Programme Notes: Donnie Darko


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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

Richard Kelly's debut feature film Donnie Darko is a quirky and daring tale of a troubled teenager named Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) who essentially realises that he has to die in order to save the world. On 2 October 1988, in the small town of Middlesex, Virginia, Donnie is summoned in a sleepwalking state out of his home by a giant bunny rabbit named Frank, who tells him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds (ironically, the movie was filmed over the span of 28 days, matching up to the timeline of the story). After barely escaping a bizarre accident where a plane engine crushes his bedroom, Donnie continues to have doomsday-related visions of Frank, and is manipulated by him to commit a series of crimes during his sleepwalking episodes. The big questions in this movie are: is the world actually going to end and  was Frank sent as a warning sign to Donnie so he can save the world? Is this all taking place in a new reality? Or is this part of Donnie’s paranoid schizophrenia hallucinations?

The movie certainly leaves a lot of questions unanswered and keeps us guessing as to what the true meaning of the film is, and that seems to have been Kelly’s intention. Donnie Darko had its theatrical release in late October 2001. Unfortunately, the advertising featuring a jet engine crashing into a house didn’t go down well with audiences just weeks after the 9/11 attacks took place, and the movie grossed only around $7.5 million, which was lacklustre for a $4.5 million budget film. Luckily the movie gained a lot of traction after its DVD release, and quickly became a cult phenomenon.

A couple of years later in 2004, a director’s cut of the movie was released on DVD and had a limited theatrical release also. The cut featured an additional 20 minutes of footage, a few soundtrack changes and an improved sound mix, as well as pages from the Philosophy of Time Travel (the book that Donnie is given by his science teacher, Prof Monnitoff played by Noah Wyle) inserted between scenes, to create an overall more coherent and accessible story. Some feel that the release of the director’s cut ruined Donnie Darko as it gave too much explanation to the more ambiguous elements of the film, and it was the uncertainty of not knowing anything for sure that made the film so compelling. However, many people disagree, arguing that the theatrical release was too confusing and incoherent and that the new version made it easier to understand for a broader audience. It’s a good idea to watch both versions of the film and decide for yourself which version you prefer.

Donnie Darko is a film full of psychological, philosophical and science-related questions. It's a surprisingly easy watch, yet still leaves audiences questioning. Naturally, after its initial release, fans of this twisted film began speculating on the meaning behind it and tried to piece together a logical explanation for the story’s events. Popular theories include questioning whether Donnie was perhaps dead all along, or perhaps that he was hallucinating or dreaming. Others speculate that the movie is a warning against drink driving. Go online and you will find countless forums and blogs discussing and explaining different theories for the movie.

The director’s cut put a damper on all of these theories as Richard Kelly finally (sort of) explained everything. The canon explanation of Donnie Darko (available in full with extra details at www.donniedarko.org.uk) is that the film takes place in an unstable Tangent Universe (TU), which is physically connected to the Primary Universe (PU) by a vortex or wormhole. The TU is an exact duplicate of the PU except for a metal object (the jet engine) known as the Artefact. If this Artefact isn’t sent back to the TU within 28 days then the PU will collapse and be destroyed. There is a chosen Living Receiver, in this case Donnie, who is given super-human abilities in order to return the Artefact into its correct universe. There is also the Manipulated Living (Drew Barrymore’s Miss Pomeroy is one) and the Manipulated Dead (for example, Jena Malone’s Gretchen) that aid Donnie in his mission, and set up an Ensurance Trap that forces the Receiver to save the PU. Basically, everything that happens in Donnie Darko is part of bringing Donnie to the point where he can save the universe. At the end of the film, the previous 28 days rewind and Donnie wakes up in his bedroom on the 2nd of October and is crushed by the falling jet engine, having successfully saved the universe from collapsing.

Even this thorough explanation and director’s cut still leave some unanswered queries and allow room for some speculation. Jake Gyllenhaal himself said that he doesn’t really understand the movie, but in a deeper sense it was never meant to be understood. That’s the true beauty of Donnie Darko — it’s a cult movie that came out almost two decades ago, and just about everyone has either seen it or heard of it, yet nobody really understands it. Not even the lead of the movie, Donnie himself.

Julia Mazur
GFT Youth Board Member


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