Dissecting Donnie Darko’s Score Almost 20 Years Later

Ellynn Mayo |  @ellynnspeaks

Almost one full score of years ago, the sci-fi/fantasy/psychological film Donnie Darko came into the world. You may know and love this movie for the human-sized rabbit who follows Jake Gyllenhaal. As Darko navigates his apocalyptic world and commits property damage, a chilling score by Michael Andrews makes this film hard to forget. The score also includes two songs originally written by Tears for Fears. 

To follow along, here is the full Donnie Darko soundtrack.

“Carpathian Ridge” – 1:35

Immersive, like you’re plunging underwater. This opening track takes a deep dive into a calm space in your mind. Soft plunking on the piano intermingles with stringed instruments. A haunting feminine voice detaches you from reality. It’s beautiful here, but something isn’t right. I’m nostalgic for something that hasn’t happened yet.

“The Tangent Universe” – 1:50

Not so beautiful anymore. The low sounds growl at you, like an engine revving, like the story is coming to life. Metallic ringing pushes you further into the unknown. Are we on a spaceship? Does time exist? What is that faint crackling? Something’s behind you, and you can feel it breathing down your neck.

“The Artifact and Living” – 2:30

We’re moving along now. It’s your average day for a kid in the ‘90s, trudging through the muck that is suburbian teenagehood. Warmer and warmer sounds build until the winds pick up. Then, you remember how haunting and beautiful it can be to walk through a neighborhood. To fall in love. Nothing is safe.

“Middlesex Times” – 1:41

Oh no! It’s gonna get you! You’re bumping around in this song because everything is a strange fantasy. I feel like walking through the woods very late at night and hiding from the authorities. I feel like at any moment, something is going to touch my shoulder. Take very slow steps. Be careful not to wake anything up.

“Manipulated Living” – 2:08

Settle in now. There’s no going back. The alarms have sounded, and you are locked in for the ride. You’re definitely in the wrong place, but the only way out is through. You are the manipulated living, you are traveling through space, and you can hear a clock ticking. The rumbling at the end hints that this is far from over.

“Philosophy of Time Travel” – 2:02

Wouldn’t it be beautiful to float through space if you had the ability to do so? Wouldn’t you want to look at the galaxies and meet the aliens? This may be a dream. But if it is, do you really want to wake up? Or do you feel the urge to stay wrapped in a cocoon of intergalactic fantasies? I wish I could absorb these sounds in my heat signature. They remind me of a summer day, wasting away in some hidden field.

“Liquid Spear Waltz” – 1:32

It’s just that little flubber-looking thing that clearly doesn’t exist. But whoa, why does it look so real? I want to reach out and touch it. It feels like slime. It might even be supernatural. It’s so beautiful that I might cry. Feel how the melody builds? There’ll be more.

“Gretchen Ross” – 0:51

Doesn’t young love feel like this? Do you remember the first time you felt like this about someone so wonderful they couldn’t possibly exist? Didn’t you want to protect them forever?

“Burn It to the Ground” – 1:58

Soft guitar gives way to a deafening melody that should scare you and encourage you at the same time. Should he do it, or should he not? He knows he’s hearing voices. But the voices are so convincing, so much kinder than the voices society tells him to listen to. You could get on a sailboat and float away on these chords.

“Slipping Away” – 1:17

Just like Gretchen’s melody, but wait. Something is off. There’s more disjointedness, more conflict. It’s clunky. And suddenly, she doesn’t fit anymore. He’s not in his right mind. Something else is inhabiting where his heart should be.

“Rosie Darko” – 1:25

Again, we hear this sort of plunking along on the piano. It’s just life, you see? It goes along, and we drag ourselves to the tune of it. It’s not natural, but we don’t see a problem with it. Take a walk to this, and ascend.

“Cellar Door” – 1:03

My favorite, a sound that repeats in this film. It touches on all of it — the strangeness of the world we’ve been seeing, the beauty of Donnie’s life and the ugliness. What he wishes he could be.

“Ensurance Trap” – 3:11

Just let it happen. Stop resisting. It will be over soon. Slow beats mix with gravelly noises and shimmering bells. It’s happening quickly, but it will be over soon. It feels like walking through a haunted house. Warning, there’s a jump into hyperspace. And there it is again. Don’t trust what you see. Everything is not what you see, hear or feel. It’s all happening at once. The motor is still running, but not for long.

“Waltz in the 4th Dimension” – 2:46

We’ve heard this before, but not in the same way. Not with the same clarity. It’s less of a question or a reminder, but more passive. The voice is telling us a story of what has already come to pass, and we just have to follow it a little longer. We’re sucked into the outcome, but we don’t care about the dangers that lie ahead, because it’s going to be alright. That’s what the music tells us: it’s scary, but it will be alright in the end.

“Time Travel” – 3:01

Take yourself back to the beginning. But alter it. And smile because you did, because you saw time change. There are repercussions to changing time. It’s okay to feel guilty about it. It’s like motion sickness, Irreversible motion sickness. Until the sweet dramamine takes over and you accept time as relative/meaningless. And he’s gone.

“Did You Know Him?” – 1:46

This is just so odd. Instead of starting with something to reflect on, it gives us a new melody that feels final. It projects us to the future, and we’re already told to let go of the past. It tells us a little about the beginning, if only to remind us why it had to end. And then it gives us the rest to seal the deal. It’s okay. It’s okay.

“Mad World” by Tears for Fears – 3:08

I think the reason this became so popular after the release wasn’t exactly because of the movie. The whole score is just building up to this song, where we can finally breathe. It voices all the things Donnie may or may not have been thinking. It tells us that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting something to change.

“Mad World” (Alternate Version) – 3:37

Why was this included? What makes it different? If you listened along to the score, you might note the absence of normal percussion. It takes the answers we get from the song and adds something grounding and real — what the film starves us of: Reality. It makes it more atmospheric, and I wonder if that’s what Donnie needed all along. Did he need to be more firmly planted on the ground? It also speaks to the times, with the groovy retro/future vibe coming through.

Well, there you have it. A deep dive through (arguably) one of the greatest films of all time. Did you follow along? If not, try putting the score in your ears on your next walk. It may give you a different impression of the world.

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