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.
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.