Filmed over the course of 28 days (coincidentally mirroring the time transpired in the movie), the film was almost released straight-to-video. Donnie Darko was screened at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2001, before receiving a limited theatrical release on October 26, 2001 by Flower Films. Due to the film's advertising featuring a crashing plane and the September 11 attacks that transpired a month before, the film was scarcely advertised. In the end, Donnie Darko grossed just under $7.3 million worldwide on a budget of $4.5 million.
The film's soundtrack is also famous for its cover of Tears for Fears's "Mad World" by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews. The cover reached number one on the UK Singles Chart and stayed there for three consecutive weeks. The song also achieved lukewarm success in the United States, reaching number 30 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.
A director's cut was released in 2004, on a two-disc special edition DVD. A stage adaptation appeared in 2007, and a sequel, S. Darko, in 2009.
On October 2, 1988 Donnie Darko, a troubled teenager living in the town of Middlesex, Virginia, sleepwalks outside and meets a figure in a monstrous rabbit costume, who introduces himself as "Frank" and tells him the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. At dawn, Donnie returns home to find a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom. His older sister, Elizabeth, informs him that the FAA investigators do not know where it came from.
Donnie tells his psychotherapist, Dr. Thurman, about his continuing visits from Frank. Sleepwalking under Frank's influence, he floods his school by damaging a water main. He also begins dating a new student named Gretchen Ross, who has recently moved into town with her mother under a new identity to escape her violent stepfather. Gym teacher Kitty Farmer blames the flooding on the influence of the short story "The Destructors", assigned by dedicated English teacher Karen "Kitty" Pomeroy, and begins teaching attitude lessons taken from motivational speaker Jim Cunningham. Donnie rebels against these motivational lessons, leading to friction between Kitty and Rose, Donnie's mother.
Donnie asks his science teacher, Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff, about time travel after Frank brings up the topic, and is given the book The Philosophy of Time Travel, written by Roberta Sparrow, a former science teacher at the school who is now a seemingly senile old woman.
Dr. Thurman tells Donnie's parents that he is detached from reality, and that his visions of Frank are "daylight hallucinations", symptomatic of paranoid schizophrenia. Donnie disrupts a speech being given by Jim Cunningham by insulting him in front of the student body, then burns down Cunningham's house on instructions from Frank. When police find evidence of a child pornography operation in the house's remains, Cunningham is arrested. During his hypnotherapy session, Donnie confesses his crimes to Dr. Thurman and says that Frank will soon kill someone.
Rose agrees to replace Kitty as chaperone for her daughter Samantha's dance troupe in Los Angeles, so Kitty can testify in Cunningham's defense; with her husband Eddie in New York on business, her older children are home alone.
Donnie and Elizabeth take the opportunity to throw a Halloween party to celebrate her acceptance to Harvard. Gretchen arrives, distraught because her mother disappeared. Realizing that only hours remain before Frank's prophesied end of the world, Donnie takes Gretchen and two friends to seek Roberta Sparrow at her house. They are attacked by two school bullies, Seth and Ricky, who are attempting to rob Sparrow's house, and the fight spills into the street. An oncoming Pontiac Trans Am car swerves to avoid Sparrow, who went for her daily walk to check her mailbox, but runs over Gretchen instead, killing her. The driver turns out to be Elizabeth's boyfriend Frank Anderson, wearing the same rabbit costume as the Frank of Donnie's visions. Donnie shoots him in his eye with his father's gun.
As a vortex forms in dark clouds above his house, Donnie drives into the hills and watches the storm as an airplane descends from above. The plane, carrying Rose and the dance troupe, is wrenched violently as one of its engines detaches and falls into the vortex. Events of the previous 28 days recapitulate in reverse order and action, until Donnie finds himself in bed back in the early hours of October 2. As he lies in his bed, waiting and laughing, the jet engine crashes through his room, killing him. Others with whom Donnie had interacted in the 28 days awaken, some looking disturbed. Gretchen rides by Donnie's house and learns of his death from a neighborhood boy, David, but says she did not know him. Gretchen and Rose exchange a glance and wave as if they know one another, but cannot remember from where.
Although the film was always meant to be set in 1988, Kelly admitted he felt pressured to make the setting more contemporary; but, he couldn't figure out how to make the story work in such a setting and retained the original setting. Frank, the giant rabbit, was inspired by the novel Watership Down, with the novel's censorship being a plot point before being abandoned in the final version. Newer information has shown that the costume could also have been an inspiration of a dream that Kelly had.
Donnie Darko was filmed in 28 days which, by coincidence, virtually matches the time that transpires in the film from October 2, 1988, to the Friday or Saturday weekend party before Halloween on Monday, October 31, 1988. The budget for the film was $4.5 million.
It almost went straight to home video, but was theatrically released by Drew Barrymore's production company, Flower Films.
Some scenes were shot in Bixby Knolls Virginia Country Club, in Long Beach, California, with many of the school sequences shot at Loyola High School. The "Carpathian Ridge" scenes were shot on the Angeles Crest Highway.
In 2003, the piano-driven cover of Tears for Fears' "Mad World" featured in the film, as part of the end sequence, was a hit for composer Michael Andrews and singer Gary Jules, topping the charts in the United Kingdom and Portugal.
One continuous sequence involving an introduction of Donnie's high school prominently features the song "Head over Heels", by Tears for Fears, Samantha's dance group, "Sparkle Motion", performs with the song "Notorious", by Duran Duran, and "Under the Milky Way", by The Church, is played after Donnie and Gretchen emerge from his room during the party. "Love Will Tear Us Apart", by Joy Division, also appears in the film diegetically during the party and shots of Donnie and Gretchen upstairs. The version included was released in 1995, although the film is set in 1988. The opening sequence is set to "The Killing Moon" by Echo & the Bunnymen. In the theatrical cut, the song playing during the Halloween party is "Proud to be Loud" by Pantera, a track released on their 1988 album, which would coincide with the time setting of the film. However, the band is credited as "The Dead Green Mummies".
In the re-released Director's cut version of the film, the music in the opening sequence is replaced by "Never Tear Us Apart" by INXS; "Under the Milky Way" is moved to the scene of Donnie and Eddie driving home from Donnie's meeting with his therapist; and "The Killing Moon" is played as Gretchen and Donnie return to the party from Donnie's parents' room.
The film had a limited release, opening October 26, the month following the September 11 attacks. It was subsequently held back for almost a year for international release. Kelly said it took almost six months to sell the movie. "It almost went directly to the Starz network. We had to beg them to put it in theaters. Filmmaker Christopher Nolan stepped in and convinced Newmarket to put it in theaters."
The Donnie Darko Book, written by Richard Kelly, is a 2003 book about the film. It includes an introduction by Jake Gyllenhaal, the screenplay of the Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut, an in-depth interview with Kelly, facsimile pages from the Philosophy of Time Travel, photos and drawings from the film, and artwork it inspired. NECA released first a six-inch (15 cm) figure of Frank the Bunny and later a foot-tall (30 cm) "talking version" of the same figure.
The film was originally released on VHS and DVD in March 2002. Strong DVD sales led Newmarket Films to release a "Director's Cut" on DVD in 2004. Bob Berney, President of Newmarket Films, has described the film as "a runaway hit on DVD," citing United States sales of more than $10 million.
The film was released in the U.S. on Blu-ray on February 10, 2009, containing both versions. The movie was then re-released on July 26, 2011 as a four-disc, 10th anniversary edition, once again containing both versions in HD, and the theatrical version on DVD.
The film was released as a 2-disc Blu-ray special edition in the UK on July 19, 2010, by Metrodome Distribution, and featuring both Original and Director's Cut. It also included commentaries from director Kelly and actor Gyllenhaal, Kelly and Kevin Smith, and cast and crew, including Drew Barrymore.
In December 2016, Arrow Films released a limited edition 4K resolution Blu-ray of the film in the UK, supervised and approved by director Kelly. This release includes both the Director's and Theatrical cuts and was accompanied by a Dual format Blu-ray and DVD release. In the US, it was released in April 2017.
Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut was released on May 29, 2004, in Seattle, Washington, at the Seattle International Film Festival, and later in New York City and Los Angeles, on July 23, 2004. The tickets sold out within the day for the Seattle International Film Festival premiere, grossing nearly $33,000 over a five day period. This cut includes twenty minutes of extra footage and an altered soundtrack.
The director's cut DVD was released on February 15, 2005 in single- and double-disc versions, the latter being available in a standard DVD case or in a limited edition that also featured a lenticular slipcase, whose central image alternates between Donnie and Frank depending on the viewing angle. Most additional features are exclusive to the two-DVD set: the director's commentary assisted by Kevin Smith, excerpts from the storyboard, a 52-minute production diary, "#1 fan video", a "cult following" video interviewing English fans, and the new director's cut trailer. The single-DVD edition was also released as a giveaway with copies of the British Sunday Times newspaper on February 19, 2006.
The DVD of the Director's Cut includes text of the in-universe fictional book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, written by Roberta Sparrow, which Donnie is given and reads in the film. The text expands on the philosophical and scientific concepts much of the film's plot revolves around, and has been seen as a way to understand the film better than from its theatrical release. As outlined by Salon's Dan Kois from the book's text, much of the film takes place in an unstable Tangent Universe that is connected to the Primary Universe and a duplicate of it, except for an extra metal vessel known as an Artifact — the plane engine. If the Artifact is not sent to the Primary Universe by the chosen Living Receiver (Donnie) within 28 days, the Primary Universe will be destroyed upon collapse of the Tangent. To aid in this task, the Living Receiver is given super-human abilities such as foresight, physical strength and elemental powers, but at the cost of troubling visions and paranoia, while the Manipulated Living (all who live around the Receiver) support him in unnatural ways, setting up a domino-like chain of events encouraging him to return the Artifact. The Manipulated Dead (those who die within the Tangent Universe, like Frank and Gretchen) are more aware than the Living, having the power to travel through time, and will set an Ensurance Trap, a scenario which leaves the Receiver no choice but to save the Primary Universe.
Donnie Darko had its first screening at the Sundance Film Festival, on January 19, 2001, and debuted in United States theaters on October 26, 2001, to a tepid response. During its opening weekend, it was shown on only 58 screens nationwide, grossing $110,494. This may have been the result of the movie being released shortly after the September 11 attacks. By the time the film's run closed in United States theaters, on April 11, 2002, it had earned just $517,375. It ultimately grossed $7.6 million worldwide, just enough to recoup its budget.
Despite its poor box office showing, the film began to attract a devoted fan base. It was originally released on VHS and DVD in March 2002. During this time, the Pioneer Theatre in New York City's East Village began midnight screenings of Donnie Darko that continued for 28 consecutive months. In the United Kingdom, Donnie Darko sold 300,000 tickets within the first six weeks of its release, based mostly on word-of-mouth marketing.
The film received critical acclaim, with praise towards the acting, atmosphere and unconventional writing. Rotten Tomatoes gives the theatrical version of the film an 85% rating, and the director's cut a 91% rating. Metacritic gives the theatrical version of the film a score of 71 out of 100, based on 21 reviews, which indicates "generally favorable reviews", whereas the director's cut received a much higher score of 88 out of 100, based on 15 reviews, which indicates "universal acclaim".
Andrew Johnson cited the film in Us Weekly, as one of the outstanding films at Sundance in 2001, describing it as "a heady blend of science fiction, spirituality, and teen angst." Jean Oppenheimer of New Times (LA) praised the film, saying, "Like gathering storm clouds, Donnie Darko creates an atmosphere of eerie calm and mounting menace—[and] stands as one of the most exceptional movies of 2001." Writing for ABC Australia, Megan Spencer called the movie "menacing, dreamy, [and] exciting" and noted that "it could take you to a deeply emotional place lying dormant in your soul." Roger Ebert gave the theatrical version of the film two and a half stars out of four, but later gave the director's cut three stars out of four.2001: Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko script won "Best Screenplay" at the Sitges film festival, and at the San Diego Film Critics Society. Donnie Darko also won the "Audience Award" for Best Feature at the Sweden Fantastic Film Festival. The film was nominated for "Best Film" at the Sitges Film Festival and for the "Grand Jury Prize" at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards including Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay and Best Male Lead for Gyllenhaal.
2002: Donnie Darko won the "Special Award" at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films's 28th Saturn Awards. The movie also won the "Silver Scream Award" at the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival. Kelly was nominated for "Best First Feature" and "Best First Screenplay" with Donnie Darko, and Gyllenhaal was nominated for "Best Male Lead," at the Independent Spirit Awards. The film was also nominated for the "Best Breakthrough Film" at the Online Film Critics Society Awards.
2005: Donnie Darko ranked in the top five on My Favourite Film, an Australian poll conducted by the ABC.
2006: Donnie Darko ranks #9 in FilmFour's 50 Films to See Before You Die.
#14 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 Best High School Movies.
#2 in Empire's "50 Greatest Independent Films of All Time" list.
#53 in Empire's 500 Greatest Movies of All Time 2008 poll.
A 2009 sequel, S. Darko, centers on Sam, Donnie's younger sister. Sam begins to have strange dreams that hint at a major catastrophe. Donnie Darko creator Richard Kelly has stated that he had no involvement in the sequel, as he does not own the rights to the original. Chase and producer Adam Fields were the only creative links between it and the original film. The sequel received extremely negative reviews.
In an interview published on January 24, 2017, Kelly revealed there's a movie set in the world of Donnie Darko he wants to make, that would be much bigger and more ambitious than the original. Because of the large budget that would be required, Kelly said he will look into securing the necessary resources, once he finishes with his next film.
In an interview with PopMatters magazine journalist J.C. Maçek III director Richard Kelly said regarding the sequel S. Darko, "I hate it when people ask me about that sequel because" he laughs, morosely, "I had nothing to do with it. And I hate it when people try and blame me or hold me responsible for it because I had no [involvement]. I don’t control the underlying rights to [the Donnie Darko franchise]. I had to relinquish them when I was 24-years old. I hate when people ask me about that because I’ve never seen it and I never will, so… don’t ask me about the sequel." He adds with a cynical laugh, "Those people are making lots of money. They’re certainly making lots of money." When asked if he would ever do an official sequel, Kelly responded, "I’m open to doing something much bigger and longer and more ambitious that could be a new story." He added, "We’ll see what happens. I have a lot of stuff that I’m working on and it’s ambitious and it’s expensive and we’ll see what happens."
Marcus Stern, associate director of the American Repertory Theater, directed a stage adaptation of Donnie Darko at the Zero Arrow Theatre, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fall of 2007. It ran from October 27 until November 18, 2007, with opening night scheduled near Halloween.
An article written by the production drama team stated that the director and production team planned to "embrace the challenge to make the fantastical elements come alive on stage." In 2004, Stern adapted and directed Kelly's screenplay for a graduate student production at the American Repertory Theatre's Institute for Advanced Theater Training (I.A.T.T./M.X.A.T.).