The cult of Donnie Darko

How did a low-budget film with a convoluted plot about time travel, arson, young love and a giant, imaginary rabbit go from box-office flop to indie film classic? As an outdoor screening becomes one of the summer's hottest tickets, Ed Caesar explores the world of cinema's weirdest teenager

The 2001 debut from the writer and director Richard Kelly - he was 26 when he made the movie - has become one of the all-time indie cult classics, sparking debate and worship from the young and disillusioned everywhere. Initially a flop at the box office, this counter-culture story of a psychologically unbalanced teenager and his deeply terrifying imaginary friend, Frank the rabbit, is now so popular that an open-air screening to be held in London's Kensington Gardens on Saturday has set off a scramble for tickets. The film's first terrestrial screening on UK television, also on Saturday (BBC 2, 9.35pm) is a news event.

For those unfamiliar with the refracted charms of Donnie Darko, here is as brief a synopsis as the film's scrambled narrative will allow. Set during the US presidential elections of 1988, the story follows Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), an emotionally disturbed high-schooler who is haunted by visions of a 6ft rabbit. A jet engine from the future crashes into his house, triggering a parallel "tangent" universe which, Frank tells him, will end in 28 days.

Donnie falls in love with a classmate, Gretchen, discovers time travel and does terrible, destructive things, such as setting houses on fire. Donnie is convinced he needs to save his family and Gretchen from being killed, but to do so he realises that he must go back in time to be killed himself by the falling jet engine.

Simple, right? Time travel is always tricky, but throw in oversize fantasy rabbits and the Dukakis presidential bid and the head starts to spin. This, needless to say, is hardly the kind of film Hollywood producers dream up over a power lunch. No three-act structure, no happy ending, no multigenerational appeal - this little gem wouldn't have made it past the prawn cocktail.

So how did Donnie make it to our screens? And why are we still talking about it? As always, we have that saviour of independent film-making, Drew Barrymore, to thank. It was her production company, Flower Films, that eventually backed Kelly's oddball project to the tune of $4.5m. With Barrymore signing on in a minor role, others soon followed: most significantly, Patrick Swayze, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle and Mary McDonnell.

An eye-catching first screening at the 2001 Sundance festival followed before the project languished for months, unloved by national distribution companies. It wasn't until Newmarket Films picked it up that Donnie Darko hit the screens. And it flopped. Catastrophically. Darko limped out of the cinemas with a little over $500,000 - hardly the sort of return hoped for from a $4.5m film.

The finances tell a story - the story of why a movie now regarded as a paragon of early Noughties independent film was such a turkey. The fact that the pervasively grim Donnie Darko, with its plot about a falling jet engine, was released barely a month after the 11 September attacks in the United States must have played a part. Bob Berney of Newmarket says: "I think the key factor was the bleak mood and the timing. I also think some critics either just didn't get it or weren't in the mood to accept it. The mood filtered through everything."

But that explanation cuts only so much ice. Reviewers, in general, were impressed, if not entirely fanatical. They liked the opaqueness of the approach, the strangely pertinent references to David Lynch suburbia and comic-book superheroes, the lack of closure. Take this from The Village Voice: "A wondrous, moodily self-involved piece of work that employs X-Files magic realism to galvanise what might have been a routine tale of suburban teen angst - OK, borderline schizophrenia. Part comic book, part case study, this is certainly the most original and venturesome American indie film I've seen this year." Or this from The San Francisco Chronicle: "Donnie Darko may be the Everest of adolescent angst movies."

The reason Donnie Darko flopped at the cinema was, quite simply, that its target demographic, teenagers and young adults, didn't go to see it. Instead, they waited for the darkness of the bedroom or a parent-free house to let Frank and Donnie into their lives. Ever since, particularly in the US, the internet has been awash with theory and counter-theory about what actually happens in the film, and why. One post demands another. There are now hundreds of websites devoted entirely to the phenomenon of Donnie Darko. An undergraduate course in the film can be only round the corner. Four years after first release, the cult of Darko has never been stronger.

It would take more hours than one is here on this earth to read the wealth of web-based literature devoted to the iconography of Frank the Rabbit, or the significance of worm holes, or the philosophy of time travel. But merely dipping one's toe in the Darko ocean is enough to scare a surfer witless. One theoretician calling himself "Frank the Rabbit" posits this complex explanation of "The Tangent Universe": "The Tangent Universe occurs when an Artefact passes into the Primary Universe. The Artefact (as explained in the book The Philosophy of Time Travel) is usually metal, and its whereabouts cannot be explained. The jet engine that crashes into Donnie's house is the artefact... The Tangent/Universe timeline in the movie works in a straight line, and not a loop."

Well, of course it does, Frank. He signs off: "As of October 2003, I am taking no more submissions for theories or ideas on this movie. These are my opinions only. Live with it." Frank, though, is soon back for more.

On another site dedicated to Jake Gyllenhaal's contribution to Donnie Darko, Alice from Ontario voices her own plangent take on the penultimate scene of the theatre release, when the cover of the Tears for Fears song "Mad World" is played. "Almost everyone is alone," Alice says. "They are all either confused, depressed, ripped apart inside or have a terrible, twisted secret on their hands. The only ones who seem to be happy are together... Maybe the alone characters represent us... aren't we all in some way alone? But then again, there are parts in us, and the people around us, that are content, forgiving, and so on. We are the people surrounding a Donnie Darko in our lives. We are all human, and familiar with human emotions, whether we choose to express them or not. And who knows? Maybe we'll meet our Donnie some day. Maybe not."

Posts on Darko websites tend to follow these two trends. There are those Jake the Rabbits for whom this film represents an excuse to sound off on complex scientific theory, and more generally engage in a bout of nerdish one-upmanship. And there are those, like Alice, for whom the entire experience is a painful reminder of their teenage loneliness. But almost all Darkoists, or whatever one calls a member of this network, admit, like Alex from Manchester: "I watch this film daily (and sometimes at night)... Every night I'd argue that it doesn't fit with my rational beliefs." Whatever theory a Darko-ist espouses, one thing they have in common is that they watch the film much more than is healthy.

And, having now read more about this subject than is probably healthy myself, I have my own crackpot theory. It is inextricably tied up with the film's initial commercial failure, its strange, hypnotic imagery and its embattled teenage hero. I would like to contend that this film does not mean anything. And that is why it is so utterly, utterly beautiful.

In other words, the appeal is in the very fact that the narrative does not arrange itself with any regard for traditional "Hollywood" storytelling. The crucial reason Donnie Darko doesn't get past the starters at the Hollywood power lunch is because it has no recognisable beginning, middle and end. Indeed, time travel and a distorted chronology are built into the fibre of its narrative. And the film-going public, as Hollywood knows, need structure. They need to feel as if a film is going to go somewhere to die. That it will conclude. But Donnie Darko doesn't. It ends (albeit with a big nod to its beginning), but questions are left unanswered.

So if the movie is not really going anywhere, how can it be about anything? We look for clues in the mini-narratives that permeate the picture, but what we find are huge, iconic events or images - arson attacks, the classroom rebellion, Frank. All these things look serene and beautiful in Kelly's blue-infused filmic universe, but there is endless room for interpretation of what, if anything, they signify.

Where do we look for clues as to the identity of Frank the rabbit? There might be a reference to comic-strip Harvey in there, but mostly Frank just is. He's awash with different possibilities, but ultimately bereft of significance in any greater filmic or narrative strategy - the product of a teenager's warped imagination, and now a totem of this film's ability to invade the imagination without requiring a closed explanation. The same could be said of the falling jet engine.

Donnie Darko deliberately and effectively fails to mean anything, or to hang together. It is for this reason, mostly, that the film has had such an odd flight-path from failure to worldwide cult hit. If a film invites interpretation on this scale - and I would venture that this opaqueness is deliberately and cleverly built into every layer of the film's structure and marketing - then its destiny lies in its ability to attract outcasts looking for an alternative community.

And who feels more outcast than the millions of teenage, laptop-toting Donnie clones who have made this film their own? Suddenly, outsiders find they can talk about death or loneliness or giant rabbits without the fear of ridicule, until, like Donnie, they have their watershed moment.

"You're weird," says Gretchen.

"I'm sorry," says Donnie.

"I meant it as a compliment."

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