Opinion: This 20-year-old cult film captures 2021 perfectly

28October 2021

Sure, slasher movies are the traditional Halloween thing, but there’s only one title I reliably watch this time of year, and it doesn’t involve Michael Myers.
Sara Stewart
2001’s “Donnie Darko” starred a then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal as a troubled teenager who experiences visions of a figure in a sinister bunny suit and suspects he’s part of a rip in the fabric of time, set off by a jet engine crashing into his house.
Gyllenhaal’s character, who may or may not be experiencing the symptoms of a breakdown, starts to follow orders given to him by the rabbit, including flooding his high school and burning down the house of a sleazy local celebrity (Patrick Swayze). Meanwhile, he falls for a girl in his class (Jena Malone), gets some very weird hypnosis from his therapist (Katharine Ross), and crosses paths with a wild-haired centenarian named Roberta Sparrow who may be a time traveler herself.
This is all set in October 1988, against the backdrop of the presidential election; “I’m voting for Dukakis” is, amusingly, the first line. It isn’t a horror movie per se; it’s got too much going on to fit into one genre. But this little movie has a delicious undercurrent of unreality and impending doom that makes it the perfect October watch.
Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the movie was unlucky enough to be released in theaters a month after the September 11 attacks. Having a plot that hinged on an airplane-related disaster surely didn’t help its box office performance, and it initially tanked — only to be resurrected in the years and months later as a cult hit, one which unintentionally spoke to the American mood following 9/11.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Drew Barrymore in 'Donnie Darko' in 2001
Audiences watching “Donnie Darko” in late 2001 must have been a little creeped out by the connections. In the aftermath of the plane accident in the movie, everyone in town is on edge: A group of kids waiting at a bus stop all go silent and look up as a jet passes noisily overhead, just as so many of us did in those days.
More broadly, there’s an ominousness in the air — like “something terrible is going to happen,” as one character says — that feels connected to the real-life collective worry that a larger, more indefinable disaster was yet to come after 9/11 – and the New York plane crash that followed, unthinkably, only two months later.
I first discovered “Donnie Darko” as a midnight movie in the East Village, years after its release, and have found myself going back to it around this time every year. But in 2021, its existential melancholy and cultural anxiety feel highly relevant, like director Richard Kelly pulled off a little time travel of his own and got a glimpse at the mess that is 2021.
Its odd tone feels strangely familiar, as does the juxtaposition of suburbia’s slightly manic sunniness with Donnie’s growing sense of bewilderment, isolation and sense that something is very off.
I even found some of the rhetoric from Swayze’s character, a glib, spray-tanned self-help guru, recognizable: His brand consists of claiming fear is the ultimate enemy, much like our government officials and anti-vaxxers who downplay Covid-19 risks and mock the concerned as being imprisoned by their own fear. His character also presages a flood of self-help guru downfalls, not to mention the rise of wellness and influencer culture and the kind of conspiracy-theorist thinking it can attract.
And that looming whisper of apocalypse? Check. Donnie has, as his therapist puts it, an “inability to cope with the forces in the world he perceives to be threatening.” Which might also be a nutshell diagnosis for the current nosedive in worldwide mental health, not to mention the “eco-anxiety” understandably plaguing kids around the world.
At the movie’s core is Donnie’s question, which won’t sound out of place to the climate-conscious: Am I crazy, or is the world about to end? Kelly has weighed in on Donnie’s sanity and released a director’s cut years later. But his addition of 20 minutes of expositional footage mostly just detracts from the mystique, not to mention the fun of interpreting the plot however you want.
“Donnie” straddles sci-fi, horror, and comedy, and puts a spin on the 1980s high school movie trope. Donnie’s dilemma echoes the quintessential teenage experience: Nobody understands what’s going on except me, and the adults are all too oblivious to help.
Throw in the sci-fi angle and it’s like “The Matrix” by way of John Hughes — or, as Kelly himself reportedly said, “Maybe it’s the story of Holden Caulfield, resurrected in 1988 by the spirit of Philip K. Dick.” Kelly’s screenplay also deals in quantum physics themes that would start to show up in our discourse in the years to follow, with parallel universes, alternate realities, and simulation theory name-checked in mainstream publications.
It’s also just a trove of great, weird performances from actors you know from more mainstream material. Drew Barrymore, who executive produced, plays one of Donnie’s teachers, as does Noah Wyle. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jake’s sister. Seth Rogen, in his first movie role, is a school bully. Ross, a.k.a. Elaine from “The Graduate,” is a casting coup — she’s a film icon of an earlier generation’s cultural angst. And Beth Grant steals the show as a fanatical follower of Swayze’s character.
But ultimately, “Donnie Darko” never takes itself too seriously. Even as it unsettles, it’s often really funny: Highlights include a monologue about the origins of Smurfette and watching the Gyllenhaal siblings lob obscenities at each other over the dinner table.
You may not know quite what’s going on here, but you’ll enjoy the ride. As Jake Gyllenhaal said in an Instagram post on the anniversary of its Sundance debut, “Happy 20th Donnie! Let’s keep confusing people. Here’s to 20 more.”

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