The Pile Of Shame: Donnie Darko – An Absolute Trip

Welcome to the Pile of Shame. Throughout my years of ceaseless debauchery and frankly worrying video game addiction, I missed out on movies that many consider classics. If you’ve ever asked someone if they watched a certain movie and gasped when they said they never did, you know what type of guy I am. I figured that it’s pretty silly that someone like me who lacks the appropriate historical movie education is allowed to write on such an esteemed movie website as ours, and have since created a pile of classic movies that I will work through in order to achieve true enlightenment. This series will be my chronicle through it and you’re more than welcome to tag along. Also, expect some spoilers in there, if you haven’t watched these films already.

There’s something about cult classics that have this mysterious draw to them. You get your widely lauded classics that people will shun you for not watching, as I have often experienced, and you get this almost abarrent and underground feel with movies that are classified under the “cult classic” moniker. These movies are often not really talked about in the wild and are referenced only when an audience is of the turbo nerd variety. There are many cult classics out there, but there was one particular one that I was always curious about; Donnie Darko.

I knew absolutely nothing about this movie, but I have heard of it and seen faint images or references to it throughout my life. I knew so little that I was surprised when Drew Barrymore and Seth Rogan suddenly popped up. It was a complete mystery and I prefer it like that because some movies on The Pile get so tirelessly referenced to the ground that my initial experience is tainted. So, what does this Donnie Darko have to offer? I’ll tell you what. A glorious mindfuck.

The movie starts out almost like an 80s family sitcom but with nihilism and curse words. The titular Donnie has quite the sharp tongue on him and his family seem to be strangely content and relatively chill. Even when a jet-engine crashes through their house, they’re all like, “oh well, what can we do?” However, this cold open is pretty misleading as this movie gets very dark and very confusing very quickly. You start to notice how Donnie has a few screws loose and when a monstrous bunny creature emerges from what seems like the confines of his mind, you know you’re in for a trip.

What I did not realise until probably the last act was how this was a time travelling story where Donnie Darko essentially saves the universe. For the majority of the movie, I just believed Donnie was going through some severe mental illness and we’ll see some poignant ending with him recounting all the things he did and being shocked that it wasn’t real. The movie threw me entirely for a loop when all of the pieces started coming together and all the strange things that have happened culminate to their origin point. A sudden burst of revelations that almost puts you in a daze and itching to Google what all of this means.

Then you realise that the random pages from Grandma Death’s book carried great and literal significance. The plot was essentially explained entirely in what initially just looked like some vignettes that stem from a senile old woman with goofy hair’s book. I believe I do understand what happened in this movie, but I will need to watch it again in order to fully comprehend it. It’s immensely dense with clues, small but important callbacks, stuff in the environments and hidden nods in the dialogue. This is a movie you can tear apart and ponder about; perfect for a cult classic.

This strange time-travelling narrative was enough to make this movie great in its own right, but they also framed it beautifully. The dialogue that provided some levity was welcome and I didn’t expect myself to laugh as I’m watching a dude slowly lose his mind. Then you also get Donnie’s cuttingly nihilistic and realistic dialogue. I saw a lot of myself in his words. My tendency to be sceptical about everything and how I’m incredibly realistic while also having a little romantic side to me. The dialogue, particularly of Donnie, is witty. The characters are almost silly, but they have a reason for their eclectic nature.

The scene where Donnie rips Cunningham apart, the scenes with the teachers, even the therapy scenes, all masterfully written and executed. At first glance, the acting and dialogue feels apathetic and nihilistic. The “oh well, what can you do” attitude that I mentioned earlier was present in many of the other characters. Gretchen felt like she was just kinda there, but that was also part of her charm. Donnie’s classmates were all a bit exaggerated, but again, it was done with intent. I just overall love any movie that makes me do a double take.

Donnie Darko felt like a puzzle that I was building while on LSD. Scattered, weird, sometimes frustrating, but also thought-provoking and curious. When it all fits together and you take a look at the larger picture, it’s satisfying and it’s mind-altering. The frame for it is also beautiful, just to add to its majestic nature. I can now see why the few people who passionately recommended Donnie Darko did so. Any movie that manages to stick in your head will forever be on your lips when someone asks “oh, have you seen this?”

This movie was well worth my time even if it might not be in the Criterion Collection or have 50 Oscars. In my mind, it deserved that. I wanted to write an explanation of the story, but I’d end up writing a Masters thesis around time travel narratives or something. Donnie Darko initially looks rather unthreatening, but if you allow it to get under your skin, it can be one of the most thought-provoking movies you’ll ever watch. It’s one of the stranger ones on The Pile, but it definitely deserves to be there.

The Pile of Shame returns next week and this time we’re going to the war in Saving Private Ryan.

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Thabo is an English poet, playwright, and genius, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called South Africa's national poet, and the “Prince of Underpaid Writing”.
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Thabo is an English poet, playwright, and genius, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called South Africa’s national poet, and the “Prince of Underpaid Writing”.