Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.



Donnie Darko is the angsty hip movie we really loved in college until we saw Southland Tales. Set in 1988, it follows a tortured nonconformist kid (Jake Gyllenhaal) who’s been having strange visions of anthropomorphic rabbits, apocalyptic countdowns, and that water-snake from The Abyss. Is he seeing visions of the end of the world? Can he stop it? What’s Gary Jules up to these days?

(Note: I went with the theatrical cut. I’ve never seen the director’s cut or read any of the tie-in stuff about whatever the hell the Manipulated Dead are.)

So I don’t think we can get too far into this without asking if the events of the movie are all in Donnie’s head. He goes to a therapist, he takes meds, and he’s surrounded by a bunch of idiotic adults who just don’t get him, man. All this doomsday stuff could be a wish fulfillment fantasy, a psychotic episode, or countless other theories that everyone eventually stopped giving a shit about.

Theory: Donnie is a golf ball.

Right, so that’s Donnie having a nap on a golf course, which he wandered to in the middle of the night because a demon bunny named Frank summoned him there. Luckily (or fatefully), he wasn’t home in his own bed, which now has a jet engine in the middle of it because it came crashing through his roof while he was out sleepwalking on the green.

Do I smell a Millennium crossover?

Donnie thinks he might be able to see the future, which gets him interested in time travel. So he talks to a teacher at school about how to pierce the fabric of time, because ’80s teenagers are always hanging out with science-loving adults.

No, but really, DeLoreans are discussed.

He also busts water mains and sets fire to houses because his rabbit pal Frank tells him to.

“Just say Marilyn Manson made you do it.”

I remember a lot of people talking about how confusing the plot is, but it’s not a total mishmash of unconnected events and imagery. Yeah, there’s a ton of weird, possibly symbolic shit in this movie, but there are enough interesting reveals that tie things together and keep it from feeling completely aimless. I will say, though, that for a guy who loves time travel, I actually gravitated more towards the real-world everyday bullshittery of Donnie’s suffocating adolescent life, both when I first saw it and today.

Let’s face it, Donnie, your rants on God and time are just as unbearable.

Jake Gyllenhaal is great at being an emo teen. (Oof, yeah, this movie fit right in with that zeitgeist.) He’s somewhere between a fuck-the-system rebel and varying shades of Rain Man. Okay, he’s kind of all Rain Man when he’s having his visions.

Like Dustin Hoffman with Kubrick Eyes.

Jena Malone is here. She’s the love interest. Her not having anything to do is purely the fault of Richard Kelly’s writing, which, hmm, kind of says some things. Love is important, but only as a catalyst for making the male protagonist do interesting stuff, I guess.

Wow, sorry, that kind of got away from me. Good work, Jena.

Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle are well-cast as the defiant English teacher and the timidly curious science teacher, respectively.

E.T. meets E.R.

Patrick Swayze really shines as the entirely-too-friendly motivational speaker Jim Cunningham. His cheeseball demeanor and empty philosophies are exactly the right amount of unsettling cheerfulness to counter Donnie’s bleak look at reality.

No vans down by rivers for this charmer.

Beth Grant… hoo boy. She plays Donnie’s gym teacher, Kitty Farmer, and she is the most cartoonish portrayal of a conservative mother since Kathy Bates in The Waterboy. Her performance is painted in broad strokes, but dammit, she’s the best character in the movie.

Sometimes caricature is more accurate than realism.

There’s this.

“Sweet Photo Booth app, Donnie.”

And this.

I want cold sodas, hot popcorn, and no monsters in the projection booth!

And these.

Just think about baseball and it’ll go away.

Just lots of weird stuff going on, guys.


  • This and all of the other bullet points here will be spoilers, so just move along. So, for time travel rules, it seems like Donnie inhabits his own body when he goes back in time… but jet engines don’t have “souls” as far as I know, so why does that physically travel to the past? I mean, unless there’s– oh, whoa, I almost thought about springing for the director’s cut. You got me, Richard Kelly.
  • More spoiler stuff, like I said. So Donnie’s altering of the timeline means Patrick Swayze never got caught, right? Whoa, shit, and the same goes for the creepy dad in The Butterfly Effect! Um, spoiler, but it doesn’t matter, that movie sucks.
  • The basic theme here would be “spoilers.” I remember thinking the sacrificial ending was really cool when I first saw it, but now that I have a healthy view of relationships and sexuality (arguably), oh my God, you emo fuck, what the hell? This is like some symbolic declaration that you’re too terrible to be with a woman and the best thing you can do is leave her alone… permanently. Time travel as a plot point can carry a lot of regret with it.

Noah Wyle and Donnie have all these insufferably bullshitty conversations about time and God, which results in Noah declaring that predestination isn’t possible if we can see the path laid before us. Donnie defiantly disagrees:

“Not if you travel within God’s channel!

I liked watching this movie the same way I can watch a Martin Scorsese movie about a fucked-up Catholic; I don’t have to agree with his kooky beliefs to enjoy the story of his terrible little life. Yeah, it’s a bit pretentious and bleak, but it’s not unwatchably mired in weirdness for weirdness’s sake. (That’s Richard Kelly’s next movie, and guess what? There’s time travel in it, so see ya real soon!) No, it doesn’t live up to the hype that was pinned upon it when it first came out, but solid performances, biting social satire, intriguing reveals, and a David Lynch Lite aesthetic make it, at the very least, one of the more engaging midnight movies.


Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), Source Code (2011)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.