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.
Alternatively, Alison Foreman discusses the sense of nihilism.
From the banal narcissism of Birdman and Rick and Morty to the layered trauma of Bo Burnham: Inside and Fleabag, characters’ complex inner lives have become regularly explored arenas in TV and film. That’s proven fertile ground for broader discussions of humanity’s purpose — or lack thereof. As a result, Donnie Darko seems less a vessel for nostalgia entertainment than a contemporary of the current climate.
I am not sure I appreciate how foreign this music was at the time. I remember seeing songs like The Killing Moon on Rage, but as Breihan attests, I do not remember hearing much of the music on the radio.