I was seventeen when I first found this jewel among cult favorites. Like many others, I remember fondly embracing Donnie Darko for the celebration of teenage angst it was. I watched it over and over, showing it to anyone who was willing, and praising it as a "cinematic revelation", though I hardly knew what that meant. Watching it again now, I can't help but smile as I remember how important this film was to my maturity and appreciation of film, and I still feel the warm tingles of cinematic 'magic' from Richard Kelly's accidently-awesome directorial debut. There's just something about it!
Doubtless, it's a messy effort to behold. Scenes are fragmented, dialogue is occasionally stunted, and the sci-fi/spiritual elements walk an awkward tightrope between ambiguous and cheesy. But somehow, that weird balance is part of what makes Donnie's time-traveling adventure so attractive. We don't believe we're seeing something 'profound' spoiled in the hands of a largely incompetent director, we believe we're seeing everything from Donnie's confused and romanticized mental state. We never question how he managed to plant his ax firmly into the head of a bronze statue, because we're content to believe he's part-superhero. Why not? Ask any angsty teenager: the pitiful world is their oyster. Slink around with that dark Gyllenhaal scowl, pull up your hood, burn down the house of a fraud, kiss the girl, and become the unspoken hero of everyone's story. It really doesn't get any more romanticized then that.
Sure, there's that whole complex time travel scenario that gives the film an excuse to address the free will/predestination debate, and throw in some other philosophical tidbits, but what really gets our blood pumping is that existential pulse. Donnie has visions. Donnie is gifted. Donnie is basically smarter then everyone else (especially those annoying right-wing nuts). The scene in the movie theater is the pinnacle of this sensation: Donnie sits alone beside his girlfriend, in the dark, while haunting orchestral voices remind us of old churches and martyrdom. Frank appears beside them, whispering profound nothings and taking off his bunny mask. Blood, mystery, consequence, obligation, duty, prophesy, all in one poignant sequence (which of course ends with Donnie scowling, putting on his hood, burning down a house and kissing the girl). Everything we see him do is pleasurable, because we know he has reason to do those things even if nobody else understands. Even if we don't understand.
In the end, Donnie Darko is essentially what it was marketed to be: a mostly-decent teenage drama/horror/comedy with a twist of sci-fi. But something about it accidently hit a pulse; a subconscious sensation that excited teens and young adults everywhere, including myself. Romanticized angst? Ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity? A spiritual journey? Yes, yes and yes. I would still be quick to recommend it to others. The themes of sacrifice and responsibility, though self-serving, are still poignant. And let's be honest, it's a damn good cult classic.