Understanding Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko is a 2001 science fiction film written and directed by Richard Kelly and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle, Jena Malone, and Mary McDonnell. The film was screened at selected theatres and grossed just over $7.6 million worldwide. Despite a poor reception at the box office, the film was well received by critics, developed a cult following, and had impressive DVD sales. In fact, Donnie Darko quite commonly appears on ‘best film’ lists and ‘films to see before you die’ lists.
What is both a strength and shortcoming of the film is that it is not easily understood. To really understand the film, with all its philosophical and science fiction content, it has to be watched more than once. For some viewers this may be frustrating, but for many the more times they watch this film the more they enjoy it. Every viewing experience is different and as you continue to pick up on new things, the story is slightly altered. The biggest mistake you can make is to not give the film a chance. It’s a rewarding experience when the role of characters and events become clearer. The best part about the film is that there are no clear–cut right or wrong answers and our different interpretations stimulate great discussion.
Below I will describe some key points upon which I based my interpretation of the film. If you want something to further your understanding of the film, or simply want to compare your own interpretation with mine then read ahead. But be warned, this next part will be full of spoilers.
Summary of Events
Donnie Darko is regarded as a troubled teenager who lives in Middlesex, Virginia. On the night of October 2, 1988, he is woken and lured outside by a giant rabbit called Frank. Frank tells Donnie the world will end in 28 days. Donnie wakes up on the golf course, and when he returns home he finds a mysterious jet engine has crashed into his bedroom.
Over the course of 28 days Donnie has sessions with his psychotherapist Dr. Thurman, begins dating the new girl Gretchen Ross – who has her own troubled past, floods the school and burns down motivational speaker Jim Cunningham’s house while under the influence of Frank, and questions his science teacher over the philosophy of time travel after discovering Roberta Sparrow, nicknamed Grandmother Death by Donnie and his friends, wrote a time travel book that describes his strange experiences. Dr. Thurman comes to the conclusion that Donnie is a paranoid schizophrenic who is experiencing daylight hallucinations.
When Donnie and his sister Elizabeth throw a Halloween party, Donnie realises only a few hours remain before the world will end and takes Gretchen and his friends to seek Roberta Sparrow. They are attacked by school bullies outside her house and when Gretchen is knocked down on the street, she is run over and accidently killed by Elizabeth’s boyfriend Frank – who happens to be wearing the bunny suit as his Halloween costume. Frank steps out of the car to apologise when Donnie shoots him with his father’s gun. A vortex forms in the sky, and in the early morning, as Donnie watches on in the hills, the engine from the airplane carrying his mother and sister detaches and falls into the vortex. Donnie then wakes up to find himself in bed in the early hours of October 2, when the engine crashes into his room and kills him.
The Primary and Tangent Universe
Corruption in the Primary Universe can cause a Tangent Universe to occur. The exact cause of the Tangent Universe in the film is unexplained, however, the first appearance of Frank signals that they have entered the Tangent Universe. Shortly after, the mysterious jet engine crashes into Donnie’s room – another indicator of the Tangent Universe. This alternate reality, created on October 2, is extremely unstable and will only last for 28 days before it collapses. If the Tangent Universe collapses before the Primary Universe can be restored then this may cause a black hole capable of destroying the Primary Universe, and hence ending the world.
The Artefact is a piece of evidence signalling that the Tangent Universe has been created. It is always made of metal and appears from nowhere, with no reason to exist. In Donnie Darko the Artefact is the jet engine. The Tangent Universe, which is usually an exact replica of the Primary Universe, has become unstable because the jet engine is an anomaly – it belongs in one Universe without belonging in the other. To restore the Primary Universe, the jet engine must be guided out of the Tangent Universe and into the Primary Universe through a time portal so that the Artefact has a reason to exist. The jet engine in the Tangent Universe is the engine of the plane that carries Donnie’s mother and sister. By Donnie sending the engine through the time portal created by the vortex, the engine has a reason to exist – it no longer has come out of nowhere.
The Living Receiver
A Living Receiver is given the role to guide the Artefact back into the Primary Universe. To fulfill this role, he or she is given supernatural powers while in the Tangent Universe which usually involve fire, water, strength and telekinesis. Donnie displays each of these powers when he buries the axe into the school’s solid bronze mascot and busts the water main, burns down Jim Cunningham’s house, constructs the time portal, and uses telekinesis to rip the jet engine from the plane sending it through the time portal. The Living Receiver can also suffer from terrifying hallucinations, nightmares and visions. Donnie suffers through all these things, which is what leads his psychotherapist to believe he is a paranoid schizophrenic. While Donnie dies at the end of the film having completed his quest, this is not necessarily always the fate of the Living Receiver. While there are others mentioned to have suffered a similar ‘doomed’ fate, Roberta Sparrow is an example of a Living Receiver who has survived and been able to transcribe her experiences into a book on time travel.
The Manipulated Living and The Manipulated Dead
The Manipulated Living, Donnie’s family, friends and neighbours, subconsciously guide Donnie towards fulfilling his task. Their behaviour and actions are crucial in making sure Donnie will succeed by creating a sequence of events that will ultimately lead to his success. This means that every word, every gesture, every event in the film is important and serves a purpose by leading to Frank killing Gretchen, Donnie killing Frank, and Donnie, now a murderer on the run, having no way out but to restore the Universe. The Manipulated Dead is anyone connected to the Living Receiver that dies in the Tangent Universe. Similarly to the Living Receiver, they are given special powers including time travel capabilities and the ability to communicate with the Living Receiver. Elizabeth’s boyfriend Frank is killed by Donnie in the Tangent Universe and takes on the role of the Manipulated Dead. He travels through time to help Donnie return the Artefact. By waking Donnie before the jet engine crashes into his room, he ensures that Donnie survives to fulfill his destiny and then guides him towards that destiny. Gretchen can also be classified as the Manipulated Dead by providing incentive for Donnie to restore the Universe.
What Happens at the End of the Film
Once Donnie sends the jet engine through the time portal, the last 28 days rewind as the Tangent Universe unravels. When Donnie wakes up in his bed laughing, he is back in the Primary Universe, and it’s as if he dreamt the events in the Tangent Universe. Having fulfilled his task, he falls back asleep content and no longer afraid to die alone. This may be because his experience has brought him closer to God. The jet engine sent by Donnie through the time portal arrives in the Primary Universe, falling into his bedroom and killing him.
In all, no matter how we view Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly provides us with a film that extends beyond the regular cinematic experience. Whether we believe Donnie is a hero or mentally unstable, whether his world is real or imaginary, and whether we can defend or condemn his actions, we are all prompted to reflect upon the same issues that override the film. Issues that are related to broad and extensive topics such as corruption, existence, and mental illness. It is when you delve into the subtext of the film that you will surprise yourself with what you discover.
If you have other interpretations of the film, your own theory, want to poke holes in my theory, or if you have picked up on things that I may have missed, feel free to share below!
What do you think? Leave a comment.