Thursday, August 13, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Donnie Darko (2001)

Every teenager believes that the world revolves around him or her, and if you consider it, there’s some truth in this belief. 

After all, as human beings, we see and understand the world through the prism of our own eyes, and when we die, the world we have created, seen, and experienced also dies with us.   The end of the world is, literally, an individual death. 

Given this fact, the world ends for millions of people every single day.  Every moment, every instant, another apocalypse occurs, and a whole universe dies out, going down in flames of annihilation.

The 2001 cult film Donnie Darko remembers this basic human truth regarding teenagers and makes it hauntingly literal.

The film’s ambivalent hero, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaall) reckons with the impending end of the world in twenty-eight days due to the unexpected creation of a dangerous “Tangent Universe.”  It’s a catastrophic ending of the cosmos itself that only Donnie can prevent because he’s at the center of the paradox that created that universe in the first place.  He can escape his teenage “tunnel vision” and save the world, or he can die -- along with everyone else -- a prisoner of anger and fear.

Donnie Darko also concerns the universal loneliness of adolescence, and Donnie’s fear that, in death, that loneliness will persist and linger for eternity.   He doesn’t want to be alone, and at the same time he doesn’t fully understand how to connect with others.  

The universe itself, or in the film’s lingo, “God’s Channel,” must help Donnie understand the paradox if it is to continue to exist at all.  The Richard Kelly film thus takes an anti-social kid on a strange journey of self-discovery and, in the end, transforms him into a superhero of sorts (as witnessed by his alliterative name…); one who eventually embraces life and connection…right before it all ends, at least for him.

In seeing his world end, however, Donnie experiences an epiphany.  He comes to finally recognize that “destruction is a form of creation,” to quote the film.  His ending -- his death -- creates a new beginning for his family, his girlfriend, and the whole of the human race.  He laughs madly immediately preceding his death, because only at the end does he recognize God’s plan for him.

Byzantine, mysterious, and hypnotic, Donnie Darko is a masterpiece in so many ways. It is unnervingly creepy, especially in the seemingly sinister presence of Doomsday’s Herald, a giant robot bunny-thing called Frank. 

The film is also unfailingly funny in its observations about human life especially in the countenancing of the fact that many people, like Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) thrive not by understanding life in all its glorious complexity, but by reducing it to easy-to-digest platitudes, like a lifeline with “fear” on one end of the spectrum and “love” on the other.  All shades of gray apparently fall on distinct points between.

But I submit that Donnie Darko deserves serious consideration as a great work of art because the film dwells in that expressive world of the Tangent Universe, a world where the “manipulated living” and the “manipulated dead” -- and even the foundations of reality itself -- conspire to lead Donnie towards his heroic apotheosis.  This universe of influences and messages is presented in the film through representative symbols that viewers must translate and interpret.  This task fosters engagement in the story, and sympathy for Donnie.

These visual representations, from movie marquees to allusions to great literature, conform to my highest aesthetic criteria in terms of film criticism.  Their presence means that the form’s visual content reflects its narrative content, and augments that content, enhancing meaning.

Donnie Darko is about what it means to grow up and to leave childish things behind, in the truest sense of that phrase.  And primary among those childish things is the tunnel vision of ego, the desire to always put one’s self first.  Overcoming this tunnel-vision is not easy, as I noted above, because we all see the world through our own individual prism. 

In reckoning with this idea, Donnie Darko concerns not just a time paradox, but the human paradox.

Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit? 

In October of 1988 as the Presidential race between George Bush and Michael Dukakis nears its end, a troubled Virginia teenager, Donnie Darko (Gyllenhaal) narrowly escapes a strange death when a jet engine falls from the sky and destroys his bedroom.  Fortunately, Donnie was sleep-walking at the time of the accident, and survives unscathed.

The jet engine, however, is a mystery. It seems to have no origin, and has actually created a time paradox, a new “Tangent Universe” that if not repaired, will consume the prime universe in twenty-eight days.  Only Donnie’s death -- which should have occurred to begin with -- will set the universe right, a fact he increasingly becomes aware of, in part through a strange book written by a neighbor, “Grandma Death,” called The Philosophy of Time Travel.

In the twenty-eight days until the end of the world, Donnie encounters a self-help guru and charlatan, Jim Cunningham (Swayze), learns from a pair of kindly teachers (Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle), and falls in love with a beautiful girl who has just relocated to Virginia, named Gretchen (Jena Malone).  He is also visited periodically by a creepy cyborg bunny man, Frank (James Duval), who seems to have knowledge of the future, and Donnie’s fate.

Working with a psychologist, Donnie must determine who is he, and what kind of future he wants for the world.

Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?

At one point in Donnie Darko, Donnie and his teacher (Wyle) debate the basics of fate, free will and God’s plan.  Donnie has rejected religion and God because of his fear that “every living creature on Earth dies alone.”  Given this fact, he says the search for God is nothing less than “absurd.”

However, Donnie also makes the observation that man may possess free will to a degree within“God’s Channel,” and the movie implies that God’s channel actually involves this tangent, apparently accidental universe. 

In other words, Donnie is bestowed a grace period of 28 days to fall in love, reconcile his “emotional problems” with his family, and overcome his fear of isolation and death.  He was meant by design and predestination to die when the jet engine crashed in his room.  That death still occurs, only later.  But Donnie is able to finally, in the end, face it with a sense of grace and purpose because of this interval and what he learns during it..  God (or the universe, perhaps), grants Donnie a chance to settle the outstanding issues of his life before he leaves the mortal coil.

The forces of nature (or God) surrounding Donnie -- which desire to continue existing -- thus spend 28 days sending Donnie the signals and messages he needs to accept and embrace his fate. 

Grandma Death’s time travel book calls this messaging “the “ensurance [sic] trap,” but it isn’t exactly a trap.  The manipulated living and the manipulated dead want to survive, and want Donnie to sacrifice himself so that the universe continues to exist, but it isn’t a malevolent or diabolical kind of trap.

Instead, in Donnie’s case, the messages must reverse and heal his paranoid schizophrenia, his “increased detachment” from the world, and replace it with a psyche that sees and recognizes the beauty in human life and connection, and is willing to sacrifice itself for the species, indeed for all creation, everywhere.

Donnie’s journey is expressed through a number of symbols throughout the film.  These symbols represent messages.  

In one of these, Frank writes and presents a poem to his English class in which he envisions himself as the savior of children everywhere during an approaching storm.  In one sense, this is an allusion to Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s 1951 novel in which another teen protagonist, Holden Caulfield, imagined himself a savior of innocence.  In a much more literal sense, the poem represents Donnie’s subconscious understanding of his role in preserving life on Earth. 

The film also deliberately positions Donnie, intriguingly, as a Christ figure.  A theater marquee pictured on-screen at one point shows a unique double bill: The Evil Dead (1983) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Those films seem very different, indeed, yet they represent the totality of Donnie’s journey.  That odyssey begins with all kinds of fear.  There is fear of the returning dead -- embodied by the herald, Frank -- and fear of death. But the journey ascends to an apex in which Donnie willingly lays down his life for all of mankind, even though it is sinful life (as clearly embodied by Cunningham, Frank, and others). 

Christ’s temptation by Satan in the Scorsese film involved the Devil showing him the mortal life and pleasures he would miss by selecting death on the cross.  That mortal life included love, lust, and other earthbound wonders.  What remains so interesting about Donnie Darko is that Donnie, like Christ, actually increases his connection to humanity by experiencing in a kind of vision all those things he will later miss. 

What I’m saying is that a personal epiphany of vision of love, brotherhood, human connection, and sex doesn’t force either Christ or Donnie to make the wrong choice.  Rather, it emboldens each to see the beauty in all life, and wish to preserve it for others.  Again, this realization comes back to the idea that Donnie exists within, not outside, God’s channel.  God gives him twenty-eight days to see the beauty of life, and therefore the desire to preserve it, even if he can’t share in its beauty beyond that span.

But the theater marquee represents a visual book-ending of the journey. Life can be like The Evil Dead, where friends and lovers become enemies, and there is only ugliness and death.  Or it can be like The Last Temptation of Christ, where the beauty of life leads one to make a sacrifice for others.

Donnie Darko explicitly discusses this concept when Barrymore’s English teacher describes the God Machine, the Deus Ex Machina.   This discussion raises our awareness that God has set this plan for Donnie into motion.  Everything is pre-determined, though as Donnie debates, there is some room for free-will within that channel of pre-determination.

I admire films that adopt a standpoint about humanity and our existence, and Donnie Darko offers a fairly complex, if spiritual reading of it.  There is such a thing as free will, states the filmmaker, but it involves movement only within a tunnel of certain possibilities.  Donnie’s understanding of this, ironically, comes from Cunningham’s ridiculous self-help life line, which simplifies the world to two axes, “fear” and “love.”  Donnie responds angrily to the life-line that “life isn’t that simple,” and yet in a way…it is.  Donnie explicitly moves from fear to love in the 28 days of the Tangent Universe, but the important thing is that he does so under the auspices of his own intellect.  He learns how to maneuver, individually, through that “channel.” 

Some might assert that’s the key to leading a good life.

Donnie Darko also seems absolutely obsessed with the Bush/Dukakis electoral battle of 1988.  We see the two candidates debate on television screens, and there is also mention of Dukakis on the radio.  Donnie’s sister, Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) declares that she is voting for Dukakis, over her parents’ objections, at the family dinner table, and the legend “vote Dukakis” appears on the Darko refrigerator in the Tangent Universe.  These moments amount to more than establishing the film’s time period or setting (October 1988).  All the allusions to the presidential election seem more important than that. 

An election, in essence, is a choice between possible futures, between possible universes.  When an election ends, one of those universes -- a tangent universe?  -- collapses while the other universe continues, unabated.  If Donnie Darko doesn’t comment overtly on the specific candidates and their attributes, it certainly comments on the nature of choice and free will.

For every affirmative choice we make, a whole universe is destroyed.  When we pick Bush, the Dukakis universe dies.  Again, this goes back to the film’s paradigm that even in destruction, there is creation.

In the film, Donnie’s parents ask Elizabeth something along the lines of: “do you really think that Dukakis can keep this country safe?”  It’s a question that might very well be asked of Donnie at this juncture too.  Can a horny, self-obsessed teenage boy save the world? 

The point is that people will never know if Dukakis would have been a good president and kept the country safe, just as, following the fall of the Tangent Universe, nobody knows of Donnie’s sacrifice for humanity. 

Again, I’m not suggesting a pro-Dukakis slant on the part of the filmmakers, only the idea that universes are born and die every day, and we never know where the path not taken might lead.  The doorway to tangent universes closes, and moves outside God’s (narrow?) channel of options.

I wrote recently, in regards to the Lance Henriksen, Joseph Maddrey, Tom Mandrake comic-book To Hell You Ride, about the idea of messages and messengers.  They arrive in our reality, it seems, and we either decide to note them and heed them, or we choose not to.   Given all I’ve described above, Donnie Darko is a film filled with messages, often conveyed in writing and broadcast notably within the confines of the frame.

These messages include “Vote Dukakis,” which I interpret as a message about saving the universe that people don’t see, and having faith that even untested, disliked people will do the right thing (like Donnie does the right thing when given the chance).

The messages include the theater marquee, advertising “Evil Dead,” and “Last Temptation of Christ,” a duality which explains Donnie’s journey from psychological torture and fear to self-sacrifice and redemption.
Another message is “cellar door,” a legend which appears on the blackboard in Donnie’s English class, and paves the way for Donnie to understand how to proceed at a critical juncture. 

Jim Cunningham’s life-line, showing the “fear”/ “love” continuum is another on-screen message, literally spelled-out.  The recognition of "Poetry Day," when Donnie reads his story about saving children from the story might be considered another.  There's even the signage "His Name is Frank" which validates Donnie's belief in his phantasm of the Bunny.

All these words -- these messages -- appear on screen in the film, and we are asked to consider them and interpret their meanings, at the same time Donnie must do the same.  The film thus allows us to learn with Donnie at the same time he learns, and therefore to sympathize with his journey.

At the end of the film, Donnie must decide if a world that creates weird kiddie entertainment like Sparkle Motion should continue to exist.  

Or if a world that allows men like sexual predator Jim Cunningham to become successful and admired should be allowed to continue.  

Or if a world that bans quality books in favor of self-help pabulum deserves a second chance.

The answer, of course, is that despite all the confusion and ugliness, this is the same (mad…) world that offers unconventional beauty, as we see in Cherita’s talent show dance. 

It’s the same world that allows Donnie to connect with the wounded Gretchen. 

It’s the same world that can make a superhero -- or savior -- out of a confused teenager who likes to masturbate a lot.

In it all, there is a plan…and beauty too,

Donnie’s journey – and the film’s view of life, is best expressed in the lyrics to the song, “Mad World,” which accompany the film’s final, elegiac montage.  The lyrics assert: “And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad, that the dream in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had…”

Donnie’s last twenty eight days -- a waking dream from which he finally does not awake – represent the best part of his life; the span in which he stopped being an “anger prisoner” and instead began to see life in all its multi-faceted complexity, a complexity that involved both ugliness and beauty. 

We sometimes miss just how beautiful life really is.  We “run in circles” instead of paying attention to the things that matter.  Donnie Darko is like a teacher explaining this “lesson.”   The film is thus one part English Lit, one part spooky horror film, one part Quantum Physics, and one part spiritual passion play.

Personally speaking, all those qualities make Donnie Darko one of my all-time favorite films.


  1. Great post on a movie that I have long studied and tried to understand.

  2. How could you not touch more on Michael Andrew's phenomenal soundtrack? A perfect pairing of music and film, without his beautifully moody instrumental score this movie might not have worked.
    Great write up for a great flick!

  3. Sean Easterling10:05 AM

    Awesome. Glad you review this film, one of my all time favorites, and one of the few truly profound films I can name. What many movies and directors attempt and fail to pull off just seems to happen so naturally and easily here...