(Spoilers are in here, so don’t get mad!)
I don’t understand Donnie Darko and you don’t either. Even Donnie Darko doesn’t understand Donnie Darko. I’ve read the Jake Gyllenhall interviews to prove it. Darko stands out as a film whose allure is both obvious and mysterious. The obvious draw is its mystery and the mystery is its obvious draw. Why is it that cult followings establish themselves around movies which tend to ask big, existential questions wrapped in intricate, nothing-else-like-it plot lines?
There’s an irresistible pull towards mystery teetering on the edge of reality. We are a people who loves surreal reminders the universe and planet we inhabit is on the brink of insane apocalypse at any given moment. Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or any Terry Gilliam movie, Richard Kelly’s magnum opus is a reminder of the strange things which happen all the time. Entrenched in reality yet sopped in possible illusion, Donnie’s struggle to understand his fate is relatable even in the face of being totally unique.
Given the myriad of questions raised by the film, it’s surprising the ones which resonate the most have more to do with Donnie than Frank the Rabbit. You’d think we’d all be trying to figure out how the giant, creepy rabbit fits into all this. And those questions are inevitably raised but only as a means to an end. It’s a testament to the acting, script and direction’s power that Donnie is more mysterious and worthy of inquiry than the frightful bunny plaguing his thoughts. The central thesis of the film (plug your ears here if you haven’t seen it, because spoilers are a-comin’) is though Donnie’s visions guarantee his death, the viewer is left to decide whether he ended up saving the world as a result.
As Donnie sees it, the search for God is absurd. At least, that’s how he puts it to his psychiatrist. And God here means meaning, justice, self-satisfaction, wisdom and understanding. Walking for a while in his world makes it easy to discern just why he feels that way. Everyone around him acts and speaks irrationally, without regard for social norms or logic, at least to some degree.
At his school, in particular, it seems like his teachers and Patrick Swayze’s hilariously simplistic motivational speaker are intent on putting black-and-white constructs on reality. There’s some truth to the ideas Swayze espouses. Most actions are located somewhere on the spectrum between fear and love. Freud’s behind that idea too, even if his idea of love largely revolves around what Donnie and Gretchen get up to at the Halloween party. But Donnie is too shrewd to think the world and human action is that easy to understand. Black and white constructs don’t really do much for you if your evenings are generally spent rendezvousing with Harvey from Hell and your days are spent pondering a book about time travel by an old lady with David Lee Roth hair.
Complicating it further are the bubbly streams of fate emanating from everyone’s chests. Donnie alone can see these streams in all their mystery. The terror he talks about with his psychiatrist is more substantiated by these visions than those of Frank. Frank, at least, gives him a mysterious sense of fearful purpose by taking him down the proverbial rabbit hole. But imagine seeing the trajectory everyone was on and realizing their “fate” seemed to be a stream of irrational, absurd actions without any end goal in mind. The wise among us have raised the same idea as probable throughout history — destiny and free will are themes which stretch all the way back to Homer and the Bible, the gods orchestrating events without much referral to purpose — but Donnie’s just got the visuals to prove it.
What makes a hero? A hero is someone who sees the same things everyone else does but gains enough objectivity to want to change those things. Donnie is a Christ who can’t find God and Frank is a terrifying, supernatural sense of duty leading him to a sacrifice which will save the world. It’s either that or Donnie’s just caught up in his nightmares, occasionally dreaming of a world in which his purpose matters. Whichever way you read the movie, Donnie either has to come out a savior, a prophet or both. Whether it was all a dream or the seemingly improbable themes of time travel, fate and otherworldly visitation are meant to be taken as real, the end of the film finds a young man fulfilling a fate which is hard to understand but no doubt necessary.
The riddles the film presents us with are difficult to solve. When the protagonist and the actor who plays him can’t come up with a this-is-what-it-means interpretation, we’d be foolish to act like we can. Given all the data, Donnie laughs at the end of the story. “We all die alone,” he fearfully says earlier on. But when he dies alone himself, it seems he knows it’s coming. And whether or not it saves the world, whether or not it was all a paranoid, schizophrenic dream, a prophecy or a mission from God, he laughs all the same.
At the end of the film, a storm or time vortex gathers and, after Donnie has apparently found a reason to live and then lost it in Gretchen, he gains an even greater sense of meaning by weathering the storm. Absurdism says life is laughable because we will all be cut down by death and, thus, life has no purpose. Donnie Darko says life is laughable because we will all be cut down by death and life surprisingly does have purpose after all.