Donnie Darko is a midnight movie, but I saw the 15th anniversary 4K restoration at 9:30PM at the Metrograph, a two-theater art house on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. That’s not where you want to see a movie like Donnie Darko.
The building doesn’t remotely resemble a movie theater — no ticket window, no lights, no Art Deco design elements, no posters. It sits flush with the rest of the city block. The lobby sells air-popped popcorn in presorted clear plastic tubs, four different draft beers without names, and classic movie candy arranged artfully on a bookshelf with white backlights. The seats are assigned. Donnie Darko is currently playing in a theater with braided leather on the walls, and the rows of seats look like a stylish reinterpretation of Adirondack chairs. It’s a super-fancy barn without the dirt. I’m sure this is a lovely place to watch a documentary or a live-streamed opera, but on this night, in this context, it was at odds with what I was there to feel.
In a phone interview a few weeks before this high-profile anniversary release, the film’s director, Richard Kelly, told me what he hoped the re-release would feel like, given that Donnie Darko’s only true public life had been as a midnight movie, starting two years after its original release: “I made this movie for the big screen, and so few people saw it in a theater when it first came out. So in some ways, it feels like the first time… We need to keep the theatrical experience alive and bring people together in movie theaters. Movie theaters are like churches to a lot of people.” So his film’s return to theaters was coming with some pretty high stakes — as urgent as God.
In the 15 years since Donnie Darko debuted in theaters, flopped, and was resurrected as one of the last true midnight movies for weirdos, Richard Kelly has never made another movie that anyone cares about. It’s the main thing anyone knows about him — he somehow made Donnie Darko with a paltry budget of $4.5 million at age 25, and that was all he had in him.
Actually, Kelly had a string of truly impressive bad luck. Donnie Darko, a dark, disorienting science-fiction film about a plane crash, crawled into about 50 theaters in October 2001, with the country still reeling. Then the 2008 writers’ strike hit just as the stars of his second film, Southland Tales, were set to start making the late-night TV rounds to promote it. The Box, his 2009 Cameron Diaz-led psychological thriller, prompted The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis to dub Kelly a filmmaker “as lost as his characters, trapped in a Pandora’s box of his own making.” So Kelly wrote a true-crime thriller as a vehicle for James Gandolfini, and then James Gandolfini died. I’m not terribly superstitious, but Kelly seems... cursed. Which, for better or worse, ties in pretty well with Donnie Darko’s tragic mythos.
Kelly’s dramatic statements — “These high-resolution tools and projection can actually make you see the celluloid like you’ve never seen it before” — primed dramatic expectations for seeing Donnie Darko in 4K. The same way that recently snuffed candles or plain white bread trigger my memories of actual church, I wanted the tastes and smells of Donnie Darko on the big screen to call back the first time I saw it — at midnight, near Halloween, at the disgusting student-center movie theater for $4, with my belly full of pumpkin liquor. Donnie Darko is better when you’re drunk, better when you’re sleep-deprived, better when you’re emotionally fragile or racked with anxiety. In college, I went to see it with one friend, both of us near-wasted and languishing in unrequited-love situations that felt so urgent and painful, we just might die.
So at the Metrograph, where I was too embarrassed to take a plastic bottle of rum out of my purse, and too recently emerged from the office to be in an interesting emotional space, I was disappointed — until the lights went down and Echo & The Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” kicked in. (That song has the same effect on me that the Star Wars intro has on other people.) I was, once again, stupidly thrilled. I’m not prepared to say whether 4K makes a difference (Kelly promises it does), because legally I am supposed to wear glasses to drive and do not, but I can confirm that Donnie Darko is still gorgeous, moving, super weird, and really fun.
We rarely ask why people love good movies, even though not all good movies are lovable. But why do people love Donnie Darko? Why do I? Kelly, who has presumably thought about it more than anyone else, said, “Some things you’ll just never really be able to know.” But he’s adamant that it isn’t just nostalgia, or any feeling that the film might have a universal appeal. In 2000, he had to fight to set the film in 1988, and while he’s glad that the recent tide of 1980s nostalgia projects is helping people find the movie, he’s reluctant to be lumped in with it. Nor does he want Donnie Darko to be another film loaded down with Trump era political relevance it was never intended to have. “I was really stubborn that it was a portrait of a very specific time in the American suburbs. The Reagan era was coming to an end, and The Last Temptation of Christ was being banned, books were being removed from schools, the War on Drugs, the birth of the self-help movement, all these things were happening in a very specific time.”
He cautiously credits its density. “It’s the kind of plot that takes time for people to unpack. It takes time for people to digest, and it’s worthy of revisiting… When you make a film, you have to watch it hundreds of times. I wanted to continue to be stimulated by it when I watched it.” Plus, he notes, the casting was “a big factor,” which I assume is code for “bizarre.” Patrick Swayze plays a deranged self-help guru, and Drew Barrymore plays a goth English teacher.
The notoriously complex (and flawed) plot explains Reddit’s fascination with Donnie Darko, the ever-unfurling online contest to “understand it best” that crops up around pretty much all popular science fiction. Young, moody Jake Gyllenhaal (with his cute-boy Sambas and his near-constant bedhead) explains why Tumblr remains fascinated with the film. But that’s today — not 2003, when the film originally took off as a midnight special. There’s something else at play.
Donnie Darko has a melancholy and desperation that’s hard to roll your eyes at, even when its delivery is corny or stilted. It’s known as a portrait of teen angst, centering on yet another inevitably male-and-misunderstood “chosen one” hero. But watching it again in 2017, I realized most of the warriors against anti-intellectualism in Donnie’s Virginia suburb, as well as every source of empathy or useful information in the film, is female — Mary McDonnell as Donnie’s mom, Katharine Ross as his therapist, Drew Barrymore as his teacher, Patience Cleveland as “Grandma Death.” And while Donnie’s overarching concerns are sometimes sloppily written, they’re also a lot more profound than generalized angst or the dread of growing up. In an early scene, his therapist asks him if he thinks the world is ending. He responds, “No, that’s stupid.” But during the rest of the movie, he acts as if he does think it’s ending, and his big question is actually whether it’s stupid to care.
(Public oddball Jake Gyllenhaal, in an interview with People magazine last year, said Donnie Darko is one of two movies he’s proudest of making because “there’s a lot of things in there I believe about the world.”)
The morbid post-punk / new-wave soundtrack, the anywhere setting, the cold malaise — the whole movie is like a fever dream, which makes it more like a state to return to than a story to get bored of. It makes me nostalgic for the adolescence of my parents, whose interiority at that age I’m never actually going to know. The movie is, as Kelly wanted, dated. But Donnie Darko is also funny, surprising, and deeply weird visually — all things it doesn’t often get credit for, because the conversation is mostly about poking easy holes in it.
On the Metrograph’s stupidly accessorized big screen, the composition of every shot feels intimidating. Kelly’s vision of an American suburb is basically man vs. watercolor, with dopes and weirdos in sweatsuits or skeleton costumes, creeping around under a muted purple sky. The first minutes of my night were spent scanning the crowd for a real-life example of a heinous Donnie Darko tattoo, but the rest of it was spent knocked on my butt with admiration, after years of watching this movie mostly on a laptop.
So in my scientific opinion, thinking too hard about the story is a disservice both to Donnie Darko and your own happiness, because the movie works much better as a mood-poem and fugue state than it does as a science fiction mind-bender or even strictly a coming-of-age story. It’s okay not to love Donnie Darko, but if you can wade through all the bullshit around it, it’s still really fun to love Donnie Darko. Also, it does feel like church.
The 4K re-release of Donnie Darko is currently playing a limited engagement nationwide.