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The Philosophy of Donnie Darko by R. Sparrow
This past Halloween, Donnie Darko was shown at the local Science Center on an IMAX screen four stories tall. The showing on Friday, October the 13th was sold out, with people waiting outside wishing someone wouldn’t show up…which was a big change from when this scifi/horror/psychological drama débuted.
When the movie Donnie Darko first came out in October of 2001 – a month after the September 11th attacks – it was barely seen (7.5 million worldwide) and went almost immediately to video. The trailer for the film showed an airplane and an explosion, which no one wanted to see. It lost all kinds of money.
Now however, on my social media accounts, Donnie Darko was the talk of the town, people weighing in for hours about what the film MEANT or did it mean anything? Memes were shared that supposedly showed Jake Gyllenhaal holding a sign that said, “Donnie Darko makes no sense” – although these were debunked by Snopes if you were inclined to find out the truth, and I wanted to know for sure.
So the following is what Donnie Darko MEANS.
The obvious storyline of Donnie Darko – if you haven’t seen it, and you Should see it – is: a young man diagnosed as schizophrenic has visions of him dying within 28 days 6 hours 42 minutes and 12 seconds of an odd accident where he manages to escape death by accident. On a deeper level, it seems to be the story of a young man who is about to die and has the option of (timeline A) surviving the accident and affecting everyone’s life around him OR (timeline B) being at a specific place at a specific time to ensure that he will be killed and those he loves (or might love) will be saved. As the Facebook status says: it’s complicated.
At one point Donnie Darko’s new girlfriend, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone) tells Donnie that his name sounds like a comic book hero, which follows a Messianic plotline. Donnie has the option to become a messiah figure by allowing himself to die so that others might live (timeline B).
However, even if Donnie lives through the accident he will still lead others out of darkness, thereby messianic. He will do this by exposing Jim Cunningham, by befriending Gretchen Ross, by befriending Cherta and others. The entire school is told the truth when Donnie stands up at an assembly to spotlight the hypocrisy of the school administration.
The guide/mentor throughout Donnie’s month-long journey is a human sized rabbit named Frank with a homemade twisted rabbit mask who tells him in visions that the world will end in 28 days of his first appearance. Frank also tells him to flood the school and burn down a prominent citizen’s home which releases all kinds of mayhem in Donnie’s quiet suburban community. Without Frank’s guidance, the hero would never have met the heroine and the climax a series of events would never have happened. The alternate timeline along which Frank the ghost rabbit travels ensures that Frank will blink out of existence if Donnie D. chooses that timeline.
This alternative timeline element is just one sci-fi element in the film, where one event (the jet engine falling from the sky) produces a crossroads to different timelines or dimensions. To jump from one dimension to another, a vehicle is needed which is the airplane that loses the engine – the same airplane that Donnie’s mother and sister are traveling in towards the end of the film.
A second sci-fi element comes in when Donnie Darko begins to ask his science teacher about parallel universes and using portals to slip between alternate timelines/universes. He is surprised to find out that an old lady code named Grandma Death by the local kids – her real name is Roberta Sparrow - wrote a book about time travel and the book is then referenced throughout the movie, as a scientific view of what is happening to Donnie.
A third sci-fi question is the relationship between the moment a decision is made to perform some action and how that action comes into being. Donnie sees this relationship as a bubble that appears from people’s torsos, leading them forward into the future as though there is no way to escape from a future once the decision has been made.
Grandma Death is interesting because she was a high school Math teacher decades ago when all of a sudden her brain flipped on and she became a genius in experimental physics for a time. After writing her booklet on the Philosophy of Time Travel, she slipped into a time-loop where she is stuck between past and future, expecting a letter to arrive from the future. She knows the letter is coming because she has already received it in the future. It is a letter from Donnie Darko, but she will only receive it if he chooses timeline A.
This kind of corkscrew logic runs throughout the film.
Beyond this, other characters take on the role of showing the conflict between the suburban culture of Southern California and other international cultures. In particular, Cherta, a heavy Asian teenager who catches the bus with Donnie, brings to light the conflict between older Asian cultures and new glitzy – perhaps sexualized – American culture. This is evidenced by Cherta’s performance at the school talent show that is slow but heartfelt in opposition to Sparkle Motion’s unified rocking emotionally-empty dance number that receives wild applause from the audience while Cherta cries alone outside. Donnie is Cherta’s messiah – because he is the one fellow student who defends her against bullies and she rewards him with a heart drawn on her notebook with Donnie’s name inside it.
Religion plays a background part in the student’s plotlines in that all the students wear uniforms although the students are anything but uniform. There are a number of times when scenes start out by focusing on the religious symbol above the school’s doorway and then panning to the school’s entrance.
Organized religion plays a must larger part in keeping the adults in line. For instance, religion in the form of Kitty Farmer puts the hammer down on adults telling them what their children should and should not read. Religion is also presented through Jim Cunningham – a motivational speaker who seems to know how to channel children towards a healthy frame of mind – in spite of his own ugly personal secrets.
Donnie’s therapist takes on the logic-based role in the film, trying to lead him into a personal, rational future while working through the angst of being a teenage boy – especially when schizophrenia is thrown in on top of that. She can see clearly that Donnie’s parents are doing their best to help Donnie while his school setting is not meeting his emotional needs.
Drew Barrymore’s character demonstrates how being honest with one’s true self and one’s surroundings can backfire when dealing with hypocrites. She is also essential to the plotline in Timeline A through her ‘Cellar Door’ message on the chalkboard. Although her character thinks Cellar Door just sounds pleasant, Donnie uses it as a clue when he and his friends arrive at Grandma Death’s house in the dead of night and they don’t know how to get into the house.
All of these clues and questions and scientific theories converge at the exact moment when Donnie shoots the ghost rabbit which sets up his choice: timeline A Donnie survives the accident or timeline B Donnie sacrifices his life to save others. So Frank was right all along – Frank’s world (timeline A) does end in 28 days 6 hours 42 minutes and 12 seconds. It is almost as if Frank has volunteered to be Donnie’s guide so his world won’t end and Donnie will decide to end his life instead.
So there it is class. Donnie Darko explained. It’s just that simple.
(….it might also be that Donnie Darko is, as assessed, schizophrenic….)
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