If we are ever to get another glimpse into the world of Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s phantasmagorical 2001 masterpiece, the time is probably now. Kelly has struggled in the intervening years to reach the heights he sustained with his mindboggling directorial debut, perhaps because his first movie was so perfectly pitched, as if Radiohead had come out with OK, Computer as their debut.
The small town of Middlesex, Virginia boasts such an intriguing blend of wormholes, teenage angst and 80s nostalgia that it is a wonder Netflix hasn’t snapped up the rights to a streaming revival. We live in a time in which Karate Kid spinoff Cobra Kai has been seen by 73 million people and Stranger Things, tapping into nostalgia for Reagan-era Stephen King, has become the biggest TV show on the planet. Donnie Darko showed a a similar fascination with the horror and wonder of late 20th-century suburban America, like a time capsule dug up to expose a crusty Sony Walkman loaded with lashings of alt-pop brilliance. It seems perfectly set up for a streaming sequel or prequel, largely because it left so much to the imagination.
Kelly has been hinting at a follow-up for years, and recently told comingsoon.net: “I’m probably not allowed to say anything more than there has been an enormous amount of work completed. I’m hopeful that we might get to explore that world in a very big and exciting way. But we’ll see what happens. But there has been a lot of work done.”
So where would the follow-up start? Bringing back the original cast might be a key issue, with Jake Gyllenhaal now one of Hollywood’s most sought-after stars. But since Donnie himself didn’t make it all the way to the end of the original movie, there ought to be room for manoeuvre. On the other hand, the movie’s dependence on time travel and alternate realities means there’s ample space for Darko to return.
Perhaps a sequel could focus on the troubling legacy of Patrick Swayze’s Jim Cunningham, the weirdo motivational speaker who is exposed as a paedophile thanks to Donnie’s time-travelling antics. It might represent a welcome route back to dramatic roles for Drew Barrymore, most recently seen trying to forge a new career as a talk show host. Her liberal schoolteacher Karen Pomeroy, along with Mary McDonnell’s Rose Darko, in many ways represented the emotional and moral core of the film, their battles with conservative gym teacher Kitty Farmer an prelude to America’s current culture wars.
It was also a movie that featured early roles for Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone and Seth Rogen (in a small role as a thuggish bully), lest we forget. But if Cobra Kai can bring back Elisabeth Shue for an extended cameo, there ought to be no reason why Kelly cannot pull off similar miracles.
The film-maker’s vision of curdled conservatism is far from the only disturbing element to his debut. Where the sense of threat in Cobra Kai stems from a legacy of cruel-minded adults who have passed on their flaws to impressionable teenagers and Stranger Things goes for common-or-garden nasties from another dimension, Donnie Darko was always a weirder, neo-dystopian concoction.
Make no mistake, this could be a creepy, sinister and off-kilter follow-up. We are never quite sure whether the most terrifying events of the movie are mere manifestations of Donnie’s mental illness. Writers would have to ensure they avoided fetishising psychosis, and yet the apparent link between Donnie’s ability to see into the future and his struggles to control his own mind are what make the story so fascinating.
Over to you, Mr Kelly – in this era of nostalgic fan-fulfilment it is surely your turn on the carousel. Let’s hope that, just as in the movie, the story comes full circle and we really do find ourselves once again bouncing to the sounds of Echo & the Bunnymen while delving deeper into the world of Donnie, Middlesex and that giant evil death bunny of doom.