‘Donnie Darko’: 20 years of Richard Kelly’s enigmatic cult-classic

Donnie Darko
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I never want to hate my characters. You’ve got to love all of them.” – Richard Kelly

Donnie Darko, since its release back in 2001, has generated public debate about its layered philosophical implications and has polarised critics and audiences alike on its status as a notable work of its genre. Even after 20 years of its existence, the film continues to mystify viewers by transcending the limiting classifications of genre itself. Nobody can come up with a definitive statement claiming that Donnie Darko is only a sci-fi film, or an example of psychological horror or even a nightmare rooted in fantasy. Somehow it is all of those things and none of them at the same time. Has Donnie Darko’s complexity been successfully deciphered or does it still remain on the margins of mainstream consciousness?

A remarkable story which focuses on a misunderstood young boy called Donnie Darko (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), the film’s greatest achievement is that it successfully expands the breadth of its artistic vision in order to ask truly cosmic questions. Director Richard Kelly’s surrealism can be extreme at times but it has its subtle origins right from the opening sequence when the camera pans away from the gorgeous landscape to show Donnie sleeping in the middle of the road. When he finally makes it home, he finds the question “Where is Donnie?” scribbled on a whiteboard that is attached to the refrigerator. This is a question that Donnie will spend the entire film trying to figure out, as well as other interesting variations of it: “When/Who/What is Donnie?”

Before Donnie Darko begins its metaphysical explorations, it grounds itself in the contextual reality of its 1988 setting. Like many of its glorious predecessors including Blue Velvet (1986) and American Beauty (1999), Kelly deals with the recurring motif of suburban ennui. Through volatile dinner conversations, we get a feeling of the deep disconnect between the upper-class conservative parents who are staunch Republican supporters and the rebellious, progressive new generation who believe in the promises of the Democrat presidential candidate of that time: Michael Dukakis. These political commentaries perform the much-needed task of creating an interface between the realism of Donnie Darko and its subsequent mysticism.

What makes Donnie so special? He can see and talk to a six-foot-tall, deformed bunny rabbit called Frank who tells him that the world is going to end in about a month. Kelly has maintained that the rabbit was inspired by the iconic animated film Watership Down. Critics have pointed out the unmistakable similarities between the unsettling figure of Frank and the 1950 classic Harvey where the protagonist also has conversations with a six-foot-tall bunny but Kelly claimed that he had never seen the film.

Donnie’s sleepy suburban microcosm is shaken to its core when a jet engine falls specifically on his room while he is lured outside his house by Frank. He becomes the boy who defied death, believing that he owes Frank his life, Donnie agrees to become his instrument of destruction. This idea of upsetting the status quo through destruction is provided subtextual backing by Kelly when Donnie’s class is taught Graham Greene’s seminal short story The Destructors. In the story, a group of young gang members infiltrate an old man’s house and destroy it from the inside without any clear motive. When Donnie is asked what he thinks of this, he answers quite astutely: “They just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart.”

Destruction as an art of creation becomes Donnie’s primary ideological drive, damaging the school’s water mains and cracking the school mascot’s bronze skull with a sledgehammer. Jake Gyllenhaal, after his brilliant work in October Sky (1999), delivered a powerhouse performance as the disturbed Donnie with a menacingly possessed look plastered on his face whenever he indulged his own personal rebellion against the hypocrisies of the adult world. Many of his attacks are directed against the likes of the self-righteous Mrs Farmer (played by Beth Grant) who wants to censor Greene’s writings and wants to reduce the entire range of human emotions to binary bullshit like “fear” and” love”. He eloquently dismisses her moral policing by asking her to “forcibly insert [her pernicious teachings] into her anus.” Donnie even launches an attack against the “thought leader” Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), calling him out for his manipulative preachings and burning his house down in attack that is directly inspired by The Destructors.

Kelly blurs the consequences of Donnie’s violent actions by making it an ethical problem rather than a moral one, revealing that Cunningham had actually been a paedophile with a child pornography dungeon in his house. This is just one of the many ways Donnie Darko remains an elusive work of art, not submitting to any particular interpretation and avoiding limiting itself.

Aside from the various narrative strands, the most interesting aspect of Donnie Darko is undoubtedly the metaphysical and scientific concepts it employs to talk about time travel. The film is a unique intersection of philosophical abstraction and scientific certainty, supporting its ambitious depictions of space and time with real ideas from scientific discourse. When he has one of his hallucinations, Donnie sees a bubble-like formation that comes out of the people’s chests around him which predicts where they are going. Although it might appear like this is another example of Kelly’s absurdism, this phenomenon is actually a cinematic depiction of an established concept in theoretical physics called “world lines“. The paradox is that Donnie sees his own world line as well, retroactively instigating a heated philosophical debate about pre-determinism and free will. The film’s ideas about “tangent universes” are also based on the scientific concept of the multiverse theory which was first used in that context by sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock in his 1963 novella The Sundered Worlds. It becomes important later on because this is what Kelly uses for his nuanced ending, one that is so surreal that there is still no consensus over its meaning or validity.

Donnie Darko’s versatility in the range of its ideas is self-evident, drawing on religious and psychological problems as well as scientific and philosophical dilemmas. Like Donnie’s therapist, we are left trying to muster up the courage to ask questions without any hope for definite answers and the film never tries to be dogmatic in its approach. It revels in its mysticism just like Donnie who starts masturbating when his therapist tries to dig a deeper into his psyche by using questionable methods like hypnotherapy.

Popular fan theories about the ending have claimed that Donnie travelled through the wormhole that formed over his town to save Donnie’s girlfriend Gretchen (played by Jena Malone) by going back in time and voluntarily getting crushed by the jet engine that forms over his room. Other, more radical, interpretations have claimed that Donnie’s ability to see his world line and look at his own future enabled him to foresee the catastrophe that was going to follow and he just refused to be a part of it, choosing the sweet escape of death instead. Before the deus ex machina eliminates him, Donnie lets out an insolent smile. This is the smile of a young man who has travelled so far down the, quite literal, rabbit hole of nihilism that this particular life has ceased to matter to him when there are infinite versions of him letting out that same smile in infinite universes. He becomes the ultimate Destructor, creating different futures for others by destroying himself.

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