Donnie Darko: Time Travel & the Human Condition
Donnie Darko (2001) is a movie to watch at least twice. It is also one of the highlight movies of 2001, along with Monster’s Ball, Waking Life, Amelie, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Spirited Away. Darko is about a troubled teenager named Donnie Darko (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) that lives in a fictional, 1988 version of Middlesex, Virginia.
(However, the movie was filmed completely in Southern California; the Carthpatian Ridge scene was shot in La Cañada Flintridge, and the high school in the movie is Loyola High School in Los Angeles).
Middlesex is portrayed as a wealthy suburb similar to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) or Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982). (Not to mention, the bikes ridden at the beginning and end of Darko are homage to E.T. — Donnie’s is the only bike without a headlight, representative of his name, Darko.)
Similar to Darko, both movies have a mystery lurking beneath the ostensibly ordinary suburban exterior, i.e. Lynch’s dark surrealism and Spielberg’s endearing alien. But Darko stands its own, original ground, apart from its influences.
It is often described as a “cult movie,” which is true in the sense that a passionate following grew after the movie was a box-office failure but, the moniker “cult movie” can be used derisively to criticize a movie for having a cliquish and elitist following that is not, necessarily, representative of the quality of the movie. “Cult movie” has the same negative connotations as the word “hipster.” However, Darko is a quality movie because of its complexity and humanity.
It begins with Donnie waking up on the side of fictitious Carthpatian Ridge, overlooking the valley, his bike near the edge of the cliff, after having sleepwalked there the night before. After getting on his bike, a sunburst transitions to him riding, and “The Killing Moon” by Echo and the Bunnymen begins playing.
There are introductory shots of Middlesex and a sign for the Middlesex Halloween Carnival.
He returns to his house to read on the refrigerator whiteboard “Where is Donnie?” and, later that day, have dinner-table conversation that introduces the dynamic of the family’s relationship, and that Donnie has been seeing a therapist.
That night, October 2nd 1988, Donnie is woken by a mysterious voice that leads him to the country club where he sees the source, a dark figure dressed in a grotesque rabbit costume, that tells him the world is going to end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds (the sum of which is 88 — a reference to the year the movie takes place).
Upon returning to his house, he learns that a full-size jet engine has landed on his bedroom, and the Federal Aviation Administration has no clue where it came from. The questions of Frank, the rabbit, and the jet engine are the conceit that the narrative centers around for the rest of the movie.
It is also important to note that Darko is a polarizing movie — you either love it or hate it. For example, movie critic Roger Ebert, in his first review of Darko, said, “the control fades in the closing scenes, and our hands, which have been so full, close on emptiness. Donnie Darko is the one that got away. But it was fun trying to land it.”
However, others find it a compelling, multi-layered movie that is both comedy and tragedy. For example, movie critic Andy Bailey wrote that Darko is “a movie geek’s wet dream for the ages” and that it “should leave the underdog in us all swooning in nostalgia.”
Consensus about the meaning of the movie is just as divided as about the quality, i.e. there isn’t one. Darko is meant to be a multifaceted mind-bender. But there are plenty of websites that appropriate the time-travel theory excerpts from The Philosophy of Time Travel (TPoTT) shown in the director’s cut (that do not appear in the original, theatrical version), in order to explain the movie’s meaning. Although potentially disorienting, pretentious, or, even, cheesy, the multiple layers to Darko, are, ultimately, its success.
Addressing the pretension, Richard Kelly says in an interview in The Donnie Darko Book that:
…I had a reaction to the pretension I saw within film school and my desire to learn the craft, the technique, but not be pretentious. I think self-importance is a problem for a lot of film students: to solve the world’s problems or the desire to make people weep. Comedy is so undervalued and looked down upon, but it is so needed. If you can tell a simple comedic story you can then do anything (xviii).
Also in The Donnie Darko Book, Jake Gyllenhaal writes:
What is Donnie Darko about? I have no idea, at least not a conscious one. But somehow I’ve always understood it. The most amazing thing about making this movie, for me, was the fact that no one — including the man from whose mind it emerged — ever had a simple answer to this question. And that, ironically, is the very thing the film is actually about. There is no single answer to any question (vii).
Its complexity is the reason to watch it — it balances a science-fiction narrative, philosophical concepts, coming-of-age cliches, suburban archetypes, comic-book and religious themes, political commentary, and complex characters. I would also recommend a first-time viewer to watch the original theatrical version that was released in 2001, rather than the director’s cut version re-released in 2004; however, both add value to the story. The director’s cut, even though it explains a lot, does not necessarily subtract from the value of the original story, but the extra explanation can be distracting for the first-time viewer. I prefer the original theatrical version, but the choice of what version to watch is, ultimately, up to the viewer’s discretion. Regardless of the version watched, it is still a movie to watch twice.
There are, at least, seven ways to read Darko: a story of time-travel, free-will versus determinism, teen romance, suburban satire, super-heroism/martyrdom, bipartisanship, and humanism.
As a time-travel story, pages from the TPoTT explain the mystery of the jet engine and appearance of Frank introduced at the beginning of the movie. (There are also references to Spielberg’s time-travel movie Back to the Future and Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time in the scene when Donnie is talking to Mr. Monnitoff (played by Noah Wyle); for instance, the DeLorean in Back to the Future needs to reach 88 miles an hour to travel through time, and A Brief History of Time was released in 1988 — both references to the year the movie takes place.)
But TPoTT excerpts do not fully answer all questions prompted by the movie, and, arguably, they tell too much, rather than show. Regardless, they are worth examining. In Chapter One: The Tangent Universe, it says that if a Tangent Universe (TU) forms separate from the Primary Universe (PU), then the TU will become highly unstable, and it will form a black hole capable of destroying all existence within the TU — hence the black hole in Darko that sucks the jet engine from the TU to the PU, and the necessity for Donnie to transfer the jet engine from the TU to the PU. In Chapter Two: Water and Metal, it says that the two main elements of time travel are water and metal — hence the water-like spears seen protruding from characters’ chests and the metal vessel of the airplane. In Chapter Four: The Artifact and the Living, it says that Artifacts, often metal, are found in the PU when a TU appears — hence the appearance of the airplane, and the need to transfer the engine from the TU to the PU.
In Chapter Six: The Living Receiver (LR), it says that the LR will be chosen to guide the Artifact from the TU to the PU — hence Donnie’s mission as LR to save the world from ending by transporting the engine. In Chapter Seven: The Manipulated Living (ML), it says that the ML must aid the LR in returning the Artifact to the PU — hence those that help Donnie, like Ms. Pomeroy (played by Drew Barrymore) and Mr. Monnitoff. In Chapter Nine: Ensurance Trap, it says that the Manipulated Dead (MD) will die in order to set an Ensurance Trap — hence the deaths of Gretchen and Frank, and this means that the LR is ensured to save the fate of all mankind. In Chapter Ten: The Manipulated Dead, it says that the MD are more powerful than the LR, and that if a person dies within the TU, then they are able to contact the LR through the Fourth Dimensional Construct (FDC), which is made of water — hence the watery spears protruding from characters’ chests.
And, lastly, in Chapter Twelve: Dreams, it says that when the Manipulated awaken from their Journey into the TU, they are often haunted by the experience through their dreams — hence the uncertain wave from Rose to Gretchen at the end of the movie. But the most haunting part of Chapter Twelve is the final line: “We are told that these things occur for a reason.” The question: “What reason?” invites scrutiny of themes of free-will versus determinism. For all that the director’s cut explains through TPoTT excerpts, it doesn’t explain any of the human drama that occurs in the movie; it suggests, instead, that the movie portrays only the coldly rational, scientific anomaly of a TU appearing separate from a PU. But stories, as man-made entities, disobey such simple rules.
Because of this, it isn’t clear whether Darko fully supports free will or determinism — although it seems that determinism is presupposed (especially because of TPoTT’s declaration of an Ensurance Trap), there might lie a possibility for a little human agency. It’s clear that Donnie does not have control over the appearance of Frank and the jet engine — he’s drawn to Frank like a magnet, and the jet engine appears without consent from Donnie in the TU or PU. And Frank appears to Donnie in the movie theater, already shot through the eye — as if Donnie’s fate has been sealed.
Donnie, in other words, doesn’t seem able to prevent the jet engine from crushing his room. But, why does this anomaly happen? What led to the appearance of a TU? Was it science, a religious Higher Power, human interference, or a mix of all three? What agency does Donnie have over his actions — if any? The questions go on. However, it’s clear that if Donnie hadn’t had the jet transferred from the TU to the PU, then the black hole would have destroyed both. It seems, then, that determinism is pre-supposed in Darko, but it leaves open the possibility that Donnie could have let the black hole destroy everything; he could have done otherwise. However, this is still a stretch.
There are numerous instances of foreshadowing (acting also as jokes inserted by the director) that suggest more than coincidence: the movie begins with Donnie riding his bike, and it ends with Gretchen riding her bike; lyrics from the song “Killing Moon” by Echo and the Bunnymen at the beginning of the movie say, “Fate/Up against your will/Through the thick and thin/He will wait until/You give yourself to him,” and lyrics from the song “Mad World” by Tears for Fears at the end of the movie say, “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” — both references to Donnie’s fate with Frank; the Middlesex Halloween Carnival is sponsored by the Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MAAD), and Frank leaves the Darko’s Halloween party to get beer;
the jet engine has a spiral in the middle, which is the shape of the Fibonachi sequence that was originally used to investigate the speed at which rabbits could breed, the song “Head over Heels” by Tears for Fears is used at the beginning of the movie when the camera has a turning transition with Donnie at its center as he exits the school bus, there is another turning transition at the end of the movie before Donnie leaves the Halloween party, and the movie has a circular structure, i.e. it begins the day it ends and vice versa;
the plot of Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors” parallels Donnie breaking the school’s water main; Donnie says to Gretchen that he was in jail once for accidentally burning down an abandoned house while they are standing in front of Jim Cunnigham’s home; Donnie’s lifeline exercise card is about someone who finds a wallet, and Donnie finds Jim Cunnigham’s wallet; the line of the lifeline exercise parallels that of the position of Gretchen (love) and Frank (fear) at the climax of the movie;
Ms. Pomeroy tells Donnie that a famous linguist said that the most beautiful word in the English language is “cellar door,” and the climax of the movie takes place outside a cellar door;
in the upstairs of the Darko’s house at their Halloween party, Gretchen tells Donnie, “I guess some people are born with tragedy in their blood”;
watery spears protruding from characters’ chests are a metaphysical symbol for determinism, and Donnie says to Mr. Monnitoff, “If you could see your path or channel, then you could see your future”; when watching Evil Dead, Donnie, Gretchen, and Frank are the only ones in the theater — and they’re also the only ones who die in the movie;
Donnie and Gretchen’s science presentation about baby glasses that act as a slide-viewer causes Mr. Monnitoff to ask whether they had considered that darkness is a natural part of development — suggesting that the tragedy of the movie is natural, and, therefore, inevitable;
the school’s dance team (that has Donnie’s sister, Samantha, as lead dancer) is called Sparkle Motion — a reference to the jet engine being transferred to the PU from the TU;
Donnie seethes at the sociopathic bully, Seth Devlin (played by Alex Greenwald), holding a knife to his neck at the end of the movie, “It’s a deus ex machina,” which literally means in Greek “god from the machinery,” or, the modern definition, “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel”; Donnie also seethes “It’s the savior” at Seth — also suggestive of determinism, albeit a religious kind;
and Frank’s car has a phoenix on the hood — representative of Donnie travelling from the TU to the PU.
Of course, there are more examples of foreshadowing; the list goes on. So — is Darko representative of free will or determinism? Strong evidence suggests determinism, but there could be freedom for Donnie to do otherwise — could it, then, be compatibilism? I’m still not sure — to echo Gyllenhaal: “There is no single answer to any question.”
It is definitive, though, that one answer (out of many) to “What is Donnie Darko about?” is teen romance. The movie plays on clichés of coming-of-age, suburban life and superheroes. Kelly says:
“I was never a gigantic comic-book guy; I had a passing interest in comic books. But when I wrote the title, Darko, it sounded like a comic book. It was also meant to delve into the archetypes of suburbia. When you are aware that you are delving into archetypes that have become clichés — especially teen films and coming-of-age stories — you push into the comic-book realm. It made sense for the way I was trying to tell a story about teenagers and suburbia — it was meant to have a sardonic element. I don’t know how well I communicated that, but I think that was the intention.”
The romance element begins when Ms. Pomeroy tells Gretchen to sit next to which boy she thinks is the cutest, and Gretchen sits next to Donnie. Later, Gretchen and Donnie are walking through a park on a dirt path, and Donnie implies that he wants to kiss Gretchen (while a fat guy stands there watching; apparently, the fat guy in the red track suit is actually a spy from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who was hired to keep watch on the Darko family). After Donnie and Gretchen’s science presentation, Donnie runs after Gretchen out of school, and they kiss. At the Halloween party, Gretchen and Donnie have sex in the upstairs bedroom. Donnie carries Gretchen’s body at the end of the movie — reminiscent of both a couple after marriage and a superhero saving the damsel in distress.
Darko is also a suburban satire. The “sardonic element” that Kelly wants to communicate is apparent through the many exaggerations throughout the movie. The premise itself is absurd — in direct contrast to the stagnation of the suburbs. The hyperbolic Mrs. Farmer and the videos she shows in gym class sound almost tongue-in-cheek — as if she and Cunningham have doubts about the certainty they outwardly display. Donnie also goes to a private school, and they have white uniforms — an overemphasis of the stereotype of the white privilege of the suburbs. And Donnie’s reading of “The Destructors,” he says, “is ironic” — akin to the underlying tone of sarcasm within Darko.
Darko is a super-hero/martyrdom story, too. The superhero aspect is evident from the instance when Gretchen remarks that Donnie Darko sounds like a superhero’s name. It’s also evident from Donnie sacrificing himself in order to stop the course of events that causes his mom and sister’s airplane to plummet, Gretchen to die, Frank to die (who is also Elizabeth’s boyfriend), Jim Cunningham to be arrested, Mrs. Farmer to traumatically react to Cunningham’s arrest, and Ms. Pomeroy from being fired.
In this sense, Donnie is also a martyr — a Christ figure. Kelly says:
Whoa. It’s a comic-book story in a way and he is a kind of superhero. I think there is a messiah undercurrent to a lot of superhero stories. Any time you are dealing with a hero who has to save the world there is going to be a link to Christ mythology (li).
There is, for example, the deliberate planting of The Last Temptation of Christ in the marquee when Donnie leaves the theater.
The white school uniforms are symbolic of purity as well as a fall from grace. Donnie calls Jim Cunnigham “the Anti-Christ.”
The sociopathic bully’s name, Seth Devlin, is reminiscent of the word devil. And Donnie indulges in all three of the temptations listed by Cunningham: drugs (Donnie smokes a cigarette), alcohol (there’s multiple drinking scenes, e.g. the Smurf scene and the Halloween party), and premarital sex (Donnie and Gretchen upstairs during the Halloween party). Donnie also asks Mr. Monnitoff, “Well, if God controls time, then all of time is predecided,” and Monnitoff says he will have to end the conversation because he could lose his job, presumably from talking negatively about religion in the school where there is a conservative power structure, i.e. the principal, Mrs. Farmer, Jim Cunningham. Donnie also talks about religion with his therapist, Dr. Thurman (played by Katharine Ross), that he could debate the existence of god and an afterlife over and over again, but he still wouldn’t have any proof, so it seems like it isn’t worth it, especially if everyone dies alone. Ultimately, Darko doesn’t answer any of the questions it raises about religion, but Donnie sacrifices himself/is martyred in order to save others.
Although the first line of the movie is “I’m going to vote for Dukakis” said by Donnie’s sister Elizabeth (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), Darko is also a bipartisan movie. Director Richard Kelly remarked:
..there is something interesting about a family that is so liberal in their lack of inhibition yet politically very conservative. There is something interesting about that dichotomy because I do think it exists: an environment where a family is completely open with language and sexuality, where the children would have the confidence to completely disagree with their parents about politics…I come from a family of conservatives. I come from the land of Republicans. These are people that I love and care about. You have to respect both sides of the political system… you have to try and come to an understanding of why someone thinks that way, otherwise you are never going to come to a solution (xxviii).
Donnie, after all, saves both Jim Cunningham (older generation — more conservative) from being arrested as well as Gretchen (younger generation — more liberal) from dying. Donnie’s family, like Kelly says, is contradictorily open for a clearly conservative family — evident from the opening dinner-table scene, where Donnie’s dad, Eddie Darko (played by Holmes Osborne) laughs when Donnie’s little sister, Samantha (played by Daveigh Chase) asks, , “What’s a fuck-ass?” At the beginning of the movie, the conservative principal, gym teacher Mrs. Farmer, and Jim Cunningham have to shake hands with the younger generation of faculty, Ms. Pomeroy and Mr. Monnitoff.
Darko is, too, a humanistic story. The strongest scene to support this reading is the ending shot of all the characters’ faces at night after having woken up from the sound of the jet engine crashing into Donnie’s room. It is here that each of the characters are shown to be complex. The shot can be seen as the characters simply waking up, but the eye of the camera is also intruding upon a sliver of each of their private lives and revealing their universally human vulnerability and imperfection. For example, Jim Cunnigham and Mrs. Farmer — although perhaps difficult to empathize with — are seen crying and/or frowning in this ending shot.
The movie’s freewill-determinism themes also question the state of the human condition — they show how trapped we are, but also ask us what we can do about it.
Although not a separate interpretation, Darko also has touches that bibliophiles might appreciate. For instance, there is the scene when Donnie’s mom, Rose, walks into Donnie’s room, and Donnie says, “Get out my room. I’m reading,” which captures both a love of books and teenage angst. Another scene is when Donnie is talking to Gretchen for the first time as he walks her home. He says that he is painting and writing, and that maybe one day he will be an author and draw the pictures in the books he writes, so, then, people might understand him. Not to mention, there are intertextual shout-outs to Stephen King’s It and Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors.”
Ultimately, Donnie Darko is more than a cult movie; it is a complex and genre-bending classic that covers everything from time-travel to the human condition. You’ll finish watching feeling a lot more in touch with the mad world that we live in.
Donnie Darko. Dir. Richard Kelly. Perf. Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, and Noah Wyle, 2001. Film.
Donnie Darko (The Director’s Cut). Dir. Richard Kelly. Perf. Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, and Noah Wyle, 2004. Film.
Kelly, Richard. The Donnie Darko Book. New York: Faber and Faber Limited, 2003. Print.