Roger Ebert Home

Bright Wall/Dark Room September 2022: Stupid Man Suit: On Donnie Darko by Lindsey Romain

We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the September 2022 edition of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. Their theme this month is "Time Travel," and in addition to the excerpted essay below by Lindsey Romain on "Donnie Darko," the new issue also features essays on "La Jetee," Richard Linklater's "The Before Trilogy," "Blade Runner," "Grease," "Irma Vep," "The Velvet Underground," "Shirkers," "Christine," and more. 

You can read our previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or look at their most recent essays, click here. The above art is by Tom Ralston.


And it’s something quite peculiar 

Something shimmering and white 

It leads you here, despite your destination 

Under the Milky Way tonight

“Under the Milky Way” — The Church

I remember, with reverence, the day I stopped believing in God.

Tenth grade, biology class. We were talking about dinosaurs and I wondered, out of nowhere: how do we really know they existed? Like, for real? That Earth didn’t manifest with bones in the dirt—macabre shards of white like little deathly seedlings. That the stars themselves didn’t plant them there in the Big Bang, ripe for excavation and befuddlement—an arrogant joke.  

I raised my hand and asked the teacher this question, expecting a fruitful response—like maybe I’d impress him with my critical thinking skills. But instead, he stared at me with insolence or quite possibly resentment. I was rocking the boat.

“That’s not even a scientific hypothesis,” he said. “Just absurdist nonsense. How does anything exist, if that’s your way of thinking?”

“You tell me,” I said. 

That kernel of thought planted seeds not unlike those ghostly dino bones, buried somewhere in my crown chakra topsoil. I could not stop thinking stupid things like that. Like, how do we know that every scientific conclusion isn’t collective delusion? Is it gravity that holds me to Earth or the invisible strings of a cosmic puppetmaster? Is anything real or is life simply a simulation or mirage, flimsy as silk or dust? Could I run my hand through it and watch it fold away and disappear? 

I think of this now with a bit of shame, recognizing how closely this logic aligns with dangerous conspiracy. But the difference is this: I had no interest in proving a thing. Had no desire to point and yell “gotcha.” Instead, I was rather comfortable submitting to that which I couldn’t identify. I was suddenly aware of and quite comforted by the great absurdity of life. How positively erroneous it is that anything happens at all, that any of us are alive and stay alive and that things keep happening beyond our control and we just have to walk around, pretending we don’t know we’re all going to die. 

It was around this time that I first saw Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, a film I discovered the way I have many great loves of my life: by walking through a video store and choosing the weirdest box cover. (In this case, matte black punctuated by eerie blue faces and a Rorschach-esque rabbit head.) As I’m sure you can imagine, the movie lit a fuse somewhere inside me, put words and songs and visuals to all of the matterless, existential junk clattering in my brain. I saw myself in Donnie, a teen both disaffected and yet uncannily principled. A young man seeking ownership of his intellect in a way I admired, and, in turn, emulated. But unlike my fatuous science-room questioning, Donnie wasn’t intellectually dishonest in his hypothesizing. His wonderment was based in theory, philosophy; an anchor in an encasement of preposterousness. Because in Donnie Darko, it’s only Donnie Darko who makes any kind of sense. I felt that.

I can’t tell you how many times I popped in that VHS and let myself access Donnie’s world. Dozens upon hundreds. And much like my own submission to the uncanny, I never aimed to crack its code, but just let it wash over me. I crawled right up inside of it and wore it like a stupid man suit. 

In starlit nights, I saw you 

So cruelly, you kissed me 

Your lips, a magic world 

Your sky, all hung with jewels

“The Killing Moon” — Echo & the Bunnymen

Donnie Darko opens like a dream. Donnie wakes up in the middle of a winding road at dusk, his bike splayed beside him. Beyond the rope of concrete is a sweaty mauve sky, cresting over suburbia: green trees and lavender hills and dots of white real estate. He awakens, eyes glazed, and the world unfolds. He looks far past his bearings and into the pastel valley. He is at first puzzled but then amused. He laughs and hops on his bike while Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” fires up—synth like sepia transmorphing us to Oz. 

Suddenly, we are in Middlesex, Virginia. A wealthy suburb where every home has an ivory façade and a ripened lawn. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives here with his parents, Rose (Mary McDonnell) and Eddie (Holmes Osborne), moderate and congenial; older sister Elizabeth (played by Jake’s real-life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Dukakis-voting party girl on her way to Harvard; and younger sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase), a precocious member of a local dance troupe called Sparkle Motion. It’s October 2, 1988. George H.W. Bush will soon be president. There is an air of foreboding in the humdrum of this place. Every hedge a looming threat. Turmoil festering in everyday routine. 

We learn that the night before this fateful, sleepwalk-bike ride to the loopy hills above town, Donnie was visited by a maniacal giant bunny rabbit named Frank. In this waking nightmare, Frank bestowed upon Donnie a terrible secret: that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds—unless Donnie saves it. The next night, Donnie sleepwalks once again, and is therefore out of the house when the jet engine from a passenger flight falls from the sky and strikes his bedroom. 

This arrival of Frank as a grotesque Father Time with a prophetic agenda correlates with Donnie’s recent foray into “madness.” His concerned parents have him in therapy, his teachers worry over his mental wellbeing—there is something wrong with Donnie. And yet, through the lens of reason, and in tandem with the film’s peculiar flourishes (like the character Cherita, a plump teen girl who only utters the words “shut up”; a man in a red tracksuit who appears at random like something out of Lynch; interstitials of Samantha on the trampoline, jumping away), Donnie stands out as perhaps the only sane thing in this universe. Like he’s wading through a sea dream, oddities curling at his intrusion like impossible waves. 

The film posits so much, and thus exists as an artifact of curiosity and confusion. The chronically online want to pry it open and bear witness to its machinations. But Donnie Darko, at least to my mind, seems blissfully unknowable. The plot unfolds the way time might—in a predetermined succession of events that happen simply because they were always meant to. Donnie goes to school, meets a girl (Gretchen Ross, played by Jena Malone), gets into trouble, ribs with his friends, cries to his shrink, and frightens his parents with his cool hostility and mannered disassociation. It also cycles: the end is the beginning, the beginning is the end.

Best of all is Donnie Darko’s disinterest in profundity. It asks these big questions and then filters them through bunkum. For every conversation about the Einstein-Rosen bridge, there is a rant about the inherent asexuality of Smurfs. When Donnie starts questioning time travel, and senses his role in destiny-driven wormhole shenanigans, the film wastes little time explaining it to us. The awkward humor and nonsensical interludes of Donnie Darko don’t exist to make the science more palatable. They are merely in service to its bushwa. 

Children waiting for the day they feel good 

Happy birthday, happy birthday 

And I feel the way that every child should 

Sit and listen, sit and listen

“Mad World” — Gary Jules

My self-aligning with Donnie Darko, the character, was nothing special. I would learn, once I left the confines of my own Midwestern wormhole, that it struck a great many of my peers: similarly anxious millennials who sensed the world ripping away from them and had no choice but to laugh. Donnie is the perfect vessel for our generational malaise—we whose youths were either circumvented by or blanketed wholly in terrorism and gun idolation and climate crisis. The inevitability of suffering is no longer ignorable, but a daily confrontation, our phones portals to horror and hilarity, demarcated only by finger swipes and clothing ads. Donnie, like us, goes through the motions of life while a great, ominous clock ticks in the background.  

In a way, Donnie feels like an internet character, trudging through life by the sheer will of his assigned self-importance. Is Frank even real? Depends on your vocation. Donnie conjures him in the grips of regular adolescent ennui, a means of control. Through this manifestation, Donnie becomes the voice of reason in his unreasonable world, because how else might he comprehend it? We have a way of doing this, too—of making ourselves the main character. By the power of our diagnoses might we navigate this treachery. Casual narcissism is our tool for survival. 

The film’s preoccupation with time travel does more than offer theories on self-consistency principles or compossibility. It transports us to the past to show us the future. Teenage arrogance is exaggerated by today’s technology, but it was always a root symptom of angst. (Miss Pomeroy says it best: “I don’t think that you have a clue what it’s like to communicate with these kids. And we are losing them to apathy...to this prescribed nonsense. They are slipping away.”) The politics of the ‘80s are recurrent, too—the film is set just before the first Bush administration, came out during the second, and falls in line with our current landscape: a time of book banning and disinformation and division from self and neighbor. Where that critical thinking I so craved is met with debunkers and moral panic. 

There is also the matter of Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). A subplot involves this character, a motivational speaker who becomes something of a cult figure in Middlesex—a phony tan guy who inspires dance moms with how deftly he minimizes the spectrum of human emotion. He proposes a theory that fear and love are the deepest of these emotions, and that everything in life falls neatly into either bucket with no room for further consideration. Boomer catnip, in other words. 

Jim is a beloved, empathetic figure in the community but is in truth a predator. Under the influence of Frank, Donnie burns Jim’s house and exposes his secret stash of child porn. But his contingency of zealots—including the conservative sore Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), head Sparkle Motion mom and teacher at Middlesex High, who won’t accept Jim’s true nature and instead pledges fealty to his innocence. Not so different from the Trumpian logic we’re forced to endure even now—an omnipresent, insidious reminder that the hell of non-truth is inescapable. Another flavor in the neapolitan scoop of barren hope. 

The house burning isn’t Donnie’s first act of vandalism. Near the start of the film, he breaks into his school, busts a water main, and floods the halls. He then punches an axe into the head of a giant bronze bulldog statue, the school mascot. He scrawls something in spray paint on the cement below.

They made me do it.

A generational creed if there ever was one. 

 

I made a fire, I’m watching it burn 

I thought of your future 

With one foot in the past now just how long will it last? 

No, no, no, have you no ambitions?

Head Over Heels — Tears for Fears 

All I ever wanted was a teacher like Miss Pomeroy. Drew Barrymore lends her earthy spirit to the character—her olive tank tops and floor-length maroon skirts; the way she moves like velvet through school halls. She’s the only one who sees these students as the adults they’ll soon become, and so she treats them as such. She doesn’t coat her words in candy but strips them with poisonous barbs—nothing cruel, but nothing sanctimonious, either. 

Miss Pomeroy is dating Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), the science teacher who helps Donnie understand time travel. Combined, they are a singular, blinking red of truth on the Middlesex ledger. But their mayday is ignored. Nothing can save us. 

Miss Pomeroy comes under fire—and is eventually fired—for assigning her students Graham Greene’s “The Destructors.” The short story follows a group of teens who destroy a British manor for no rhyme or reason. When they find money in a bedroom mattress, they burn it. Destruction is their creation, chaos their paintbrush. As Donnie explains to the class: “They just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart. They want to change things.”

The story ends with a truck driver laughing as he watches the house burn, to the horror of the homeowner standing beside him. The ending goes: 

“How dare you laugh,” Mr. Thomas said. “It was my house. My house.” 

“I’m sorry,” the driver said, making heroic efforts, but when he remembered the sudden check to his lorry, the crash of bricks falling, he became convulsed again. One moment the house had stood there with such dignity between the bomb sites like a man in a top hat, and then, bang, crash, there wasn’t anything left—not anything. He said, “I’m sorry. I can’t help it, Mr. Thomas. There’s nothing personal, but you got to admit it’s funny.”

That’s all you can do, really. Right? Shrug at the cacophony because you can’t control it. Go outside and scream on a basketball court because it’s the only means of expression—that sweet release of fucks. 

Late in the film, after Miss Pomeroy’s dismissal, she packs up her classroom while Donnie sits and watches. Behind her on a chalkboard are two written words: cellar door. Donnie asks what they mean. 

“This famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, ‘cellar door’ is the most beautiful,” Miss Pomeroy explains, before disappearing through a door.  

This idea of aural pleasantness as it relates to words is known as phonaesthetics, a term coined by J.R.R. Tolkien. Phonaesthetics is of relation to euphony: the effect of sounds being perceived as harmonious. Tolkien and his contemporaries were great fans of the phrase “cellar door.” They argued that its beauty became apparent the more the word was disassociated from its literal meaning. 

And isn’t that Donnie Darko, too? Removed from the impossible tangle of time travel, it is really just a mood. Aesthetics more than plot. Tears for Fears and Sparkle Motion and bunny suits and trampolines and Cherita in her earmuffs. Fragments that float to the top like chum on seawater. Annihilating the agreeable as an act of creation.  

You pay the prophets to justify your reasons 

I heard your promise, but I don’t believe it

 That’s why I’ve done it again

“Notorious” — Duran Duran

Early in the film, Donnie speaks of an elderly woman named Roberta Sparrow. We see her as she crosses the road in front of her house, checking the mail. She repeats this act all day, every day—her wild white mane a ghostly halo; her aura both angelic and disturbing. Donnie learns from Professor Monnitoff that she used to be a nun at the school before an abrupt change made her a different person overnight. She denounced God and wrote a book instead: The Philosophy of Time Travel.

As Donnie goes about his days, the end of the world encroaching, he thinks of Roberta. She’s in her own loop—crossing the road over and over and over. What is she looking for? At one point, Donnie and his father almost hit her with their car. When Donnie gets out, she whispers something in his ear: “Every living creature on Earth dies alone.”

Her words serve as prophecy for our hero. A sequence of events leads Donnie to his fate. Frank is in fact Elizabeth’s boyfriend, dressed like a giant, scary bunny for Halloween. He accidentally hits and kills Gretchen with his car, which prompts Donnie to shoot and kill him. His ghost haunts Donnie in the film’s wormhole time loop. He is the vessel through which Donnie travels back in time, never leaving his bedroom that night he appeared in the road. This time, the jet engine kills him. His death, by proxy, saves Gretchen, his mother and younger sister—passengers on the flight in the present, soon to die in its fiery crash—and therefore the world. I guess? 

All these years and VHS watches later, I don’t have Donnie Darko quite figured out. I’ve even (regretfully) watched Kelly’s director’s cut a number of times. But like I said, I feel no real desire to crack the impossible code. I prefer that ignorant submission to intangibility. It’s how I wake up every day and do my silly little tasks, knowing all the while that the world is burning beyond repair and nothing really matters. A fact I’m reminded of daily when I scroll through my feeds and watch hate transpire and negligence evolve. So I put on my stupid man suit, I walk back and forth to the mailbox every day, and I live. What else can I do? And when my time here is done, I hope, like Donnie, that “I can breathe a sigh of relief—because there will be so much to look forward to.”

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Smile
Athena
A Jazzman's Blues
Petrov's Flu
Nothing Compares

Comments

comments powered by Disqus