Donnie Darko is set against the backdrop of the 1988 Bush/Dukakis Presidential election. The film charts the last 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds of a disturbed and confused teenagers life.
Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is receiving therapy for emotional and behavioural problems and is heavily medicated, but often forgets – or refuses – to take his medication. He is a world-weary young man, and at high school he is a major challenge for teachers and fellow pupils alike. Donnie walks in his sleep and the film begins with Donnie waking up in his nightclothes somewhere on the outskirts of town. Back home an engine from a jet aircraft has dropped from the sky through his bedroom, the whereabouts of the plane from which it fell, is unknown.
To add to the mystery, Donnie is plagued with ever increasingly bizarre visions. These visions involve someone in a grotesque version of a rabbit suit – his name is Frank (James Duval). It is Frank that calls Donnie from his bed out into the night, saving his life. Whether these visions are the result of his condition or medication is not clear at this point.
Frank plays the role of messenger throughout the film. He tells Donnie, during one of his somnambulant episodes, that ‘the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds’.
At school, an overenthusiastic teacher, Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), together with new age guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), encourages students to ‘let go of fear and embrace love’. For Donnie, life is ‘far more complicated than that.’
A chance meeting with an ex-teacher from Donnie’s high school, Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland), reveals that she has written a book The Philosophy of Time Travel, and she whispers into his ear, ‘Every living creature on earth dies alone.’
In therapy, Donnie discloses that he has to follow Frank and do as he asks because Frank had saved his life. As the visions become more frequent, Donnie, under Franks guidance, floods the school and burns down the house of self-styled ‘attitudinal therapist’ Jim Cunningham.
Donnie meets and falls in love with new girl Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). As Donnie walks her home from school, Gretchen describes how her father has emotional problems. Donnie is thrilled:
Donnie: Really? I have emotional problems too! What kind?
Gretchen: My father stabbed my mother five times
As events unfold, Donnie, through Frank, begins to investigate time travel and divine intervention. Under hypnosis, Donnie is desperate for it all to end, but is terrified of what this means for him and for the world.
An 80s soundtrack weaves throughout the film and helps hold the narrative together. Head Over Heels by Tears For Fears describes the upside down, crumbling world that Donnie inhabits. Mad World further explores Donnie’s state of mind: ‘The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.’
As the 28 days tick away, the narrative twists and turns as Donnie discovers he can ‘see’ his future path and the future paths of others. This path appears as a tube of liquid emanating from each individuals chest. Discussion with his professor of physics, Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), opens up the possibility that, somewhere amidst the confusion, God, or his messenger, has something to say.
Under therapy again, Donnie says, ‘I hope that when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief because there will be so much to look forward to.’
Donnie Darko is director Richard Kelly’s first film and proved difficult to pitch to producers. Only when Drew Barrymore, one of the films producers, read the script and loved it did the film begin to get actors on board like Patrick Swayze (Ghost, Dirty Dancing) and Noah Wyle (ER).
The film has now reached cult status in the USA and seems to be doing the same thing in the UK since its DVD release. Kelly’s inspiration for Donnie Darko grew from writing in order to simply survive, to the desire to ‘write something ambitious, personal and nostalgic about the late 80s.’ He continues, ‘I thought about a jet engine falling onto a house and no one knowing where it came from – it seemed to represent a death knell for the Reagan era – and I built the story around that’.
That the narrative is hard to pin down and even explain without some kind of linguistic laxative is revealed in some of the reviews:
‘It flutters, like a mischievous butterfly, above the despairing hands of easy description’
Desson Howe, Washington Post
‘Is it a horror film? A black comic parable of Generation X angst? A teen drama with a psycho edge? If not, what the hell is it? Looking in my notebook, I see I have scribbled: “David Lynch, The X Files, Prozac Nation, My So-Called Life, Ghost World.”‘
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
‘Although this feature debut is a little lighter and less artfully obscure than David Lynch’s best work, Donnie Darko is nevertheless a mini-masterpiece that marks the arrival of brave new talents in Gyllenhaal and Kelly. Cult glory surely beckons.’
Alan Morrison, Empire
‘But at the core of Donnie Darko is the simple story of a boy trying to make a stand in a lonely, chaotic world – and discovering that every little thing he does counts on a cosmic scale.’
Newmarket Production notes
Donnie Darko is a genre bending film that deserves a second, and a third, look. Kelly’s first film asks questions in a way that the usual Hollywood blockbuster sausage machine has failed to do for some time.
- Did you enjoy the film? Why/why not? What themes did you identify within the narrative?
- When Roberta Sparrow (Grandma Death) whispers in Donnie’s ear, “Every living creature dies alone,” what effect does it have on Donnie? Is this reflected in other relationships in the film?
- Gretchen: ‘Donnie Darko! What kind of a name is that? Like some kind of superhero!’
Donnie: ‘What makes you think I’m not.’
Does Donnie understand what is happening to him? Why does Donnie say this?
- Kitty Farmer defends self-help guru Jim Cunningham, and buys into his belief system. Yet later on in the film, she wears a T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘God is awesome!’ Do you think there is any kind of contradiction or compromise happening here? Can different beliefs and values sit comfortably alongside each other? Why/why not?
- In therapy:
Dr Thurman: Do you feel alone right now?
Donnie: I’d like to believe I’m not, but I just . . . I just haven’t seen any proof, so I just don’t debate it anymore. I could spend my whole life debating it and weighing up the pros and cons and in the end I still wouldn’t have any proof, so I just don’t debate it anymore – it’s absurd.
Dr Thurman: The search for God is absurd.
Donnie: It is if everyone dies alone.
Dr Thurman: Does that scare you?
Donnie: I don’t want to be alone.
How would you answer Donnie? What kind of proof do you have for what you believe? When was the last time you weighed up the pros and cons of that belief? Does it make sense?
- Gretchen asks, ‘What if you could go back in time and take all those hours of pain and darkness and replace them with something better?’ Is this something that you would like to do? Do you think this is a positive thing to do? If you were able to erase some of your past, what would you replace it with?
- Donnie reasons that, ‘If God controls time, then all time is pre-decided.’ Do you agree? Do you have any control over your future, or is your destiny already sealed?
- Donnie: If you could see your [future] path or channel, and everything follows along a set path, you could see into the future . . .
Prof Monnitoff: If we were able to see our destinies manifest themselves visually, then we would be given a choice to betray our chosen destiny. The mere fact that this choice exists would make all pre-formed destiny come to an end.
Donnie: Not if you travel within God’s channel
What do you think Donnie is trying to say? What do you think it means personally to travel within ‘God’s channel’?
- ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38, NIV). This passage from the Bible talks about a God that works both outside and inside time, a God that is not shaped by events, and is able to keep in close relationship with him those that have chosen to walk in God’s channel. Does this encourage you? Would you want that kind of relationship, which is not damaged by the present, or the future?
- Self-help guru Jim Cunningham offers some advice, how would you react to these quotes?
- Violence is a product of fear.
- Learn to really love yourself.
- I believe you are searching for the answers in all the wrong areas.
- Director Richard Kelly said, ‘It’s a story of divine intervention, but I didn’t want to be obvious about it; the entire film is open to interpretation. I wanted to leave in the mystery.’ Where you happy for the film to keep in the mystery without providing the answers? What role does the ‘Divine’ have in your life?