Donnie Darko Unexplained

There exists no better medium for approximating dreams than film. Dreams and movies work in images to tell a story or impart a feeling or remind your brain of something it forgot it knew. Neither requires words, though each may contain them. They may be wholly indirect and suggestive. People might be themselves or someone else or both. Objects too are sometimes exactly what they are, and other times exactly what they are not. To describe certain dreams and certain movies is to destroy them; they make sense when experienced and lose all meaning when forced into words.

don't ask. just watch.

don’t ask. just watch.

David Lynch is notorious (in a good way) for never telling interviewers what his movies mean. Lynch has a way of crawling down into his subconscious, unscrewing its lid, and letting everything in there ooze out into his movies. To Lynch, the point is not then to explain what those subconscious images mean. His job is to put them on screen. It’s up to the audience to decide what they signify, or if they signify anything concrete at all. In Mulholland Drive it’s enough to grasp that the first, longer part of the movie is the dream of a character seen in the second part. To then look for precise one-to-one correspondences between the dream and reality is, while fun and at times revealing, not required to “get” the movie. The logic of the images is enough to trigger an understanding inside one’s head. To me it’s logical to say of certain movies, “It makes perfect sense, but I can’t tell you why or how.” These movies just feel right.


Donnie Darko (’01) is a movie that to me is best left unexplained. I saw it for the first time when it opened. All I knew about it was that the poster featured a weird and scary rabbit head. This was enough (poster makers take note). I went with a friend. We both thought it was great. It gave us a lot to talk about, to make sense of its time-travel/alternate-universe/demon-bunny-from-the-unconscious storyline. Which was more like the icing on the cake, this discussion. Because even without trying to put into words what the movie’s story was really doing, we came out of the theater satisfied. Similar to a dream, the movie made sense well before we tried to voice what that sense was.

Not only was there enough explantion in the theatrical version of Donnie Darko to give it a feeling of narrative cohesion and logic, there was also something even more important, or more exactly a lack of something: there wasn’t too much explanation. There was just enough. This is a fine line to walk, and Donnie Darko walks it just right.

donnie wakes up

What happens when you put it into words? Let’s give it a shot. We see two possible realities in the movie, two realities linked by a jet engine falling from one reality into the past of the other. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is awoken in the past reality by a part of the future to come, the demon bunny Frank. Frank tells Donnie to do things like flood the school and burn down the house of motivational speaker/child porn dealer Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), and tells Donnie about time travel and the coming end of the world. Each of these things causes the story to advance toward its inevitable conclusion.

Gretchen contemplates time travel

Gretchen contemplates time travel

Donnie floods the school, and thereby meets Gretchen (Jena Malone), who becomes his girlfriend. He talks to his teacher about time travel and is given the book The Philosophy of Time Travel by Robert Sparrow, a 101 year old woman the kids call Grandma Death, whose house will be the site of the finale. He burns down Cunningham’s house which reveals the man to have a kiddie porn dungeon, causing the insane gym teacher, Kitty (a memorably loopy Beth Grant), to ask Donnie’s mom to chaperone Sparkle Motion to California so that she can stay behind to aid her slandered friend Cunningham. Donnie’s mom gets an earlier plane home, which plane drops an engine mid-flight…

Most important of all, it’s Donnie’s first encounter with Frank that saves him from being crushed to death by the falling engine and allows this alternate reality to exist in the first place.

you're gonna die alone, kid

you’re gonna die alone, kid

As the date and time of Frank’s proclaimed end of the world arrives, Donnie and Gretchen go to Grandma Death’s house, enter her cellar door, only to find two high school thugs in the act of burglary. In the scuffle, Gretchen is thrown into the road, where Frank, in his halloween bunny costume, accidentally runs her over, killing her. Donnie shoots Frank through the eye. Which Frank, we’ve since learned, is Donnie’s sister’s boyfriend. This is the end of the world the Bunny Frank spoke of. Donnie races backwards through the preceding month and finds himself in bed the night of the jet engine, laughing at his final understanding of what he’s lived through and what it means. He doesn’t get out of bed this time, the engine crushes him, and Gretchen and Frank live on. As the camera pans across the faces of all the characters in the movie, it’s as though they have a dreamlike sense they can’t put a name to of what’s occurred, of having played a role they don’t know the meaning of, and in Frank’s case of having narrowly averted death, his hand going to his eye as if in memory of the bullet lodged there a month in the future in an alternate reality.

Donnie looks into another universe

Donnie looks into another universe

During Gretchen and Donnie’s first conversation, she tells him his name sounds like a superhero. He says, “What makes you think I’m not?” In the end, he is. He sacrifices himself to save her.

donnie-darko-gretchen dead

Turns out I’m far more intrigued by movie posters featuring giant scary bunny heads than the general public. Donnie Darko bombed when it opened. It found life on video, where it eventually garnered cult hit status. It was so popular that first-time writer/director Richard Kelly was given a chance to create a director’s cut closer to what he’d wanted the movie to be all along.

I watched this cut when it appeared in ’04 and hated it. Something like 20 minutes of scenes were added, along with new special effects and far more explanation of everything. This cut is way too long, the pacing is off, the special effects are distracting, the excessive explanation doesn’t add anything. I found it very upsetting. Why mess with such a good movie?

that's right, I question Richard Kelly's commitment to Sparkle Motion

that’s right, I question Richard Kelly’s commitment to Sparkle Motion

I think the reason is the opposite of Lynch’s strategy. Kelly has a very precise idea of what’s going on logically in Donnie Darko, and he wants people to know about it. Not only does his director’s cut add in all kinds of explanatory material, but so too does the offical website for the movie, which gives an extremely detailed explanation of what’s going on, full of fancy terminology. So we learn that there’s a tangent universe, a primary universe, a tangential vortex, an artifact (the engine), a living receiver (Donnie), manipulated dead and manipulated living (i.e. living and dead characters in the tangent universe), plans called ensurance traps enacted to ensure that the receiver returns the artifact and restores the primary universe, and so on and on and on.

now that's the kind of double bill I can get behind

now that’s the kind of double bill I can get behind

Which in its own way is interesting. I like obsessive pseudo-scientific jibber-jabber as much as the next science fiction movie nerd. But does it add to the movie? For me, it subtracts. I prefer to think of Donnie as a kind of superhero, and that it’s his choice to die in the end to save the lives of others. Using Kelly’s logic, all of these manipulated dead and living are doing what they do to force Donnie’s hand. By killing his girlfriend and turning him into a murderer, the manipulated living and dead give Donnie no choice but to restore the primary universe. Which is logical. But emotionally I think far less compelling.

the arrow of the future

the arrow of the future

The director’s cut of Donnie Darko is a perfect example of over-explaining a dream to the point where it loses its magic. All of that terminology and so on is an excellent backstory and source of logic for the writer, but it doesn’t need to be made explicit. In this case, adding so much into the movie kills the beauty of what was there before, a dreamlike movie in which the characters themselves are presented as only having a dreamlike grasp of what’s going on around them. To add more explanation is not only to lessen the experience of us, the viewers, but it undercuts the characters themselves.

this is all we need to see from the time travel book

this is all we need to see from the time travel book

It’s a bad sign for a movie if you need outside explanations to make it work. Perhaps it was the general sense of confusion people voiced initially that led Kelly to want to explain himself more, to make it clear that he’d worked out all the logic and that everything made perfect sense given the reality he’d invented. Which is too bad, because whether the logic of a movie arrives mysteriously from the subconscious or from a meticulously worked-out imaginary science, over-explaining it is the best way to lose its sense of dream logic and inevitability.

And of course all of this over-explanation detracts as well from the heart of Donnie Darko, which is simply the story of a troubled teenager, one that for all its science fiction elements feels real in a way few other teen movies do.


8 responses on “Donnie Darko Unexplained

  1. I would watch this again tonight but I packed it. There’s interesting stuff in the director’s cut but it’s clearly not better than the original release version. Better to just watch the cut scenes after.

    Katherine Ross’ reappearance as the psychiatrist is also a nice surprise. It’d been over 30 years since she was in a winner.

    Alas, Richard Kelly’s follow up films have not been so enjoyable. Southland Tales was a total dog’s breakfast. Never saw The Box. Not even sure I want to put it in the queue…

  2. I gathered that it was about schizophrenia, and the schizoid brain’s ability to weave a nutty but coherent narrative of your life when you’re batshit crazy and not really coping .. time travel, parallel universes, an elaborate dream-epic that occurs in the blink of an eye and then you wake up and a plane friggen falls on you didja see that coming Donnie?? Oh yeah of course you did. Compared with an epic dream DD isn’t even that convoluted a storyline. And yes it has a great dream like quality, and memorable characters (like Seth Rogen as a puzzlingly middle-aged school bully?? no, the other characters I mean). The movie which was most evocative of dreams for me was Eternal Sunshine, because of plastic ‘age’ and identity of the dreamer as he floated back into his childhood, and the presence of water (rain, ocean devouring the house) which features alot in my night-time adventures.

    • Hey Lou. I think if DD is about schizophrenia, it’s about how what we perceive as schizophrenia is actually something more sci-fi bleeding into normal life. But then, I’m not sure it matters. I love DD because there’s plenty of room to wander through it and it encourages you to dig around in your own head for answers. And through it all it feels tangible and authentic.

      • This is what I was getting at to some extent, that the movie, more in its original form than the director’s cut, allows one to determine for oneself what is really going on. It makes enough sense that it feels logical, but whether that logic is a science fiction plot or a dramatization of mental illness (or some combination of the two, or something entirely different) is up to the viewer.

  3. Maybe I’m crazy, but I need things to make sense by the end of a movie, and therefore I’m very puzzled by people’s fascination with this kind of movie. I’m okay with escapist entertainment that has its own rules which obviously don’t jive with the rules of our world–that’s what makes it fun. It’s foreign, but it has its own logic and makes sense inside of its own DEFINED rules.

    Donnie Darko’s popularity confounds me because nearly all of the explanation of the rules of the “darkoverse” and the concept of time travel were cut from it, leaving it a disjointed movie devoid of internal logic or apparent message. It was like a dream alright–at the end you wind up remembering parts, forgetting others, and wondering what some parts had to do with the rest of it in any way. People who claim they understood the film before the director’s cut came and explained all the concepts of the parallel universes are lying to everyone. But how did it reach the level of appeal that justified a director’s cut with anything that came close to defining the movie’s logic gutted from it?! The movie didn’t contain enough coherence to actually mean anything concrete before they exposed all the cut content and listed roles for the characters, functions for them, etc. There’s a lot of talk about Darko being a self-sacrificing Christlike figure, trading his life to save his loved ones. But in the original they didn’t even explain how anyone was in danger in the first place or how Darko staying in his bed and voluntarily getting squished by a falling jet engine solved any problem in the movie’s world. They just said “the world will end in X amount of time” and strung events together that didn’t fit with any coming apocalypse. Never mind that in the few metaphysical discussions about time travel, they said only metallic objects would survive a trip through the wormholes that made it possible. DONNIE DIDN’T USE A VEHICLE TO GO BACK IN TIME. Time just magically rewound with no explanation at the end of the film.

    Look, you can say you LIKED it in 2001, and that’s fine. But you can’t say the movie MADE SENSE in 2001. There was nothing there but the equivalent of an artsy drug trip. It had a few things to say about education, the state of society, and the like, but none could qualify as themes because they were just smart points embodied in one line of dialogue and then not touched on again. Movies are art, and different things appeal to different tastes. If you like a dreamlike, illogical and mysterious film that doesn’t have to make sense in the end, you’re welcome to. I don’t imply such a film has no value or that people would be stupid to like it. I DO however take issue with people holding a film up as intelligent and well made when it in reality it was just incoherent, only tried to create a few conventions or rules to explain its internal logic, and then didn’t even bother trying to follow them. Like an inkblot test, all this movie meant at the time of its original release was what you looked at it and saw. Then people spent 3 years talking about it and filled in gaps in ways that may or may not make any sense. The worst are the ones who act like they’re the intellectual equals of Stephen Hawking when they’re arguing about imaginary, arbitrary (and initally, barely defined) laws of an imaginary universe. They’ll tell you they’re smart and that’s why they “get it” and you don’t so you must be too dense. In reality, they just make up anything they want and confidently proclaim it to be true because there’s nothing in the original film to be used as proof for anyone’s theory. Welcome to a space where the only factor that decides if you’re right or not is how long you can stand to argue about it.

    As a parting shot, I’d like to point out to all the people who hold Donnie Darko up as some high-concept, high-brow thinking man’s movie that the most quoted lines are “how does one suck a f**k?” and the entire drunken dialogue about the sexuality of smurfs.

    Yep… heady stuff.

    • You’re right. You’re crazy.

      Did you understand 2001 when you saw it? Did you understand Primer? Or did you have to think about it and extrapolate meaning?

      I’m sorry Donnie Darko felt incoherent to you. But only because I’m trying to be polite.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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