On Oct. 26, 2001, Donnie Darko, director Richard Kelly’s sci-fi film about a despondent teenager (Jake Gyllenhaal in his second major film role) who befriends a giant bunny named Frank (James Duval), was released in theaters. The film told a cryptic narrative of a high schooler who is sent on an existential journey after he escapes death from a falling jet engine and learns that the world has just over 28 days before it ends. In that time, Donnie fends off the torments of being a teen -- a testy older sister (Gyllenhaal’s real-life older sister, Maggie), concerned parents (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne), overbearing teachers (Beth Grant), mild flirtations with a new female student (Jena Malone) -- while trying to figure out, in some ways, how to save the world.
“That was a movie that was more about the psychological journey of adolescence and the confusion of it all,” Gyllenhaal tells ET. And while it featured a cast of fresh-faced young stars, Donnie Darko was a far cry from the popular teen films -- many of which were about high school romance, parties and sex with pies -- it followed. Instead, it was about existential angst, a topic that didn’t scream box office hit at the time.
Opening just over a month after Sept. 11 in the shadow of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, a film featuring a jet engine crash and a high schooler with violent tendencies was met with little fanfare, despite the critical acclaim it received. “We were facing an uphill battle,” Kelly says, citing a cultural climate not open to this type of story. “This movie just needed to take its time to marinate and it needed to be discovered, I guess. That's the path it was meant to take.”
That path included a limited theatrical run -- which did recoup its $4.5 million budget -- before eventually finding an audience five months later when it was released on DVD. Within a couple of years, Donnie Darko had become a cult classic, landing on Entertainment Weekly’s list of 50 Best High School Movies and developing an online fandom that includes filmmaker Kevin Smith, who even provided commentary on a 2010 special edition Blu-ray. Now, a 4K restoration version of the film is back in theaters -- on more screens than its original theatrical run. “I’ll take the slow burn over the quick flame any day,” Kelly adds with satisfaction that the film has become somewhat of a phenomenon, if a late bloomer.
For many, Donnie Darko was discovered on the shelves of long-lost video stores or during Friday night basement viewings. In places like the East Village in New York City, it was screened at midnight to growing crowds. It was passed along by word of mouth from friend to friend and, later, expounded on Reddit and shared obsessively on Tumblr.
While its narrative may be confusing to some, it proceeded an appetite for complex storytelling on shows like Battlestar Galactica, Lost and HBO’s The Leftovers. Duval likens it to an episode of The Twilight Zone. “People can revisit it and discover new things each time they watch it,” Kelly says of the narrative that sustains multiple viewings while also sharing a similar emotional weight with other teen films like Friday Night Lights and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Gyllenhaal may have been just a bug-eyed young actor who hadn’t quite grown into the brooding leading man he is today, but the talent and promise -- shared among a cast of future stars -- was there. “The performances were good,” says Seth Rogen, who, like Ashley Tisdale, Joss Whedon regular Fran Kranz and Orange Is the New Black’s Jolene Purdy, was acting in his first feature film at the time. (Rogen played one of the high school bullies alongside Phantom Planet frontman Alex Greenwald, who is now engaged to Brie Larson.)
In fact, Kelly credits the younger cast members -- particularly Gyllenhaal, his sister and Malone -- for making him a better director. “They were, in many ways, more experienced than I was,” admits Kelly, who was fresh out of the University of Southern California, helming his first feature film. Maggie and Jake had grown up on sets, while Malone could already name-check Susan Sarandon, Julia Roberts and Jodie Foster as co-stars. (It should also be pointed out that Donnie Darko counted Drew Barrymore, who was also a producer, E.R.’s Noah Wyle, Oscar-nominated Mary McDonnell and Patrick Swayze among its adult cast, providing an added gravitas that so many teen films -- ahem, The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner franchises -- employ now.)
And over time, Donnie Darko became part of the collective consciousness for a generation of fans. “It was something special. It was such a seminal film for [fans] when they were younger,” says Beth Grant, who played the overbearing Kitty Farmer, coach of Sparkle Motion, and who believes that it’s a coming-of-age ritual for fans, who then pass it along to younger siblings.
“I’ve seen it as a rite of passage,” Gyllenhaal says, sharing Grant’s sentiment. “At a certain point in different people’s lives, [they] are like, ‘I remember watching.’” Even Amy Adams, Gyllenhaal’s Nocturnal Animals co-star and a former teen star who got her start in another teen cult classic, Drop Dead Gorgeous, recalls discovering the movie through her brother. “He was like, ‘Amy, you have to see this film. It’s so good,’” the actress says.
As to why it still resonates today, those involved have almost as many theories as there are about the meaning of the film. For Gyllenhaal and Grant, it’s largely rooted in the rite of passage that’s now being passed down to younger viewers discovering the movie in the 15 years since its release.
For Purdy, who played Cherita Chen, commonly known as the “Chut up” girl because that was her only line of dialogue, it’s the ways the film connects with a viewer. “Even if you watch it 15 years later, it can hit you differently than the first time you watch it. And that’s genius,” she says.
Donnie Darko also doesn’t pander. In the same way the teen film wasn’t about sex and parties for Gyllenhaal, for Wyle, it’s like Christopher Nolan’s Memento in that it requires viewers to exert some effort to decipher its meaning. “They stand alone because they don’t really give a sh*t if you understand them or not,” he says.
And in some ways, it’s also aspirational. Duval thinks of Donnie Darko as a superhero story. “[Art] should trigger something in you that becomes a catalyst for something greater, and Donnie Darko has that,” he says. “We all want to be that person who saves the world. Wouldn’t you, if you could save everybody?”