Donnie Darko

‘Donnie Darko’ Commentary Informative, but Fans May Prefer to Stay in the Dark

(I doubt people would read a review of the commentary before seeing the movie itself, but just in case…. SPOILER ALERT!!)

Director Richard Kelly’s commentary track will certainly shed some light on some elements of his debut film, Donnie Darko, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Let me be clear: I love this movie. The performances, music, atmosphere, cinematography, and concepts are all top notch. I first saw it in 2002 and bought it a few years later. As much as I enjoyed watching it, I also enjoyed thinking about it. It seemed like a puzzle that could be assembled in a variety of ways, each of which formed a distinct image. After all these years, I was interested in discovering how Kelly sees it. Also featuring star Jake Gyllenhaal, the commentary reveals a number of surprising facts about the characters, their actions, and the forces at work in the film. The problem is that, in this case, “surprising” usually means “totally illogical.”

One of many such examples involves Donnie’s medication. Kelly explains that the medication prescribed by Donnie’s therapist is actually a placebo. This is also in the deleted scenes. It’s doubtful that a presumably respectable therapist would prescribe placebos for a patient who is experiencing hallucinations and talking to imaginary friends. But even if that is a legitimate choice, the therapist tells Donnie’s parents that their son is seriously ill and that she would like to increase his medication. There’s no indication that Donnie’s parents know the meds are placebos, and it seems unethical at best for her to lie to them, especially considering that Donnie is a minor.

Kelly also suggests that Donnie has telekinetic abilities which allow him to rip the engine off the jet and send it flying through the portal. Since there is no indication of this in the film, Kelly must also believe that his audience is psychic.

Perhaps most surprising is that, when Donnie shoots Frank, Kelly mentions that this is something Donnie feels he has to undo, which is what leads him back to the hilltop to watch the portal. Although Donnie does seem like the type who would eventually come to regret this, there are two reasons that it’s unlikely to be his immediate concern in that moment. First, Donnie repeatedly stabbed Frank in the eye with a kitchen knife earlier in the film. You’re not likely to shed too many tears over someone after that. But more importantly, Donnie’s probably more concerned about his girlfriend Gretchen, with whom he had sex for the first time (and to whom he probably lost his virginity) about an hour ago, and who is now lying dead at his feet after being run over by Frank. Yet Kelly doesn’t mention that as a motivator for Donnie’s actions.

Donnie Darko, Front Cover

Donnie Darko, Front Cover

It’s hard to avoid running into paradoxes in a time travel movie, but it’s generally easy to look past them when the characters’ actions make sense in the moment. Donnie Darko creates its own paradox in that what we see of the characters makes sense, but what their creator tells us about them does not. This might explain why Kelly has not yet been able to match the success of his first film. Until then, Donnie Darko will remain an anomaly.

Filmmaking Tips

00:09:40 – “Formal compositions” (centering images) are used in this sequence to really focus the audience’s attention. Jonathan Demme uses these often.

00:57:25 – Kelly shot this scene handheld in order to save time and to add tension and immediacy.

Writing Tips

00:23:11 – Grandma Death’s initial appearance in the middle of the road is meant to correlate with Donnie first waking up in the middle of the road. Grandma Death and Frank are Donnie’s guides, in the Joseph Campbell sense.

01:32:48 – In this scene, Donnie is following the Joseph Campbell mythology of going into the cave to steal the treasure.

01:40:27 – Kelly: “Any time you do a time travel movie, you’re going to have a paradox of some sort, something that just, it never can fully make logical sense how it could occur and you can only justify it through speculation about the fourth dimension and what time is and how it, you know, wraps around itself.”


After 9/11, Kelly was worried that he would be asked to change the font used in the opening credits because it was “kind of Arabic.”

00:01:33 – Donnie’s intro was inspired by Montgomery Clift’s intro in A Place in the Sun.

Kelly acknowledges that the movie has “a comic book title”, and the comic book style influenced the way the film was shot.

00:03:07 – The red car that passes Donnie is Frank’s car, after having just dropped off Donnie’s sister.

00:04:03 – Donnie’s mom, Rose (Mary McDonnell), is reading Stephen King’s It because it’s one of Kelly’s favourite books.

The political references in the film aren’t meant to reflect political views, but to show that the family is politically aware and can disagree.

00:07:03 – The book that Donnie’s dad is reading is Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers, but the dust jacket was stolen by a crew member.

00:08:02 – Donnie’s psychiatrist eventually reveals that the pills he’s taking are placebos. This is included in the deleted scenes.

00:08:20 – This is the beginning of the parallel universe.

00:10:49 – Donnie’s sister gets dropped off by Frank.

00:11:38 – The numbers written on Donnie’s arm were written by Jake Gyllenhaal. They were also featured on cast and crew t-shirts given out during the shoot.

00:12:40 – There’s no insanity. Donnie’s chosen to perform a task: send everyone home from the parallel universe before it collapses on itself, because it’s unstable.

00:14:15 – The spiral painted in the centre of the jet engine is a Fibonacci Spiral, which is meant to be a metaphor for the events in the film.

00:16:28 – During the shoot, Daveigh Chase, who plays Donnie’s younger sister Samantha, was cast in Steven Spielberg’s A.I., but her part was eventually cut out.

00:16:52 – Alex Greenwald is the lead singer of Phantom Planet, and one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s best friends in real life.

00:19:21 – Kelly read the Graham Greene short story in high school, and it partially inspired the script.

00:20:10 – This was the first day of shooting.

00:21:25 – Kelly worked hard to ensure the film had a “teenage, dreamlike quality to it”, and credits Drew Barrymore for that quality.

00:24:05 – The infomercials were shot at Patrick Swayze’s house.

00:25:17 – Donnie is meant to sense that there is something wrong with Patrick Swayze’s character, Jim Cunningham.

00:25:30 – The shot of the flooded school was inspired by a famous photograph.

00:27:25 – Donnie is a superhero and has increased abilities while he’s sleepwalking, which is why he’s able to break into the school and stick the axe in the Mongrel’s head.

00:28:32 – They have to get the jet engine back in time to the point where the break in the space-time continuum occurs in order to realign the universe.

00:30:08 – The film was shot in 28 days for $4.5 million.

00:32:30 – According to Kelly, Katharine Ross, who plays Donnie’s therapist, “hadn’t acted in about 15 years before this part” because she was focused on raising her daughter. However, IMDB shows she had been in a film in 1997.

00:34:45 – In the script, Donnie and his friends shoot at Smurf stuffed animals. The filmmakers were able to get permission from the creators of the Smurfs to use them in the film (the creators agreed with Donnie’s speech about the Smurf way of life and Smurfette), but the prop guys weren’t able to find the Smurf dolls when it came time to shoot the scene.

00:36:15 – Grandma Death was based on a real person in Kelly’s hometown.

00:39:15 – The ripples that appear between Donnie and Frank are supposed to be water.

00:40:48 – The “fear/hate” curriculum was based on a classroom experience that Kelly had in school.

00:42:44 – Kelly had to leave the room during this scene because he couldn’t stop laughing.

00:48:50 – Donnie’s been “chosen and he’s gotta perform this task. He has to get this engine realigned…. In order to make that happen he has to do horrible things and he has to discover horrible truths and things have to be revealed and circumstances among all these characters have to…they’re following a set path by the messenger, the messengers if you wanna think about who’s controlling all these things from upstairs.” Um, what?

00:51:22 – The things extending from people’s chests are supposed to be water. The stylized reality were inspired by comic books. Kelly isn’t exactly sure what brought the idea to mind, although it was at least partially influenced by John Madden football and the arrows jutting from the players showing the direction in which they were running. It’s meant to convey predestination, among other things.

00:53:13 – Gretchen says, “And what if you could go back in time and take all those hours of pain and darkness and replace them with something better?” This line is repeated later in a voiceover and, according to Kelly, it is one of the most important lines in the film. Gretchen is another of Donnie’s guides.

00:54:17 – According to Kelly, the fat guy in the track suit is one of the FAA guys. He’s following Donnie because the FAA is so confused by what’s going on that they have this guy following Donnie.

00:56:01 – Metal and water are the key elements, and Donnie is starting to figure this out. It’s also no coincidence that Donnie is stabbing Frank in the right eye, which is where he will be shot later.

00:58:22 – The young boy who speaks at the seminar is the same kid from the infomercial video. The idea is that Jim Cunningham has planted him in the audience.

01:03:49 – The way the sprinklers shut off is supposed to illustrate the manipulation of water, which presumably connects with the important elements mentioned earlier.

01:06:25 – Sam Raimi let Kelly use Evil Dead in this scene free of charge.

01:07:33 – As things get closer to the end, the messengers have decided to drop their guard, which is why Frank appears to Donnie in an informal setting like the movie theatre and takes off his mask.

01:11:24 – The woman in glasses in the Star Search talent scout.

01:11:50 – Sparkle Nation’s dance is set to the Duran Duran song Notorious. In his review of the film, Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times said that the song wasn’t released until the 1990’s despite being present in a film set in 1988. Kelly says he’s wrong; it came out in 1986. According to, Kelly seems to be right.

01:17:50 – In the 28-day parallel universe, everyone has to confront something.

01:21:10 – The “cellar door” phrase is meant to be a clue given to Donnie to send him looking for Grandma Death’s cellar.

01:28:10 – The people who die in the new universe are on the other side and can travel and help manipulate and put together the situation that will realign the universes. In this scene, Gretchen is almost apologizing “for what she hasn’t figured out but kind of has figured out what’s going to happen.”

01:29:04 – Maggie Gyllenhaal’s costume is a tribute to Kubrick’s Lolita.

01:32:04 – The reference to E.T. wasn’t planned.

Donnie Darko, Back Cover

Donnie Darko, Back Cover

01:34:30 – When Donnie says “deus ex machina”, it is a reference to a scene that was cut from the film but included in the deleted scenes.

01:34:45 – Grandma Death holds Donnie’s letter while standing in the road. She’s been preparing for this moment her whole life, “to be standing there to trap this kid, to ensure that he’ll, with his superpowers, that he’ll pull this engine off his momma’s plane, build this time portal and pull this engine off his momma’s plane.” Again, I have to ask, WTF?

01:36:14 – Shooting Frank is something that Donnie has to undo.

01:37:48 – Kelly says that Donnie goes up to the hill because he wants to see “what he is building and what he’s constructed”, presumably meaning the portal.

01:38:20 – Donnie’s mom “was put on the plane because of the flooding of the school and the burning of the house,” and so “all the pieces are in place.”

01:40:17 – This reverse sequence shows the undoing of the parallel universe. The only thing left of it is the jet engine.

01:41:18 – Donnie’s laughing for one of two reasons: he thinks it was all a dream and he’s relieved that it’s over and everything’s going to be okay, or because he’s enlightened and he’s meant to go out this way and he’s been given a vision that inspired him.

01:41:46 – Kelly: “And that horn honking is Frank, who is suddenly remembering what had happened in these 28 days and he’s saying get out of bed man, we did it, you know, get out of bed, and Donnie doesn’t listen or he doesn’t hear and it’s too late.”

01:43:20 – Kitty Farmer wakes up with a start because she realizes what’s up with Jim Cunningham.

01:45:27 – The removal of the jet engine is reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant being boxed up in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s going to be examined and argued over and eventually forgotten about, despite its significance.

01:46:45 – Gretchen and Donnie’s mom wave because they have a faint memory of something that is barely there, and then it’s gone.


Entertainment – 3/5

Filmmaking Tips – 0.5/5

Writing Tips – 1/5

Trivia – 4/5

Donnie Darko (2001) | Written & Directed by Richard Kelly | Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross | DVD Release Date: 2002 | Commentary by Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal

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