With the film’s recent re-release in theaters and Easter Sunday approaching, it’s an ideal time to examine what Donnie Darko has to offer viewers who observe Lent, which ends Thursday. In the years following its release, the movie went from box-office flop to cult classic—a fitting evolution for a work that demands multiple viewings. The supernatural drama stars a young Jake Gyllenhaal as the title character, a misunderstood teen drawn into an unsettling cosmic mystery and whose sacrifice brings about new life. The plot skillfully infuses the metaphysical into the mundane environs of suburbia, much in the way that Christians are called upon to spend 40 days every year contemplating the mystery of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection as they go about their daily tasks. Beneath the secular surface of Donnie Darko is a richly spiritual story that embodies that Lenten sense of living in the world, without being quite of the world.
Early in the film, which is set in 1988, a jet engine inexplicably falls through the roof of Donnie’s family’s home and onto his bed. He should have been killed—but he was sleepwalking during the crash and awakens in a golf course to learn that his life has been spared. In the immediate aftermath, Donnie’s father tells his mother “someone was watching over him.” The entire narrative of Donnie Darko is set into motion by what the characters themselves call a deus ex machina; from the start, everyone seems aware that some divine force has burned its way into the suburbs. The film unfolds at a dreamlike place, mimicking the Lenten devotional practice of daily reading and reflection—a process that’s equally monotonous and mystical.
Much of Donnie Darko takes place at the protagonist’s Catholic high school, which allows for some of the film’s most direct engagement with religion. In one scene, Donnie’s English teacher, Karen Pomery (Drew Barrymore), is teaching “The Destructors”—a 1954 short story by the iconic Catholic fiction writer Graham Greene about a group of boys who destroy an old home. One line from the story in particular resonates with Donnie: that “destruction is a form of creation.” In a way, the quote describes his own attitude toward life—and foreshadows his own end.
A bit of a troublemaker in school, Donnie regularly sees a hypnotherapist named Dr. Thurman, with whom he chats about agnosticism and atheism. Eventually, their hypnosis sessions reveal one of Donnie’s secrets: He receives instruction on his various crimes from a terrifying 6-foot-tall, talking rabbit named Frank. At first, it’s unclear whether these ecstatic visions are divine or demonic—but they nonetheless reveal a Christ-like character who experiences reality on a different, more otherworldly wavelength than his peers.
In one of the film’s defining scenes, Frank tells Donnie the world will end in 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. The power of a fixed timeline is a Lenten story trope: The 40 days of the season are meant to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert. Indeed, as the film progresses, Donnie seems to be destined for a tragic end—as though he’s living the dramatic movement of a Lenten narrative. He struggles, he grows, he evolves; his heightened sensitivity to the world around him is both blessing and burden.