks #1: Donnie Darko

Hello, all! We’ve all heard of the game where you can pick five movies / songs / vital tools for survival to take to a desert island. In this new segment, I’m going to discuss my favorite “desert island picks” that I would bring if I were to be stranded on a desert island. I’ve heard that all desert islands come with televisions and Netflix.


Desert Island Pick #1: Donnie Darko, directed by Richard Kelly

I still want to know

Plot Summary:  How do you summarize a movie as strange and complex as Donnie Darko? It’s difficult because the concrete events of the film can be interpreted in different ways, but I’ll try my best. The plot follows a suburban teen named Donnie Darko as he deals with the constricting atmosphere of  Middlesex,Virginia. A sleepwalker, Donnie is awakened one night by a giant bunny named Frank who tells him that world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. That night, a  jet engine falls into his room, an event that would have killed him had he not been with Frank.


Donnie meets regularly with his psychotherapist, who is convinced that he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Donnie, however, believes that his meetings with Frank are real, as several of Frank’s pronouncements, such as the existence of time travel, are seemingly corroborated by members of Donnie’s community. Donnie commits several crimes, including flooding his school and burning down a local author’s house at the behest of Frank. He fluctuates between sanity, usually when he’s with his love Gretchen, and hallucinations. As time begins to run out, the path between reality and fantasy become blurred and only Donnie has the power to “save the world.”


Why is Donnie Darko a Desert Pick? I’ve seen the movie about four or five times, but I’ve only just begun to understand it. It’s a movie that reaches the viewer on many different levels, and since it can be interpreted in many ways, it’s a film that you’ll be thinking about for days or even years later. The first time I watched the movie, I was confused by the loopy timeline. I now understand it to be a causal loop, a type of temporal paradox which causes the  timeline of the movie to work like this: the events that happen on October 2, 1988 (the first day of the movie) set in motion all of the following events until October 30, 1988, in which the event that first happened on October 2, 1988 happens again, except it changes the future so that none of the other events ever occur. The end of the movie is a very WTF moment the first time you watch it, but on repeat viewings, it makes a lot more sense.


The movie is very strange even without the sci-fi time travel elements. I don’t usually tolerate deliberately weird movies, but Donnie Darko is strange in a endearing, beautiful way. For instance, there are several characters in the movie that don’t seem to serve a purpose. Cherita Chen, the bullied girl with a crush on Donnie, Mrs. Farmer, the loud-mouthed conservative PE teacher, Principal Cole, etc, don’t drive the plot, but are still highlighted throughout the movie. Cherita could be seen as one of the “innocents” who Donnie is trying to save, but that’s stretching it, as Donnie only talks to her once the whole movie. There are also secondary plots, like Donnie’s sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) getting accepted to Harvard, and Donnie’s English teacher Karen Pomeroy getting fired  that aren’t necessary except as background noise.

Donnie and Cherita

I like the oddity that is Donnie Darko. The characters aren’t exactly plausible, and their behavior is even less so, but their strangeness is engaging. It’s a dark movie that happens to be filled with oodles of off-kilter amusement.In on scene Donnie and his friends discuss the sexual capabilities of Smurfette and in another, Donnie stabs an invisible barrier in his bathroom with a butcher’s knife.


There are two scenes which I believe encapsulate the whole film. The first is the opening, which finds Donnie all alone at the top of Carpathian ridge. The music and Jake Gyllenhaal’s expression completely capture the mood of the movie: loneliness, innocence, and a touch of wickedness. Then of course, comes the Echo and the Bunnymen montage, which is a great palate cleanser.

The opening scene

The second scene is when Donnie and Frank meet at the movie theater. It’s a beautifully filmed scene that happens to be one of the oddest in the whole movie. The iconic conversation includes such gems as “why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” and features the pivotal moment where Frank reveals his true identity.

I love it

The movie is about time travel,normalcy, loneliness and love, but to me it’s primarily about death. I view the movie like this: Donnie exists, unknowingly, in a time loop. Each time the loop runs full circle, Donnie has a choice to die, and save the innocents like Gretchen, or live, and be the cause of their death. He understands that because of his schizophrenia  he is a ticking time-bomb, but he can never change his actions and still prevent the death of those he loves. Thus, when Donnie wakes in the beginning of the movie on Carpathian Ridge, he is reliving a time loop that he has lived many times before, except he has only just become aware of its existence. The falling jet engine is a catalyst that pushes Donnie towards time travel, and with the guidance of his mentors (his English teacher, science teacher, and Grandma Death), towards self-sacrifice.


There is a scene in which Donnie’s mother and father are discussing the fate of an old classmate who had died on his way to prom. “They said he was doomed. They could be saying the same thing about Donnie,” says his mother. A few scenes later, Gretchen remarks that Donnie’s name is like “some sort of superhero,” to which Donnie replies “what makes you think I’m not?” Donnie is a character at war with his two sides: the side of him that wants to save, and the side of him that needs to die. In reality, they’re two sides of the same coin. In order to save, Donnie must die. Yet when Donnie makes the final decision, he is smiling. It’s that sort of scene, that sort of message that makes Donnie Darko such a stellar movie. Because, sure, the themes of loneliness and death and time-travel have been well trodden. But has there ever been such a movie where a teenage boy, who is at once a superhero, antihero, and even villain,  kills himself to save the world?


If anything, the movie is worth seeing because of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance. He’s one of the most exciting actors working today because he’s constantly taking risks and Donnie Darko was one of the first. He’s adept at blending fragility with  insanity, a mix he later perfected in Nightcrawler.  It’s always a treat to watch a famous actor’s early works;  young Gyllenhaal is rougher and fresher, but even then, he was a gifted actor.


Donnie Darko is a movie that I can watch over and over without growing bored, and furthermore, it’s a work of art. I love the mood that it inspires, as well as the beautiful soundtrack and cinematography. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies and thus perfect for my number one Desert Island draft pick.


I included the wonderful Michael Andrews’ soundtrack in my post Moaar Movie Soundtracks but here it is again for your enjoyment. You should all download it! It’s perfect for long car rides…or melancholy bouts of sleepwalking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s