20 Years Ago, Donnie Darko Turned ’80s Pop Into Nostalgic Dread

The sky is purple. As the sun rises, a dazed-looking teenage boy wakes up. He’s off in the forest, surrounded by rolling hills, in his pajamas, his bike lying next to him. The kid wakes up and smiles to himself, enjoying some private joke. Then the song starts up. As the kid rides his bike back home, a suburban idyll unfolds before him in ecstatic slow motion. Middle-aged women power-walk past manicured lawns. A smirking father uses a leaf-blower to mess up his teenage daughter’s hair. A little girl bounces on a backyard trampoline while her mother, in a nearby lawn chair, reads Stephen King’s It.

To anyone who saw it when it was new, the opening scene of Donnie Darko would’ve looked familiar — from real life, maybe, but definitely from movies. The whole vision of suburban America, with just a hint of the uncanny hanging over it, is terribly Spielbergian, but the song makes it something else. As Donnie Darko rides his bike back home, Echo & The Bunnymen’s mordantly romantic 1984 banger “The Killing Moon” thrums on the soundtrack, lending a sense of dramatic dread to everything we see.

The kid on the bike is Jake Gyllenhaal, a former child actor and the son of a director and a producer. Gyllenhaal turned 20 just before Donnie Darko premiered. He’d been in City Slickers and October Sky and a really good episode of Homicide: Life On The Street that his father had directed, but nobody knew who Gyllenhaal was yet. His older sister Maggie, the girl getting her hair blown back, had been in A Dangerous Woman and Cecil B. Demented, but she was a new face, too. Writer/director Richard Kelly was only a few years older than the two of them. When Donnie Darko started filming, Kelly was just 25.

Kelly was a former USC film student and Hollywood gofer, and he’d written a script about suburban anxiety and time travel. Thanks in part to Drew Barrymore, whose production company helped make Donnie Darko and who played the film’s English teacher, Kelly was able to turn his script into a movie and to direct it himself. Donnie Darko had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, 20 years ago today. If you’ve seen the movie, you probably saw it a lot later than that.

Donnie Darko had a rough road. It almost went straight to video, or to premium cable. Barrymore made sure the movie got a limited theatrical release, but it came out less than a month after 9/11 — a moment when nobody really wanted to think about jet engines mysteriously crashing through McMansions. Donnie Darko earned less than a million dollars at the box office, and it came to video more than a year after its Sundance debut. Slowly, quietly, it found an audience.

A girl in one of my English classes told me about it. She couldn’t quite explain what this movie was about, but she said she’d watched it twice before she had to return the rental. I rented Donnie Darko myself, then rewound the tape and immediately watched it a second time. A year or two later, when I got my first DVD player, Donnie Darko might’ve been the first movie I bought. It cast a spell on me. I watched it again and again, even though I couldn’t always tell what was going on. I probably saw it five times before I even had a working theory about the ending. There was a website for the movie that purported to explore its world, but I remember that website being no help at all.

Really, though, the story didn’t matter. It was the vibe: Gyllenhaal’s sick-of-this-bullshit grimace, the eerily modulated voice of the giant rabbit who came to visit Donnie at night, the way Kelly’s camera floated through classrooms and cul-de-sacs. And it was the music. Kelly set Donnie Darko in 1988; the movie’s climax happens on the Halloween just before the Bush/Dukakis election. In the movie’s best sequences, Kelly takes the songs that would’ve been playing on modern-rock radio at that moment — the Bunnymen, Tears For Fears, the Church — and mines them for beauty and dread and romanticism.

At the time, 1988 was not exactly a distant memory. Other movie soundtracks — The Wedding Singer, Grosse Pointe Blank, Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion — had used ’80s pop on soundtracks, but they’d done it for gen-X nostalgia more than atmosphere. Kelly — like the Gyllenhaals, and, for that matter, like me — had been a kid in the ’80s, and those songs were able to help him tap into the weird anxiety of the Cold War’s final days, when even a kid could see that American prosperity was not the dream that had been sold.

The ’80s that Kelly remembered wasn’t bright or fun. It was teenage kids getting into dumb arguments over the sex habits of the Smurfs. It was authorities falling for the shallow charm of a motivational speaker — ’80s icon Patrick Swayze, still beautiful. In 2000, there wasn’t a lot of cool-kid cachet in Echo & The Bunnymen or Tears For Fears or Duran Duran. They weren’t influences that bands mentioned in interviews, and they hadn’t yet become parts of a lucrative nostalgia circuit. They were just songs that sometimes got played on alt-rock stations’ flashback-brunch shows. Only Duran Duran’s “Notorious” was fresh in the cultural memory, and that was just because of a posthumous Biggie single. Kelly made them fresh. Later, in a director’s-cut DVD, Kelly swapped out “The Killing Moon” for INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart” and made it even more tingly.

Richard Kelly built beautiful little fantasias around those songs, and those scenes hit like a drug. The songs were key to the cult of Donnie Darko. Eventually, one of those songs even became a strange new kind of hit. The film ended with a montage of its characters pondering the imponderable, and Michael Andrews, composer of the film’s plinky-piano score, set that montage to a new version of “Mad World,” the Tears For Fears song from 1982. Andrews’ friend Gary Jules sang the angelic vocal, and Jules and Andrews replaced the drum-machine boom of the original song with shivery pianos and cellos, turning it into an eerie meditation.

As Donnie Darko slowly became a word-of-mouth cult hit, Jules and Andrews released their version of “Mad World” as a single. Michael Gondry directed a dreamlike video. In the UK, the “Mad World” cover exploded. Nearly three years after Donnie Darko had its Sundance premiere, the “Mad World” cover had become an out-of-nowhere smash, earning the coveted position of Christmas #1. All the movie trailers set to moody orchestral versions of pop songs are a direct result of “Mad World” doing what it did.

So Donnie Darko basically catalyzed that still-ongoing trailer trend, and it helped make Jake Gyllenhaal into one of his generation’s most fascinating and adventurous movie stars. But it didn’t do much for Kelly. Kelly got to make a couple of movies with real budgets, and those movies revealed that the narrative impenetrability of Donnie Darko was a feature, not a bug. Kelly’s follow-up, 2006’s Southland Tales, threw the Rock and Justin Timberlake into a perilously pretentious sci-fi freakout that didn’t make any sense. At all. Even after dismal reviews, I convinced my wife and my brother to go see Southland Tales with me in the theater. They clowned me over that one for years afterward. Still, Southland Tales showed, once again, that Kelly could put together a wildly absorbing musical sequence.

Maybe Richard Kelly should’ve been a music video director. After Southland Tales, he made 2009’s The Box, which took an intriguing Twilight Zone presence and again pushed it into the realm of bullshit surrealism. Southland Tales and The Box both flopped. Kelly hasn’t made a movie in a decade, and it’s probably fair to say that he’s not an active filmmaker anymore. Before yesterday, I probably hadn’t watched Donnie Darko in 14 years. After Southland Tales and The Box, I wondered whether Donnie Darko was even any good or whether I’d just seen it at the right time, in the right place, to be totally taken in.

Turns out: Nope. Donnie Darko is still great. It still requires you to submit to its sense of atmosphere, to stop worrying about how its plot machinery works, but Kelly makes that easy. 20 years later, watching Donnie Darko is nostalgia folding in on itself, a time capsule within a time capsule. There’s so much that could potentially distract you. The high school’s two vicious bullies are Seth Rogen and Phantom Planet frontman Alex Greenwald. The music playing during Swayze’s self-help videos is the stuff that we weren’t yet calling vaporwave. Donnie Darko’s younger sister is Daveigh Chase, who would soon play the villain in The Ring, and one of her Sparkle Motion buddies is Ashley Tisdale, who would soon play the villain in High School Musical. Even with all that yanking at my attention, though, Donnie Darko still cast its spell — mostly because of those musical sequences.

Honestly, Donnie Darko may have had more of an impact on music than on cinema. As Donnie Darko became a cult favorite, the sounds of gloomy ’80s new wave and postpunk took over indie rock. Maybe the bands who rose up afterwards — Interpol, the Killers, Bloc Party, even the National — would’ve popped without Donnie Darko, but I’m guessing they popped harder because so many of us had “The Killing Moon” on the brain. Donnie Darko crept into you like that. It made the past feel like the future.


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