Jul 23, 2004 | 2364 days, 20 hours, 52 minutes and 1 seconds ago, Donnie Darko flopped.
"Darko," 26-year-old writer-director Richard Kelly's first film, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore and Patrick Swayze, came out on October 26, 2001. In the hypersensitive aftermath of Sept. 11, the film's distributor was understandably uncertain how to sell a film whose bizarre events are set in motion by a jet engine falling from the sky. While its critical reception included a number of rave reviews, the film died on the vine, taking in only half a million dollars in its initial release in a handful of cities.
Three years later, "Donnie Darko" is being re-released in a handsome director's cut, with remastered sound and picture, 20 minutes of new footage and new visual effects. Years of midnight screenings at theaters around the country and the film's impressive success on DVD -- taking in more than $10 million to date in U.S. sales alone -- have turned what was once a confusing and oblique failure into a confusing and oblique cult hit. With the release of Kelly's director's cut, an even wider audience should have a chance to be bewildered by "Donnie Darko's" mix of '80s teen comedy, psychological drama and science fiction.
The film, with its countdown to apocalypse, its intimations of time travel and alternate universes, and its 6-foot-tall talking bunny rabbit, lends itself easily to wildly divergent explanations. Countless Web sites devote themselves to teasing out its many mysteries. In his foreword to "The Donnie Darko Book," the film's star, Jake Gyllenhaal, writes, "What is 'Donnie Darko' about? I have no idea." And Kelly himself mentions in the DVD commentary that "this film kinda does need Cliffs Notes."
And so Cliffs Notes it shall have. I've created the definitive guide to the mystifying plot of "Donnie Darko." Like the junior detectives of Mulholland Drive, I've compiled clues from all over the place: not only from repeated viewings of the original and the director's cut, but also from the film's Web site, Kelly's screenplay, the DVD commentaries, published interviews with the filmmaker, Internet speculation, shower-based cogitation, and plenty of arguments with my friends. And I'm happy to say that, after all that, I more or less pretty much understand what the hell happens in "Donnie Darko."
So if you haven't seen "Darko" and don't want the film spoiled, don't read any further. (The publishers of Salon have asked me to note that instead of reading you might consider blindly flipping through the next six pages and clicking on all the ads.) While I will be including some information from the director's cut in this explanation, very little of this is true spoiler material, as almost all the additions to the film were previously included among the movie's DVD extras.
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We first meet Donnie Darko (Gyllenhaal) at sunrise; he's asleep in the middle of a mountain road. He wakes up and looks out over the valley below, including his hometown, Middlesex, Va. We're told he is a sleepwalker and never knows where he'll wake up on any given morning.
We meet Donnie's family: his sisters Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake's real-life sister) and Samantha (Daveigh Chase), and his parents (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne). An argument around the dinner table reveals that Donnie is on some kind of medication.