How Donnie Darko Captures the Spirit of Lent

The 2001 cult film is a surprisingly ideal movie for the Christian time of reflection leading up to Easter Sunday.

Pandora Cinema / Newmarket Films

In 2004, my future wife and I went to see The Passion of the Christ after it opened in theaters on the first day of Lent. Our experience seeing Mel Gibson’s epic drama about the final hours of Jesus’s life had an extra devotional sheen to it: We seemed to be the only people in the theater who weren’t members of a local evangelical church. During the previews, the pastor stood at the front of the auditorium and led the audience in prayer. My wife and I felt like outsiders in a strange world, both before and during the movie. As Catholics, our faith has often been personal and subtle; The Passion of the Christ is anything but. In detailing the agony of Jesus’s last moments so viscerally, it becomes almost literalist. We left afterward feeling exhausted and sad, but not spiritually moved.

A few years earlier in that same theater, I had seen a different film that, somewhat surprisingly, perfectly fits my view of Lent as a time for both public spectacle and private reflection: Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult hit, Donnie Darko. Though a secular time-travel movie, it includes plenty of religious imagery, Catholic allusions, and a clear interest in eternal questions of life, death, and sacrifice. Having seen the film while a college student in central Pennsylvania, I still find that Donnie Darko captures my understanding of Catholicism as a beautiful and melancholic faith—one that offers an ambiguous, imperfect way of looking at an imperfect world.

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.

While on a movie date with Gretchen (Jena Malone), a new girl at his school, Donnie has visions of Frank, and gets a mysterious glimpse into the home of a local motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze). Frank tells Donnie to burn the home to the ground—and as the teen leaves the cinema for his mission, he exits under a marquee featuring Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Donnie’s arson spares the motivational speaker, but reveals the man’s extensive stash of child pornography. Destroying in order to create, Donnie becomes an unconventional prophet, someone sent to shake up the established order and the façade of his suburban world. His character captures the soul of Lent, a time that the Catholic writer and theologian Thomas Merton cautioned was not meant simply for “squaring conscious accounts, but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.”

Of course, when one loves a film as much I love Donnie Darko, it can be tempting and easy to remake a story in one’s own image. But I’m far from the only Catholic drawn to this movie: Back in 2007, The New York Times asked the director Richard Kelly about the film’s “sizable Catholic following.” Kelly seemed surprised, but didn’t offer much by way of explanation at the time.

Now, a decade later, I asked Kelly to elaborate on Donnie Darko’s religious connections. It turns out that all the film’s nods and winks to the divine are deliberate and rooted in the director’s early experiences with faith. Kelly, who also made the films Southland Tales and The Box, grew up Methodist and went to church often as a boy. Though he moved away from religion as he got older, he said Christianity continued to imprint itself in his films. “The search for God in science is perhaps the greatest quest of our species,” Kelly told me, “and I like to tell stories about characters confronting God through these science-fiction mechanisms.”

Kelly said that in each of his movies, he’s telling variations of the Christ narrative, which he calls “the most compelling story of all time.” In Donnie Darko, this parallel is perhaps most clear, despite the fact that it’s not a devotional film. Because its religious sensibility is ambiguous rather than prescriptive, Donnie Darko channels the Lenten spirit of surprise and discovery. Donnie is thrust into a narrative and a world that he doesn’t understand, but he follows his visions and his conscience.

The Lenten story concludes with a sequence of terrible violence—Christ’s arrest and crucifixion—as visceral a confrontation of God on Earth as one might imagine. But the power of Lent hinges on the juxtaposition of earthly death with eternal life, just as Donnie Darko places sacrifice next to salvation. “I could never believe that there is nothing beyond this world. That seems absurd to me,” Kelly told me. “But the search for God is also deeply absurd ... that’s why I make absurd movies.”