When someone says a movie is a cult classic, you usually know it will be either a) too weird for the mainstream audience, b) too smart for the mainstream audience, or c) just plain stinky. While we enjoy films that meet the third criteria (there's a long list of B-movie reviews around here to prove it), I was happy to find Donnie Darko only met the first two criteria.
Why it's weird: I have to admit, I love films with a touch of the bizarre. Maybe it is more of a reflection on my own character that I gravitate toward the odd and unusual, but I think having something fresh and original, even at the cost of being downright disturbing, is worth it. Basically the movie can be watched two ways: either it's a movie about a teenager with psychological problems who may have ended up committing suicide after being tormented by hallucinations, particularly of the scariest bunny rabbit in the world, Frank, or you can see it as a brilliant young man, misunderstood and disaffected by society who learns about the secrets of time travel, thanks to the ghost of a man dressed up as a bunny rabbit, Frank, and saves the world. As you can probably imagine, this is a fairly disturbing and frightening movie, but much more psychological and less gruesome than your typical horror.
One factor that especially adds to this disturbing effect is the juxtaposition with the world of everyone around him. The lives of Darko's family and schoolmates, while still adding to the plot, are mundane and banal, completely detached and unaware of the dark turmoil of Donnie's struggle. Like Donnie, and most teenagers for that matter, we begin to feel isolated and detached from the simple people of Middlesex. They seem too small in the turmoil of their lives in comparison with the terror and confusion of Donnie's struggle, and so when Donnie commits various acts of vandalism and arson at the behest of Frank, they seem almost justifiable since Donnie's reality seem so disproportionately real in contrast to the lives of others around him.
Why it's smart: The film asks questions about metaphysics, such as, "What is time?", "What happens when we die?", and "What is reality?", but also about madness and knowledge. In "The History of Madness ", Michel Foucault describes what he calls the "tragic consciousness of madness" -- a cultural attitude prominent in the medieval period where mad people were seen as oracles, capable of seeing and understanding otherworldy forces, and in particular having a view into the apocalypse. We hear about such understanding of madness in the stories of Greek oracles, but they seem detached and foreign, impossible to place in a world like ours. Donnie Darko gives us a brilliant depiction of such a modern-day madness. Gradually we begin to see Donnie not as a madman by conventional definition, but as an oracle with a destiny to carry a truth to fruition. We see this transformation in another character, Old Lady Death, who transfigures from a senile and incapable old woman to an aging philosopher, Roberta Sparrow, who offers Donnie important guidance on his journey. There are plenty of other references to literary works, especially the works of Graham Greene and Richard Adams to enjoy.
I was very impressed with the creative and subtle use of cinematography in this film. Also, the use of sound really enhanced the disturbing experience, especially for Frank's strangely distorted voice. Computer generated graphics were used, and while they were still fairly primitive at the time, these effects were usually reserved for abstract objects and mysterious, disturbing symbols, so the primitiveness of the effects didn't stand out and only added an outlandish, otherworldly quality that was well-suited to their use. My absolute favourite thing about this movie, however, is the extremely subtle foreshowing and clues hidden throughout. If you are the kind of person who enjoys watching a movie as though it were some sort of puzzle, you will find this film incredibly enjoyable and love finding new hints every time you watch.
In summary, though Donnie Darko might not have been a popular film, I highly recommend it. I really believe this movie, both for its tone and intellectual content, is very unique.