Interpreting Donnie Darko

Posted by lec** on Wednesday, November 05 2008 @ 18:45:17 GMT        
Donnie Darko 1
Donnie at the beginning of the movie

I've been the owner of a "Donnie Darko" VHS for many years, but only in early 2008 did I suddenly get the urge to watch it. The urge had formed about a year before that, when my father heard me playing a piece on the piano which he associated with the same movie, though it was actually a loose improvisation on what I later identified as "The Legend Comes To Life" a.k.a. Lugia's Theme from Pokemon The Movie 2000
(I only vaguely remember seeing the ending part of the animated film, but the theme song apparently clung to my subconscious mind). Anyway, I decided to investigate this mysterious music piece appearing in Donnie Darko, though I never actually got around to it for the next 9 months or so.

I'm not sure what I expected the movie to be (probably something akin to "The Sixth Sense"), but it rapidly became clear that my expectations were not even close. I found the first parts of the movie mysterious and cryptic the first time I watched it, as they don't reveal much about the film, but probably because as viewers everyone expects a resolution to come gradually, I didn't pay any specific attention to the lack of (immediate) seemly coherency.

The whole idea of the movie is awesome, though it was marketed as more of a sci-fi film than it really is. The theme of time travel that is discussed in the movie cannot be the cornerstone, or at least not in my personal opinion. Movies are usually left open to various interpretations by different people, like music and literature, and that's a big part of their beauty. However, despite my initial confusion (Donnie Darko is the type of movie you have to watch twice to be able to understand) I felt there was something wrong with the suggested explanation Kelly (that's Richard Kelly, the film director) offers in the movie. It's quite clear that Kelly seems to keep subtly suggesting that something "went wrong" when the jet engine with no apparent cause crashed into Donnie Darko's room, and that from then on, the world is in some sort of danger (as Frank the bunny rabbit says, 28 days, 6 hours... until the end of the world). The second time I watched the movie, I was able to guess this had something to do with parallel universes due to some kind of strange disruption of the space-time continuum (what an overused term!) and that the world was in danger supposedly because by luring Donnie out of his room, Frank (from some kind of future) interfered with Donnie getting killed by it, subsequently triggering a set of events that would lead to the end of the world unless Donnie found a way to correct it.

Donnie Darko 2
Donnie and Gretchen speak for the first time

The movie, however, had me wondering. There were too many loose ends and unexplained occurrences for that kind of explanation. How, and what kind of Frank had contacted Donnie, more importantly why? Frank is killed by Donnie when he accidentally kills his girlfriend, and that's when Donnie corrects the problem of the disrupted continuum, restoring the proper flow back, and preventing the "end of the world". The outlined hypothesis about Einstein-Rosen bridges and vessels traveling very fast in combination with the plane and the storm and the jet engine didn't exactly fit, which made me wonder whether Kelly was trying to hint at something and I wasn't intelligent enough to understand it, whether he was just experimenting by creating a "what-if" scenario and using it to demonstrate how chaotic, disorganised and seemingly spontaneous the universe we live in is, or if I was stumbling around in my own interpretation which didn't coincide with what he wanted to display. From the clues Kelly laid out, I couldn't assemble a proper picture of what actually happened - whether that was the effect he was striving to achieve, I did not know at the time. Either way, I felt a bit confused so I did a search on the internet to find out what other people thought about it.

Most reviews and syntheses I read also seemed to follow my original chain of thought, thought practically all appeared even more uncertain and shaky about what was actually going on in this movie. The director himself commented on the movie in a bonus material DVD included with the 2004 DVD box release (which I haven't, incidentally, watched, but people wrote about it). It seems only once Kelly talked about the link between "The Philosophy of Time Travel" and it's link to the story did people understand (or, partially comprehend) what he was trying to get at. Basically, when the jet engine fell on Donnie's room, a kind of "tangent universe" (to cite Kelly) was created, and was due to collapse in a little less than a month (apparently because it was unstable like all tangent universes, for whatever reason) and that Donnie needed to correct the problem. Though Kelly said that was his own idea on the movie, and that he encouraged others to have their own, after hearing his version (which was kind of "official" in a manner of speaking) it made only as much sense as before to me, since there were also some weird things about the movie that just didn't seem to fit very well. I was still undecided on it, when I reached an alternative interpretation.

Donnie Darko 3
Discussing wormholes with his science teacher

If you disregard the idea about tangent universes as being physical tangent universes (which is excessively complicated and very likely too intricate for most viewers to understand -- a nice interpretation for the sci-fi lovers, though), you can interpret the film as something that, for the main part, takes place in Donnie Darko's head. When the jet engine falls, before he is killed (or, as he is killed) he is somehow granted to "live" for a further 28 days - experiencing the things he couldn't have otherwise due to him being killed: love and death, among other things, while the whole thing happens in his mind in the second or two before he dies.

There are two sentences that perfectly open the possibility for this type of interpretation: "Every living creature on earth dies alone" (Roberta Sparrow, a.k.a. Grandma Death) and "If the sky were to suddenly open up, there would be no law, there would be no rule. There would only be you and your memories." (Dr. Lilian Thurman). These two sentences are spoken at more or less critical breakpoints in the movie, and could easily refer to the situation that I mentioned. If Kelly wasn't intending for such an interpretation, why the heck did he include them? Dr. Thurman's sentence in particular clarifies this: if the sky were to suddenly open up (could represent the jet engine that falls mysteriously from the skies), only you and your memories would remain - it would no longer matter what physically is going on, whether you're alive or dead (this is much like the ending of Soderbergh's Solaris)... all you have left is your memories, your thoughts and you can, in a figure of speaking, live in them. This interpretation is once again emphasised by Donnie laughing aloud in his bedroom before he turns away from the camera, on his side, and lets the jet engine crash down.

Kelly's official interpretation I think forced people to consider the film in a different way; an overly complex way, a way that is impossible upon a first viewing of the film, since he himself did not provide enough clues as to what's truly happening. Saying "it's open for interpretation" could be just covering up for the movie's shortcomings. The film clearly reflects Kelly's idea, but it's only clear to you once you hear his explanation - then you start noticing things such as the way everyone's crying after Donnie's death (this mystified me, because they at that point hadn't yet found out he was dead: in actual fact, they sort of subconsciously know because he "fixed" the tangent universe, and saved everyone from collapsing along with it. Also, the whole wormhole theme becomes clearer, and Gretchen waving to Donnie's mother becomes a little less inscrutable.

Donnie Darko 4
Frank, in his famous terrifying rabbit outfit

All in all, I am rather partial to this movie. Kelly leaves the viewer mystified, not having been able to determine what the heck the director was thinking, and a little let down... as if they supposedly solved a mystery, by knowing a few details but not the general picture. On the other hand, he gives the viewer just enough clues to assemble the pieces themselves on a second viewing of the film (assuming the viewer is concentrated and super-sensitive to tiny details the characters say) or to finish watching the movie and form their own ideas about what happened. But if he really wanted that, I think he should and would have made it more vague, without using highly specific determining scenes such as "Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?", the scene where all of the major characters cry in their beds shortly after Donnie dies (Frank touches his left eye) and those like it, which leave viewers wanting to interpret the film on their own universally scratching their heads, confused and unhappy that they obviously did not understand the movie.

I like Donnie Darko. The movie as a whole functions, albeit not entirely well. Kelly at least succeeds beyond a doubt in portraying an ordinary teenager in his environment, a rare treat. Through the bluish haze of broken pieces that viewers struggle to assemble, it's a very effective film, and definitely among my favourites. All in all, you don't need to fully understand Donnie Darko to be able to enjoy it, it just feels right. Hardly ever can people embrace deep truths about existence, life and death, and Kelly definitely touches on some here.
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