In the months after I first saw Donnie Darko
I thought about it quite a bit. Mostly at night
. As a matter of fact, if the thought of the film ever popped into my head, I would find myself spending hours upon hours contemplating the many ins and outs
of it all. What does it all mean? What exactly happens in certain scenes? Is it making a commentary on something else? Is there anything that remains unanswered?
Wisely, writer/director Richard Kelly refuses to fully explain what everything means within the 113 minutes of his first (and thus far only) film Donnie Darko. Instead, leaving people like me to decode it on their own. To finally settle my mind (and to right my sleeping patterns) I wrote out every single thing that I thought about this film. And here it is:
The first quote in Ezekiel_Sk8’s post above is an excerpt from The Philosophy of Time Travel (available on all DVD versions of the film) explains a Primary Universe and how it can collapse upon itself. In Donnie Darko, the Primary Universe, the universe in which we live, is slowly unraveling due to all the negative aspects of the world. Examples seen in the film include the narrow-mindedness of Mrs. Farmer, those who conform to Jim Cunningham’s narrow-view of the world and his own horrible hypocrisy shown as he cries towards the end of the film and his child porn ring, the inability for Mr. Monnitoff and Mrs. Pomeroy to teach freely without restraint, the two relentless thugs who harass Gretchen and her parental situation, Donnie’s two friends who treat Cherita very unkindly for no reason and possibly even the political battle between Bush and Dukakis. Due to all these horrible things, a Tangent Universe has formed. According to the book, which in the film was written by Roberta Sparrow (aka “Grandma Death”) and given to Donnie the Tangent Universe that the world slips into (which occurs on October 2nd in the film) can only last for “no longer than several weeks,” as Donnie finds out via Frank, the exact time until the Tangent Universe collapses upon itself is 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. After that time, as mentioned in the excerpt, the Tangent Universe will collapse upon itself, and existence will end.
The first sign of the Tangent Universe being formed, according to Sparrow, is an “artifact” that defies logical explanation and she claims that “Divine intervention is deemed the only logical conclusion for the appearance of the Artifact.” Obviously, in the film, the artifact is the plane engine which falls onto Donnie’s room. And as hard as the authorities try to find the plane that the engine fell off of, they cannot, and never will. The engine was dropped by a higher power as the first of many clues for Donnie to follow in the right order with the eventual end result being Donnie sending a similar artifact back through a time portal, which, as stated by Sparrow, is the only way for the Tangent Universe to be closed, disaster to be averted and the Primary Universe to continue on as it was before the rift was caused.
Sparrow mentions how there is a “Living Receiver (whom) is chosen to guide the Artifact into position for its journey back to the Primary Universe. No one knows how or why a Receiver will be chosen.” This Living Receiver is Donnie. Sparrow states that the Living Receiver is given certain powers of great strength (thus how he can ram the ax into the statue) and is also subject to hallucinations, odd dreams and visions.
Enter Frank, the 6 foot tall bunny rabbit whom we are to assume is just a hallucination of Donnie’s at first, but there is much more behind Frank. For under the circumstances of the effects of The Living Receiver, the same higher power who created the artifact has created the illusion of Frank. Frank is supposed to guide Donnie along on certain tasks that will conclude with Donnie sending the artifact back to the Primary Universe. Donnie feels he must do everything Frank says, for as he cites when he is hypnotized, “I have to do what he says, he saved my life,” which he did when he took him out of his room and onto the golf course when the artifact was dropped onto Donnie’s room. The illusion of Frank is in fact based on an actual person, Frank is Elizabeth Darko’s (aka Donnie’s sister’s) boyfriend, and the image of the rabbit is in fact a costume that he has created to wear on Halloween at the end of the month. Yet the illusion of Frank is exactly that, an illusion.
Thus, this illusion of Frank and any other illusions Donnie has, gives him the following “clues” to follow:
• Frank takes Donnie out of his bedroom, saving his life, and thus, making Donnie feel as if he is indebted to him and must follow everything he says. He also informs him that the world will end in just over 28 days.
• A plane engine falls on Donnie’s room although he wasn’t there, authorities are unable to find where the engine came from
• Frank instructs him to flood his school via a dream he has about his school flooding and then appearing to instruct him to do this, which he does
• Frank, in a vision, tells Donnie that he can “do anything he wants” and “he (Donnie) can too.” And also mentions time travel for the first time.
• Donnie sees a vision of “liquid spears” showing people’s paths and movements before they take them. He is instructed by one of these “liquid spears” to go into his father’s closet, where he finds a firearm.
• Donnie tries ridding himself of Frank by stabbing him in the eye
• Frank shows Donnie what a time portal looks like in the movie theatre. Instructs him to burn down Jim Cunningham’s house, which he does.
• In the final time he sees the vision of Frank, we find out that Frank has been greatly manipulating the thought of Donnie. He then states that “Frank is gonna kill” and tells Donnie that “The sky’s gonna open up.”
Now in result of following those actions, or “clues,” the following events of the film occur:
• DUE TO FRANK REMOVING DONNIE FROM HIS ROOM: Donnie feels he must do everything Frank says because he saved his life. Thus, follows along with every other command he gives him.
• DUE TO THE ENGINE FALLING FROM THE SKY: Donnie eventually pieces things together and realizes the exact artifact that must be send back through time in able to save the world
• DUE TO THE FLOODING OF THE SCHOOL: A PTA meeting is held in which Mrs. Farmer makes the overture that the material being taught is unsuitable for the school, thus resulting in the firing of a teacher that Donnie is very close with Mrs. Pomonoy. As she is fired, she puts the phrase “Cellar Door” on the chalk board and explains this phrase to Donnie. When Donnie enters the time portal towards the end of the film, we hear her repeat the phrase “cellar door,” which leads Donnie to suspect that he must enter Roberta’s house through her cellar door, where they interrupt a robbery in process by two thugs from school and eventually, leads to the death of Donnie’s love Gretchen. This also leads to Donnie meeting Gretchen, which as Donnie mentions, would have never happened if they didn’t have school cancelled that day.
• DUE TO DONNIE’S FIRST VISION OF FRANK IN HIS BATHROOM: Frank decides to look into time travel with his science teacher Mr. Monnitoff, who in turn gives him The Philosophy of Time Travel, which explains the exact situation Donnie has found himself in and helps lead to his resolution that he must send the artifact back in time. It also gives him the idea that Frank wants him to speak with Roberta Sparrow herself, which helps lead him to her house towards the end, where Gretchen is killed.
• DUE TO THE VISION OF THE LIQUID SPEARS: Donnie further comprehends the fate of each person, and realizes that he may be the only one who can see fate as it occurs, thus, realizing he can change things. It also gives him the idea to carry the firearm with him when he decides to go to Roberta’s house.
• DUE TO DONNIE’S SECOND VISION OF FRANK IN HIS BATHROOM aka THE STABBING SEQUENCE: When Donnie sees Frank’s face unveiled, and realizes that he is behind all the bad things that have happened to those close to him, as well as the final component in Gretchen’s death, he shoots him in the eye. Which does not further the plot as much as it is simply Donnie thinking he is extracting revenge on the vision of Frank, when he actually kills the human form of Frank.
• DUE TO THE MOVIE THEATER SEQUENCE AND THE BURNING DOWN OF JIM CUNNINGHAM’S HOUSE: Donnie can now recognize a time portal when he sees one. He also knows what Frank looks like (and that’s why he can shoot him later on). The burning down of Cunningham’s house results in Donnie’s mother having to chaperone the trip to Los Angeles due to Mrs. Farmer staying to defend Jim Cunningham and every other parent being unavailable to do so. Donnie receives the exact information of the flight they take via the telephone call during the party right before Gretchen and Donnie make love (it can be assumed he listens to the message after they are finished). As a result, Donnie knows exactly where the plane will be along its course when he has to do what he has to do (which I’m getting to…)
• DUE TO THE FINAL VISION DURING DONNIE’S HYPNOSIS: He realizes that the portal will become visible from the sky, and that everyone will die if he doesn’t do what he must do (“Frank is gonna kill”)
Thus, the often confusing final events of the film are as follows:
• At the party, Donnie gazes through a time portal and hears the phrase “cellar door.”
• Thus, realizing time is limited and he still has not delivered his letter to Roberta Sparrow, he urges Gretchen and his friends to follow him to her house
• Upon arrival, he sees the cellar door of Roberta’s home, knows he must enter. Gretchen tags along.
• They are mugged by the two thugs, who drag them outside, yet as a car approaches, Donnie mumbles “Deus ex machina” (God coming forth from the machine) and this is indeed what happens. Roberta Sparrow stands in the middle of the road, with Donnie’s letter in hand (the letter we are to assume that she has been waiting her entire life for, which proves that Roberta probably had a vision of her own of all these events and thus, quit the church, wrote the book and lived on her own, waiting everyday for the letter and the moment that will complete her purpose in this master plan)
• The car swerves to miss Roberta, yet kills Gretchen in the process.
• Donnie shoots the human form of Frank in the eye, enacting revenge for all the bad things that he believes have resulted. Perhaps shooting him in the eye to say “I couldn’t kill you this way by knife, perhaps I can by bullet.”
• Donnie goes back to his house, with Gretchen’s body in tow. He plans to take his family’s car up to Carpathian Ridge, where he first woke up in the film after sleepwalking. On his way outside to the car, he spots a portal forming directly over his room, which is where the artifact will fall in the Primary Universe.
• He drives up to the ridge, recalling what Frank said about the world ending, as the police show up at Donnie’s to investigate the death of Gretchen.
• He overlooks the ridge and sees what Frank referred to as “the sky opening,” these are many time portals in the sky, just like Frank had showed Donnie. If you look closely, you can see the plane that Donnie’s mother and youngest sister are on approaching the portal.
• As the voiceover has Donnie recalling that time travel can involve “a metal craft of any kind” he uses the extraordinary powers he is given as the Living Receiver in this Tangent Universe to rip the engine from the plane his family members are traveling on (which helps him time exactly when it will be flying where it is) he then sends the engine through a time-portal.
• After completing this incredible task, Donnie stares at Gretchen…who is the ultimate motivation for Donnie to do what he has to do. Although he understands that he is saving the entire universe (As he is slowly figuring things out, he has the scene with Cherita in which he tells her “Someday, everything will be better for you,” which marks when he is enlightened and understands). Yet Gretchen is the ultimate because he loves her, and feels that he is giving her a chance to live.
• The Tangent Universe, the past 28 days, slowly unwinds and is extinguished. The only thing that remains is the artifact.
• Donnie lies in his bed, laughing, due to the fact that his mission was successful (He probably knows this because he is mysteriously back in his old room, pre-redecoration). The artifact comes slamming down into Donnie’s room, killing him instantly, yet saving the world.
OTHER THINGS I STILL WONDER ABOUT THE FILM:
• Why does Donnie stay in bed? Does it tie into another loophole…which is…
• “Every living creature on earth dies alone,” which is possibly telling Donnie to stay in bed and die. As he must serve as a martyr for the entire universe? Is it possible that Roberta tells him this because she knows that he is the Living Receiver, yet perhaps made an error in not mentioning the Living Receiver’s necessary martyrdom in the book, and thus can only interfere by telling him this, which prompts him to stay in his bed? Or does she say it to help along Frank’s incentive to do what he says, as Donnie states under hypnosis, he feels if he doesn’t do what Frank says, he’ll be all alone.
• Many have cited a very subtle difference between the final moment before the engine hits in both universes. In the Tangent Universe, Frank (human form) drops off Elizabeth at her house as he speeds away and honks his horn. In the Primary Universe, Frank honks his horn, but stays in front of Donnie’s house as he does so. Many have taken this as a higher power that is trying to wake Donnie up so he can get out of his house and continue living. As fascinating as I think this is, I find the martyrdom of the Living Receiver to work better in the story.
• Perhaps there's a slight political commentary in the film? As the world is cited to end only a couple days before Election Day ’88 elects George H.W Bush as president of the United States? The election is mentioned multiple times throughout the film. The commentary on the absurdity of self-help (Jim Cunningham's shallow views), the glorification of physical beauty over actual statement in art (the talent show with Cherita and Sparkle Motion), the evil bureaucracy of education (the firing of Mrs. Pomeroy, the restriction of what Mr. Monnitoff can say to Donnie) and in a commonly overlooked detail, the intrusiveness of the government in our everyday lives (the man in the red suit is a FAA agent sent to spy on the Darko's over suspicion of the engine crash, he can be seen earlier in the film with the other FAA agents).
• For the record, the assembly scene seems to be the film’s most pivotal moment that does not advance the plot, but just shows Donnie as the anti-conformist that he is.
• The films setting. Being a native Virginian, it’s clear that the film takes place in suburban Virginia, as evidenced by Virginia plates, a Virginia flag at the school, watching a Washington Redskins game on TV, the Middlesex Times-Dispatch (similar to the Richmond Times-Dispatch). But where exactly in the state does it take place in? This is mostly only interesting to Virginians like myself, yet it's something I wonder. Richard Kelly was born in Newport News, Virginia, and grew up in Midlothian, in the southeast suburbs of Richmond. The town Middlesex actually exists, but would be nothing like the suburban town in Donnie Darko, as it is a town of mere hundreds on Virginia’s eastern shore. The DVD special features, which include documents of Donnie Darko being arrested for arson (as mentioned in the movie) are labeled County of Fairfax, a county in northern Virginia.
• There is one non-spiritual event that moves the plot along. Donnie is suspended for mouthing off to Mrs. Farmer, not allowing him to go to after school activities. Thus he cannot attend his sister’s dance performance, thus he is free to encounter Frank in the movie theatre, find out about the portals and burn down Jim Cunningham’s house during that time. Yet!!! While this is a non-spiritual thing in the original theatrical cut of the film, Richard Kelly’s extended version has Frank stating to Donnie in a voice over to “Watch closely” as the film begins and thus, which leads Donnie to become angered.
• And while the question of who or what is the higher power in the film still bugs me, I don’t think its answer is entirely needed. As a matter of fact, it's something about the film I not only do not need to know, but could potentially ruin the mystery of the film.
The mystery of Donnie Darko is something I think I can say makes the film so great. These are my possible answers to this beautiful mystery of a film, but in no way are they “the” answers. Donnie Darko has all the components of a great movie, well-acted, tells a great story, has interesting characters, well written and visually pleasing. Yet I think it’s the mysteries of this film that has made it the cult classic it is today.