Roger Ebert Home

Donnie Darko in his mind's eye (One little boy, one little man)

Donnie, Gretchen and Frank in the theater of the mind.

"It was as though this plan had been with him all his life, pondered through the seasons, now in his fifteenth year crystallized with the pain of puberty." -- from Graham Greene's story "The Destructors," as read by Donnie Darko's English teacher, Miss Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore)

In my mind's eye One little boy, one little man Funny how time flies... -- "Head Over Heels" by Tears For Fears, the song that leads into the reading above

Poor Donnie Darko. He's 15 years old and, boy, has he been "acting out." He's been in trouble with the law for torching an abandoned house, and now he's seeing a shrink who's put him on medication that he thinks is making him crazy, except it might just be puberty, but whatever it is he's been sleepwalking and having nightmarish visions (and "daylight hallucinations") involving a man-sized fuzzy bunny rabbit with a grotesquely contorted metallic head (bulging eyeballs, vicious teeth) named Frank who keeps reminding Donnie that the clock is ticking on the end of the world and ordering him to do destructive, semi-apocalyptic things involving fire and flood. As if puberty alone wasn't bad enough.

Meanwhile, Donnie is tormented by the usual obsessive teenage thoughts about sex and death. Sex is on his mind constantly, but girls consider him invisible (if they consider him at all -- ha!). The only girls who ever talk to him are little sister Samantha and his older sister Elizabeth and this one socially maladjusted fat Chinese girl named Cherita at school. He yearns to be recognized as a sexual being, but as far as girls are concerned he seems to be flying beneath their sexual radar, as if he were an inanimate object -- a stuffed animal, maybe, or a genital-less Smurf cartoon. And then, speaking of radar, there's this jet engine that appears out of nowhere and falls on his house, obliterating his bedroom. You can hardly blame Donnie for feeling that his life has become a cosmic joke, and that he is the butt. And the punchline is: He's sexually fixated on his older sister and can't admit it -- even to himself. Maybe you thought "Donnie Darko" was a movie about time travel and alternate universes and such. Well ... yeah, sure. But "Donnie Darko" has become a cult movie, one that people return to again and again, because it has so many mysterious undercurrents that are left unexplained and unresolved. Those who don't respond to it simply find it impenetrable, even though it's not at all. Because the movie refuses to offer up all its implied secrets, it seems to draw people back for repeat viewings. See "Donnie Darko" once and, chances are, you'll get caught in its undertow. The picture begins with Donnie waking up, barefoot and in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms, on a hillside road overlooking a valley at dawn. At first he looks bewildered, then he stands up and breaks into a grin shaking off the thought of ... something: an strange idea? a memory? He then picks up his bike and rides downhill to his suburban home (to the song "The Killing Moon" by Echo and the, uh, Bunnymen -- the perfect tone to set for the movie, but inexplicably it's only in the original version). What goes through his mind here, in these crucial first few moments? I like to think Donnie's essentially remembering the movie you saw the last time you saw the movie that bears his name, and the one you're about to see again (which won't be quite the same because you'll pick up on some other undercurrents and details this time). This opening is essential to the movie's endlessly circular (or mobius-strip) form, and part of what draws you back again. It begins with a scene that belongs at the end of the last time you watched it -- a dream within a dream within a dream... And when you think about it that way, it helps locate the entire movie in the space-time warp between Donnie's ears. Critics and website fans have written loads about the generic elements of science fiction, horror, comic-book fantasy, and 1980s John Hughes teen-sex comedy that are so cleverly swirled together in "Donnie Darko," which is set in the election year of 1988. But its real blood relatives are those movies in which what's "real" and what's "unreal" become inextricably intertwined -- because the whole movie takes place entirely within the consciousness (and unconsciousness) of its hero. Think of “Fight Club,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Lost Highway,” “Taxi Driver,” “Repulsion,” “Jacob's Ladder,” “American Psycho” “ arguably even "Citizen Kane" (1941) -- to name a few movies that locate their narratives in similar regions of the temporal lobe.

Everything in the movie -- including scenes that Donnie himself could not have witnessed but may have imagined -- is the product of his overheated adolescent brain, his hungry-hungry hippocampus, where experience, memory, and emotion all interconnect. You can argue that some of what happens in “Donnie Darko” may be “real” and some of it may be Donnie's “fantasy” (or memory, or dream, or some combination of all of the above), but the distinctions aren't all that important because all these things intermingle freely; it's like sometimes when you first wake up and, like Donnie in the opening scene, there's a moment when you're not quite sure what is real and what's a dream and what's a memory.

* * * * "Donnie's aggressive behavior, his increased detachment from reality, seem to stem from his inability to cope with the forces in the world that he perceives to be threatening. Has he ever told you about his friend Frank?" -- Dr. Lilian Thurman (Katherine Ross) to Donnie's parents

The 2004 "Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut" puts the science-fiction elements even more up-front than they were in the original 2001 release -- and in DVD commentaries, and on the impressive web site (intricately constructed sci-fi red herrings involving “The Philosophy of Time Travel,” tangent universes, vectors, the Manipulated Dead and the Manipulated Living).

According to the director's commentary on the original DVD, there's some kind of fissure in the space-time continuum or something that happens around midnight, when the engine drops, which is why there's such a mystery about exactly where it came from. What happened appears to have been impossible. And yet, there it is. From here on, we're supposedly watching a tangent universe that is destined to whither and die. Donnie doesn't begin to figure this out and take steps to rectify it until he discovers the book "The Philosophy of Time Travel," written by Roberta Sparrow (who is now a strange old lady nicknamed "Grandma Death," who spends her days walking back and forth to her mailbox on the outskirts of town, expecting a letter that never comes).

Well, that's all well and good, but what if all these science-fiction and comic book elements (typical obsessions for boys like Donnie, and a time-honored way of re-channeling their focus-less sexual energy until they find a better outlet than themselves) are themselves just manifestations of the real fissure is in Donnie's head?

In some respects, Donnie Darko's dilemma is the flip-side of Billy Pilgrim's in Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five." While Billy has literally come "unstuck in time," drifting from era to era, Donnie has, in another sense, gotten stuck in time. That is, he's in a state of arrested development, between childhood and sexual maturity, stymied and frustrated by those feelings for his older sister that he just doesn't know how to resolve. (If you haven't seen "Donnie Darko," this is probably already more than you want to know. Get your hands on a DVD -- preferably of the superior original version from 2001, not the revised 2004 "Director's Cut," before reading any further.)

The first dialog scene in the movie begins with an attempt to provoke political sparks at the family dinner table (first line: "I'm voting for Dukakis," stated as a challenge to her parents by Donnie's older sister). And from there it switches into an exchange of obscene insults between Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his sister Elizabeth (played by the lead actor's real-life sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal). (Aside: on the original DVD commentary, director Richard Kelly remarks how special it was to have Jake's real-life sister in the role. Why? He doesn't say. But it does add a little extra-forbidden sexual tension to the film.) Elizabeth, enraged at a crude childbirth reference Donnie has made in front of their younger sister, calls him a dick and tells him to "Go suck a f---k!" Donnie sarcastically replies, "Please tell me, Elizabeth, how exactly does one suck a f---k?" She sees his bet and raises: "You want me to tell you?" Donnie cups his hands to his ears and silently mouths, "I'm all ears!" The primary motifs of the movie are laid out in this first scene, and the sexual back-and-forth between brother and sister is freighted with a peculiar tension that goes deeper than just typical family tiffs and teenage foul language. We soon learn that Elizabeth has stayed home from college for a year to be with her boyfriend Frank. (We don't know it at first, but we see Frank's red sports car zooming past Donnie in the opening sequence.) Later that night, Donnie has a vision of a rather tall, erect rabbit named Frank -- or, rather, a person in a fuzzy bunny suit with a grotesquely contorted metallic mask over his head. So, the question arises: Why a bunny? (and you thought maybe the question was "Why a duck?") Throughout the movie, sweet little bunnies and other stuffed animals are associated with childhood, and specifically with Elizabeth when she (and Donnie) were little. In one scene we see Donnie lying on the couch (where he sleeps after his bedroom has been squashed) in front of a framed photograph of a little girl -- Elizabeth -- and a bunny. In the last scene between Donnie and his sister, he comes into the house to find her sleeping in a chair, and a stuffed bunny just to the right of the frame. There are other bunnies and stuffed animals (and Smurfs and cartoon rabbits from "Watership Down" in the deleted scenes and "Director's Cut") throughout the movie. But the big one is, of course, Frank. Donnie knows his sister isn't just sleeping with her cuddly stuffed bunny anymore -- she's sleeping with a full-sized and (relatively) hairy man. That Frank has the body of a stuffed animal and the head of a vicious metallic animal seems to be an indication of Donnie's mixed-up feelings toward him (fear, arousal, rage, respect, envy), as the male who's bedding his sister. The only time bunnyman Frank appears in front of another waking person is when Donnie is under hypnosis with his therapist (in which he reverts to a childlike way of speaking, much as he does when sleepwalking), and Donnie is clutching a stuffed animal -- a doggie with big floppy ears this time -- like a child. For Donnie, the idea of attributing sexual characteristics to childish things -- say, asexual kiddie cartoon characters (like a slutty Smurfette, about whom his friends enjoy spinning pornographic fantasies) is particularly infuriating. And yet, he concludes his let's-set-the-record-straight outburst about the Smurfs on a melancholy note: "They don't even have any reproductive organs underneath those little white pants. That's what's so illogical about, y' know, being a Smurf. What's the point of living if you don't have a dick?" The innocent sexuality (or asexuality) of his childhood is giving way to a more complicated post-pubescent incarnation, fraught with moral questions for Donnie. Frank is a manifestation of that ambivalent aspect of Donnie's own erupting id, his stifled/frustrated hormonal urges, his feelings of being trapped in his own body and his own brain between childhood and the full-blown sexuality he so desires but knows he can't act on (with Elizabeth, anyway). How appropriate that he's attending Middlesex High School; when it comes to sex, he's stuck in the middle. When Donnie taunts Elizabeth about how to "suck a f---k" while miming that he's "all ears" -- well, whether he knows it or not, he's conjuring up a prescient image of Frankenbunny, whom he no doubt imagines engaging in all kinds of polymorphously perverse activities with his sister.

Frank is always always somehow associated with sex in Donnie's mind: In a movie about a boy's teenage sexual fantasies it's notable that the only image of a naked woman in the entire film comes at the end, when we get a privileged glimpse of Frank at home, next to an earthy nude painting. We don't know if Donnie has, in fact, ever even met his sister's boyfriend; but this is the Frank he imagines. (Even Donnie's parents don't seem to recognize Frank's name when Dr. Thurman asks about him. One of the most brilliant line readings in the movie comes from Donnie's mother, an exquisite performance by Mary McDonnell: "I don't recall ... him ever having mentioned a rabbit.") The idea of sex -- and his lack of outlets for it -- excites, terrifies, and frustrates Donnie. In one hypnosis session with his therapist, Dr. Thurman (Katherine Ross), he announces that he's met a girl, and when she asks him if he still thinks about sex a lot, he answers in the affirmative and says he thinks about that and "Married ... with Children." That is, he turns down the sound and fantasizes about having sex with Christina Applegate. When Dr. Thurman inquires about his family, his mind refuses to stray from that one track; he slips his hand down his pants, beginning to masturbate, and smiles: "I don't think about f***king my family. That's gross." And yet, clearly, the thought (family, marriage, children, Christina Applegate as the older sister) is turning him on... There are indications that this girl Donnie meets, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), may be nothing more than a projection of Donnie's thwarted libido. She appears in his English class, where Miss Pomeroy tells her to choose a desk next to the guy she thinks is the cutest, and guess who she chooses” There's something surreal (or, at least, unreal) about this scene. It's, well, like a dream come true.... They have their first conversation after school is cancelled (because Donnie has flooded it at Frank's behest). He arrives on the scene as a couple of the school bullies are circling around her, making crude sexual advances and talking about her body. Donnie (in his mind, at least) appears as her sexual savior, his appearance defusing the situation, and she asks him to walk her home -- even though, as it turns out, he never does actually see where she lives. She just wanders off before they get there. But before she goes, he says he's glad the school was flooded because otherwise they would never have had this conversation. So his actions (real or imagined) at the behest of Frank have led directly to making a connection with her. It seems that Gretchen, too, has dropped from the sky just like that jet engine: Gretchen tells her story: Her stepfather, who has emotional problems ("Oh, I have those, too!" Donnie exclaims), stabbed her mother in the chest four times, and now mother and daughter have taken newly minted names and relocated to Middlesex, attempting to start their lives all over again from scratch. We never see Gretchen's mom, either. Running away from her past, unspecific about her place in the present, Gretchen, too, seems to dropped from the sky unattached, just like that jet engine.

There are other hints that Gretchen may, in fact, be another one of Donnie's "imaginary friends," an alternative to his sister that his conscience can find acceptable. She's kind of a cipher, a stock character: not only the Generic Romantic Interest, but The Girl in Trouble Who Needs to be Saved By Our Hero.

When Donnie takes Gretchen takes her to see a first-rate double bill of "The Evil Dead" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" (the latter about one man's similar alternative-universe fantasy in the moments before he dies), the only ones in the theater are Donnie, Gretchen ... and Frank. It's a peculiarly unreal, dreamlike scene, even for this movie. (Then Donnie slips out to run his arson errand while Gretchen conveniently slumbers; does he leave her alone with Frank? She only seems to appear, or become conscious, when Donnie needs or wants her to.)

On the climactic party night, the director (again emphasizing that it's Donnie's sensibility guiding what we see) makes a point to show us Elizabeth (dressed as a classic vamp) watching Donnie and Gretchen go upstairs to the bedroom -- something that Donnie would want his sister to notice, either in hopes of sparking jealousy or just to show her that he's to be taken seriously as a sexual being.

Dr. Thurman suspects Donnie may be paranoid schizophrenic, suffering from daylight hallucinations, and he is certainly ... torn. He's stuck in the middle between two sisters -- between teasing his younger sister Samantha (who's part of a dance group called Sparkle Motion that makes its little girls up to be "sexy" in a disturbing, JonBenet Ramsey kind of way) and awkwardly fixated on his older sister Elizabeth. Besides Gretchen, the Elizabeth surrogate, the only other woman who really catches his imagination is Roberta Sparrow, the author of "The Philosophy of Time Travel," now known as the ancient Grandma Death. But look closely as Donnie examines the old school picture of Roberta Sparrow. If that's not Maggie Gyllenhaal, it sure looks like her. Perhaps, for Donnie, all women are his sister. (If he was similarly attracted to his mother it would be called an Oedipal complex; I don't know if there's a term for sexual attachment to one's sister -- besides the generic "incestuous feelings.")

Donnie imagines himself a superhero: "What makes you think I'm not?" he teases Gretchen when she comments on his supernatural-sounding name. And in his English class he reads a composition about how he is destined to save "the children"... "because I am Donnie Darko." (Donnie definitely still identifies with kids, even as he tries to set himself apart from them, no matter how much he pines to be a grown up where hormones are concerned.) In the final part of the movie, Donnie the melodramatic, solipsistic teenager (not in a bad way -- he's just a teen) imagines a texbook teen-suicide fantasy in which he saves the world and everybody feels terrible, even though they don't even know of his heroic sacrifice on their behalf. The whole movie becomes a feature-film version of Elton John's quintessential 1970s teen-suicide anthem "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself," in which the protagonist relishes the idea of sticking around afterwards to see how his death affects others (and the moral flipside of John’s "Ticking," in which the hell-bent protagonist becomes a killer of others as well) -- a classic death-wish delusion of grandeur.

Frank materializes to tell Donnie to act out in destructive ways (flood the school; torch the house of a motivational speaker Donnie hates). But Donnie also identifies with him somewhat; Frank is his mentor. It's Frank's honking horn, as he drops off Elizabeth one night around midnight, that summons Donnie from bed and keeps him from being impaled by a falling jet engine.

When he asks Frank in the movie theater to remove his mask, and we see a young man underneath it with a terrible eye wound, Frank whispers: "I'm so sorry." It's a mildly disconcerting touch. Frank apologizes to Donnie for what's to come, and it's not clear if Donnie knows what it is or not: Frank will accidentally kill off Donnie's fantasy love interest (who's sleeping in the seat between them at the moment) and Donnie will slay the lover of his coveted sister in a primal melodramatic confrontation that will (painfully) enact and perhaps somehow resolve Donnie's tortured fears and desires.

In that same theater scene, wherein a "portal" opens in the middle of "The Evil Dead," Donnie asks Frank why he wears that silly bunny suit and Frank replies: "Why do you wear that silly man suit?" -- questioning Donnie's developing masculinity by suggesting that he's is trying on a "man suit" that's maybe still a little too big for him? Frank will need to die in order for Donnie to grow up. Even if "growing up," for him, means a sacrificial death. (Come to think of it, in Elizabethan literature orgasms are referred to as "little deaths"...) Donnie's at his most Holden Caulfield-like in his hatred for phony Dr. Phil-ish psychobabbler Jim Cunningham, who insists all human emotions and desires can be plotted on a spectrum between LOVE and FEAR. (Of course, Donnie has his own deep-seated reasons to object, since his burgeoning sexual feelings for his sister bend Cunningham's two-dimensional graph into a ring where the polar extremes LOVE and FEAR coincide.) Donnie mentions to Gretchen (in front of the house that he will later burn down) that he's in therapy because he burned down a house, and later he finds Jim Cunningham's (Patrick Swayze) wallet in front of Cunningham's soon-to-be-torched house just as the lawn sprinklers go off -- another small example of the apocalyptic fire and flood imagery that swirls around Donnie throughout the movie.

Cunningham provides the means for Donnie to fulfill his fantasy of "saving the children"; when he burns down Cunningham's house, as directed by Frank, he reveals a "kiddie porn dungeon" in Cunningham's basement -- news that astonishes and delights his beloved Elizabeth. After all, what more awful fate would Donnie imagine for one of his most hated enemies than a revelation of secret sexual perversion and public disgrace? If you take writer-director Richard Kelly's thesis about his own movie (on the original DVD commentary, and more explicitly with the excerpts from Roberta Sparrow's book in the "Director's Cut"), I wonder what happens to Cunningham. If he is exposed in the tangent universe, does that mean he gets away with his crimes in the "real" universe; or are his kiddie-porn peccadilloes part of the degeneration of the tangent universe alone? [Astute readers of the "DD" web site report that it offers an account of Cunningham's fate in the non-tangent universe (not in the movie itself): He is said to commit suicide in December, 1988, after disposing of the evidence of his "kiddie porn dungeon." So, his crimes are not revealed to the world, but he kills himself -- not unlike Donnie, whose forbidden feelings about his sister are covered up by his sacrificial death.]

This interpretation of "Donnie Darko" may not be one some fans of the movie prefer, but it is just one of many. Kelly, to his credit, acknowledges that the movie is open to different interpretations, but the movie he describes on the DVD commentary track seems to me (and other fans of the film) perhaps the least interesting of all possible readings. Well, a movie exists independent of its maker: All that matters is what's in that rectangle on the screen, no matter whether it was put there on purpose or not. As the saying goes: Trust the art, not the artist. Donnie Darko, like every American teenager alive, is a legend in his own mind. (There's a wonderful little moment when two of his teachers look at each other in bemused astonishment and say his name -- a validation that this kid is something else ... even if the validation is all in his head.) Maybe that makes him schizophrenic or delusional or solipsistic or a victim of insanely grandiose ambitions, but not necessarily. We like Donnie, and we want things to work out for him. And if the only way he can imagine his way out of his predicament is to sacrifice himself in order to save the entire world, well, more power to him.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Inside Out 2
Lumberjack the Monster
Under Paris
Hit Man
The Watchers
I Used to Be Funny


comments powered by Disqus