An image from Donnie Darko showing Donnie and Elizabeth Darko seated alongside Frank the Rabbit in a movie theater.

Celebrating ‘Donnie Darko’ 22 Years Later

Jake Gyllenhaal's breakout performance makes this film a cult classic.

“28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds … ” Of course, considerably more time has passed since the debut of the iconic sci-fi, psychological thriller, “Donnie Darko.” Originally released on Jan. 19, 2001, and written and directed by Richard Kelly, this impactful movie continues to shape the film world. Despite its unsuccessful movie theater release, the film has developed a niche audience that appreciates the storyline and cast. Each element of the film crafted a much bigger impact on film buffs than anyone ever anticipated.

Through Kelly’s directorial work and Jake Gyllenhaal’s detailed performance as the titular character, the two unknowingly created an iconic story that still sparks discussion over what makes “Donnie Darko” such a cherished film. While the audience’s love for Donnie is a given, the varied cast plays a significant role in constructing the storyline. Each performance — from Maggie Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Donnie’s sister to Patrick Swayze’s adroit characterization of motivational speaker Jim Cunningham — makes the film that much better.

Gyllenhaal’s role as Donnie is undoubtedly the most iconic and beloved part of the film, as many believe it to be one of his best performances. Despite being so young, his performance as a deranged teenager set the foundation for his reputation as a talented actor. With a character as complex as this one, it’s no wonder he’s been able to master so many different roles thereafter.

Though many are easily confused after their first watch of “Donnie Darko,” others consider this work to be a modern-day hero film. The movie follows Donnie as he gradually learns that he is the key to saving the world. Without any spoilers about the story or its ending, let it suffice to say that Frank the talking bunny is the most significant part of the movie, and his presence makes it such a peculiar watch. He feeds Donnie crucial information about how the world will come to an end on Halloween. Of course, watching all 113 minutes of the film is essential to piecing together all the story’s other tidbits.

Like many other films, the soundtrack and score contribute to the feature’s widespread cultural success. Many familiar songs like Tears For Fears’ “Head Over Heels” and Echo & The Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” are featured throughout. This synth soundtrack builds an ambience that perfectly matches each part of this sci-fi, thriller story. This is especially true for the film’s final song, “Mad World” by Gary Jules, whose inclusion only makes sense after a complete and thorough watch. Additionally, the score composed by Michael Andrew is perfectly crafted for the plot. For instance, the musical buildup when Darko engages in conversation with Frank heightens the experience of watching the plot develop.

One of the biggest ways the film reached so many people has been via social media platforms. An entire community of film lovers on TikTok consider themselves “film bros” if they have watched a select few movies. The popular TikTok hashtag #filmbros has countless videos with 26.9 million views. Along with “Donnie Darko,” other iconic works such as “Taxi Driver” and “American Psycho” fall under this list.

More recently, the Letterboxd community has fueled the obsession with this movie. This app allows film lovers to express their opinions on movies, and has been a popular platform for fans to show their love for “Donnie Darko.” Fans continue to watch and review the film decades after its release. It remains a polarizing piece of work; the Letterboxd community has a passionate love-hate relationship with the film.

Gyllenhaal’s performance in this absurd film remains a staple in the history of cult classics. Much like his other projects, “Donnie Darko” is cited as the reason for his success in the film industry. For those who haven’t watched this movie, there are certain elements that cannot be explained, as those details can only be done justice with a complete watch. However, the movie’s lasting impact on film buffs after 22 years proves that “Donnie Darko” is well worth adding to your watchlist. Each hour and minute of the movie will be absolutely worth it.

Ally Najera, California State University, Northridge


Ally Najera

California State University, Northridge
Broadcast Journalism, Minor in Marketing

I am currently studying broadcast journalism and minoring in marketing. I read religiously and love watching films. I am very passionate about words. I live and breathe pop culture – and love to share my thoughts.

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