No Offense, But What Is Donnie Darko?
Donnie Darko, a movie that begins with a jet engine plunging directly into a suburban home, hit theatres shortly after 9/11, when the demand for plane-related horror was…low. The first-time directorial effort of 26-year-old Richard Kelly, starring future extremely famous people Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone, Donnie Darko was relatively critically acclaimed, but otherwise a total bomb, making just a little over $500,000 at the box office.
For various reasons (the metal combo of critical acclaim and public rejection? The verboten nature of said plane-based horror? The fact that the director disputed the theatrical version and released his own cut three years later? Jake Gyllenhaal’s mentally unstable character?), the DVD became a massive cult hit, making $10 million domestically and spawning midnight screenings that continue to this day. If any clear message can be distilled from the movie—and honestly, I’m not sure that one can—it’s, “You’re not crazy, you’re just a martyr who’s smarter than everybody else.” As such, if you liked Donnie Darko, it meant you “got” Donnie Darko, which meant you were a genius and had cool, secret pain. If you didn’t like Donnie Darko, you were an idiot basic. This bizarre devotion to a movie about a teen boy being haunted by a rude bunny has only grown stronger over the years: On March 31, Donnie Darko will return to theaters around the country for a limited run because, as its press materials state, this will “allow a modern classic to finally receive the treatment it deserves.”
The thing about Donnie Darko, though, is that it literally makes no sense. We cool, secretly pained geniuses were all lying to each other and ourselves. I rewatched the movie this week, both in anticipation of its rerelease and because, hey, I mostly enjoyed it! It’s a fun li’l sci-fi film, Drew Barrymore plays a pissed-off English teacher who’s boning Noah Wyle, and its satirization of late-’80s suburbia is spot-on. Except, afterward, I had to spend hours ovaries-deep in Reddit just to begin to understand what the hell was going on plot-wise. As I scoured U.K.-based Geocities fan pages, I was immediately reminded of doing the very same thing over a decade ago, which is horrifying proof that—as Donnie Darko seems to posit (who can say?)—we are all just hamsters on a wheel.
Stunningly, the director himself admits that his movie doesn’t work without supplementary texts; in the director’s cut DVD commentary, he says, “This film kinda does need Cliffs Notes.” Even Gyllenhaal has “no idea” what the movie is about. In other words, you can’t understand Donnie Darko unless you commit to spending the rest of your life googling, “What actually happens in Donnie Darko?” and “Donnie Darko explanation” over and over again. Even then, you still won’t totally understand it, because according to Kelly, “all [the fan theories] are wrong,” but also, “there are so many interpretations that are all valid.” Oh.
In an effort to save you from an unholy fate of 404s and heartbreak, I’ve broken down the film scene by scene, noting what actually happens onscreen and what the internet—with occasional, vague help from various Kelly interviews, the original website, and the director’s cut DVD—has decided “happens.” Please note that this is more of a deranged theory collage than anything else, and is in no way an actual comprehensive and canonical explanation of the film, as clearly that is totally impossible.
[Please press play on this plinky-plonk Tears for Fears cover, and listen as you read.]
What actually happens: Donnie Darko wakes up on a mountaintop, looking confused. He returns home, where his parents chide him for repeated sleepwalking. He calls his sister Elizabeth Darko a “fuck ass,” and she reveals to their parents that he is not taking his meds. He calls his mom a bitch.
What “happens”: Donnie Darko is a Living Receiver, a martyr selected for reasons unknown by either God or aliens who will have to sacrifice himself to save the Primary Universe (PU) from the Tangent Universe (TU), which is about to spring up in his hometown of Middlesex, Virginia, and which will eventually form a black hole and destroy all of existence. Either that, or a schizophrenic Donnie is imagining this all from within an insane asylum. Either that, or Donnie is dead this entire time.
What actually happens: A voice tells Donnie Darko to “wake up,” and Donnie Darko sleepwalks again, this time into his yard, where a giant demon rabbit tells him that the world is going to end at the end of October (it is currently October 2). A jet engine falls through the roof of the Darko home, directly into Donnie’s room. Donnie wakes up on a golf course with the date of the apocalypse written on his arm and walks back home.
What “happens”: The jet engine is an Artifact that has created a Tangent Universe. All Tangent Universe Artifacts are formed from metal. This signifies divine intervention because it does. God is real (unless he is not, and it’s aliens). There are parallel universes (or they all exist within Donnie’s deluded brain). Please keep up.
What actually happens: Donnie, having narrowly escaped death, meets his friends at the bus stop, where they all bully one of their schoolmates, Cherita Chen. We’re soon introduced to Middlesex High School’s cast of characters, including coke-snorting bullies, disinterested faculty, Samantha Darko and her dance troupe, sketchy self-help guru-cum-teacher Jim Cunningham, anal-retentive health teacher Kitty Farmer, and a very hot Noah Wyle/Drew Barrymore combo.
What “happens”: We are now living in the corrupted Tangent Universe, which sprang up because the fourth dimension’s fabric was corrupted. How? Why are you asking me? The point is that this universe is highly unstable and dangerous, because it will eventually collapse in on itself. All of the other characters in this movie, save for Donnie, are the Manipulated Living or the Manipulated Dead; their sole purpose is to help or hinder Donnie on his quest to save the Primary Universe. Cherita Chen is either the representation of dying innocence or a spy sent by the aliens and/or God to watch over Donnie’s behavior within the Tangent Universe.
What actually happens: Drew Barrymore reads aloud from a Graham Greene book about teens messing shit up. Jena Malone’s Gretchen, a new girl, sits next to Donnie because she thinks he’s the cutest.
What “happens”: Gretchen sat next to Donnie because this isn’t actually the first time Donnie has been tasked with saving the world; in fact, it is all taking place in a predetermined Time Loop, wherein Donnie must try to save the world from destruction over and over again until he gets it right. If Gretchen does not fall in love with Donnie, then she is not correctly fulfilling her role as Manipulated Dead. Drew Barrymore pairs them up because on some level, the Manipulated Dead and Manipulated Living all remember what they are supposed to do within the Time Loop. You guys get it.
What actually happens: Donnie and his dad talk about how the FAA “can’t tell us what happened” re: the jet engine plunging into their home. They pass by Grandma Death, an old woman who hangs out next to her mailbox all day and as such is almost run over on a regular basis. Grandma Death whispers something into Donnie’s ear, but we can’t hear it.
What “happens”: Grandma Death is actually a woman named Roberta Sparrow, who wrote a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel, which is a fake book written by Richard Kelly that explains this entire movie (except when it doesn’t). Roberta was the original Living Receiver, chosen to guide another Artifact into position for its journey back to the Primary Universe. Roberta survived her own Tangent Universe and is one of the Manipulated Living meant to help guide Donnie to his destiny of saving the world.
What actually happens: Donnie tells his therapist about Frank, the rude bunny that is telling him the world is ending. The therapist is like, “Hm.” Donnie sleepwalks again, and the next day, it’s revealed that somebody flooded the school, sunk an ax into the school mascot statue’s head, and wrote “they made me do it” on the ground. Donnie spends the day hanging out with Gretchen, and she agrees to “go with” him after sharing a story about how she’s in the Witness Protection Program because her insane stepdad is stalking her and her mom.
What “happens”: Donnie was able to flood the school because the Living Receiver is blessed with Fourth-Dimensional Powers, including increased strength, telekinesis, mind control, and the ability to conjure fire and water. The aliens and/or God and/or the universe are the “they” that made him do it, so that Gretchen would fall in love with him, and eventually help him save the Primary Universe from being sucked into a black hole. The Witness Protection Program is just cool.
What actually happens: Donnie’s therapist hypnotizes him and he almost jerks off in her office. A school bully is blamed for the flooding and threatens to slit Donnie’s throat. Donnie and his friends have an involved convo about whether Smurfette has had sex with all the other Smurfs; Donnie explains that Smurfs are asexual, but that he doesn’t understand why they exist, as there’s no “point in being alive if you have no dick.” During another hallucination, Frank asks Donnie if he believes in time travel; Donnie reads a poem about this experience with Frank in school.
What “happens”: Donnie, the Living Receiver, is being tormented by dreams and auditory hallucinations as he tries to grasp his place within the Tangent Universe. One of those dreams is, I guess, about him having sex. The Smurfs are asexual and can’t.
What actually happens: Donnie goes off in health class about a Jim Cunningham video that teaches choosing “love over fear,” yelling that it oversimplifies the human experience and that Mrs. Farmer should shove it all up her ass. He’s suspended from after-school activities for this, and his mom is like, “This jet-engine thing has fucked Donnie right up!” Donnie asks Noah Wyle about time travel, and Noah hands him…Roberta Sparrow’s book. Donnie asks his therapist if this can possibly be a coincidence, and tells her that Roberta told him “every living creature on Earth dies alone.”
What “happens”: God is dead and/or real. Or aliens. Noah Wyle, one of the Manipulated Living, is helping Donnie along his dimension-altering journey. Either that, or he is a secret time-traveling agent who is in with the aliens and/or God and he will, after the movie, die under “mysterious circumstances,” whereafter his wife, Drew Barrymore, will send Roberta Sparrow’s book to the Library of Congress. Roberta Sparrow told Donnie that everybody dies alone because he’s going to have to die to save the world, even though she didn’t have to die when she saved the world, but it’s fine, let’s just keep going, we’re only halfway done here.
What actually happens: Donnie begins to see giant, clear worm-blobs protruding from the chests of everyone around him. Donnie’s worm-blob leads him to his parent’s closet, where he finds and snags a gun.
What “happens”: The worm-blobs are representations of the future, and the idea that free will is a myth, and we are all controlled by “God’s channel”…or aliens.
What actually happens: Donnie’s parents visit his therapist, who says she believes Donnie is unable to cope with the threatening forces of the world. Same. She tells his parents about Frank, and they’re like, “…?” The therapist recommends increasing Donnie’s meds. Donnie lashes out at Jim Cunningham at a school assembly, calling him the “fucking Antichrist.” Soon thereafter, he visits Grandma Death’s house with Gretchen, and Grandma Death doesn’t come to the door. Frank’s voice tells Donnie to “send her a letter.”
What “happens”: The Manipulated Living will do anything to save themselves from oblivion, including Donnie’s therapist, who is telling Donnie and his parents totally different things (“you’re not cray”; “yes, Donnie is cray”), and Gretchen, who is following Donnie around and doing his bidding. Donnie needs to send Grandma Death a letter so that she will receive it in her mailbox, which she has been checking for years. It’s unclear why they can’t just talk. Please don’t ask questions like that or the entire conceit of the film collapses.
What actually happens: Donnie and Gretchen see The Evil Dead. (Do you get it?) Gretchen passes out, and Frank shows up, asking Donnie why he is wearing a “stupid man suit.” Frank removes his bunny hat, revealing himself to be another teen with a bloody eye. Donnie burns down Jim Cunningham’s house at Frank’s behest during the school dance recital, and it’s revealed that Jim Cunningham is a kiddie-porn king. Donnie’s dad tells him he’s “not crazy” and “all of those people are full of shit, part of a great big conspiracy, scared of people like you because those bullshitters know that you’re smarter than all of them.”
What “happens”: Donnie needed to burn down Jim Cunningham’s house because this movie is also about the abject failure of the public school system. Frank’s eye will make brief sense shortly, then it will make no sense at all. Donnie is not crazy, he’s just a time traveler who’s smarter than everybody else. Unless he is crazy.
What actually happens: Drew Barrymore is fired for being “inappropriate.” She screams “Fuck!!!!!!!” at the sky. It’s amazing. She shows her class a video of Watership Down, after which they debate the existence of God and the miracle of deus ex machina. Samantha Darko’s dance team gets on Star Search, and Mrs. Farmer begs Donnie’s mom to take them, because she needs to defend her kiddie-porn-king friend Jim Cunningham.
What “happens”: The public school system is an abject failure, remember? The rabbits are the rest of the human race: ignorant, cute, horny. God saved the rabbits just like he will save the world from utter destruction (maybe!!). Donnie’s mom has to go to Star Search because it sets off a chain of events that create an Ensurance Trap, making certain that the Living Receiver uses his Fourth-Dimensional Powers to send the Artifact back to the Primary Universe before the Tangent Universe black hole collapses upon itself. Yes. This is what’s happening.
What actually happens: Drew Barrymore tells Donnie she’s been fired, and he’s pissed, because she is the only other Extremely Smart Person in this movie. She writes “cellar door” on the blackboard, and explains that “famous linguists” have decided that it’s the most beautiful phrase of all time. Donnie tells his therapist that he’s scared of dying alone and also has the “power to build a time machine,” and that the world is going to end soon. The therapist tells him she’s been giving him placebo pills filled with water, not schizophrenia meds, and tells Donnie he’s an agnostic because he “doesn’t deny a possibility that God exists.”
What “happens”: This is part two of the Ensurance Trap. Drew Barrymore’s departure riles Donnie up, and the “cellar door” thing directs him to the cellar door of Grandma Death’s house, where shit goes down (YOU’LL SEE). The therapist, one of the Manipulated Living, is helping Donnie learn to come to terms with his eventual lonely death so that he can save the universe (because God or aliens want him to). Oh, also, water is one of the key elements of time travel, so the pills have been helping him see Frank.
What actually happens: Donnie and Elizabeth decide to throw a party to celebrate her acceptance to Harvard. It’s also a Halloween party, please keep up. Everyone gets drunk. Gretchen shows up and explains that her stepdad has kidnapped and/or murdered her mom. This inspires Donnie and Gretchen to finally do it. Donnie’s mom grabs the red-eye back to Middlesex.
What “happens”: The Manipulated Dead are setting the Ensurance Trap, making sure Donnie will in fact follow through on his time-traveling-world-saving black-hole-smashing extravaganza. Part of the Ensurance Trap is making sure that Gretchen’s mom is brutally murdered, which makes her sad, which makes her horny (because we are rabbits, not Smurfs, remember), and deepens her relationship with Donnie, so that when something bad happens to her (JUST WAIT) he will feel compelled to turn back the clock on her behalf.
What actually happens: Donnie and Gretchen spontaneously go to Grandma Death’s house, for some reason, where they enter her cellar door and find Seth Rogen, for some reason, who beats them up, for some reason. Gretchen falls into the street, where she’s run over by Frank. Donnie, devastated, shoots Frank in the eye and kills him. Grandma Death tells Donnie to “hurry.”
What “happens”: Everybody went to Grandma Death’s house so all of this could go down, specifically. Gretchen is dead, so Donnie no longer feels compelled to stay in the Tangent Universe, and will be cool about saving the Primary Universe (quickly). Frank is a normal dude just normally having sex Elizabeth before he is shot in the eye by Donnie. Frank, now a Manipulated Dead in the Tangent Universe, is able to contact and order around the Living Receiver through a Fourth-Dimensional Construct. If Gretchen hadn’t died, Frank wouldn’t have died, and then nobody would be around to tell Donnie how to save the world. Either that, or aliens. You didn’t get all that from this scene? Weird!!!
What actually happens: Donnie kisses his sister goodbye, stares angrily at a black hole forming over his house, and races back to Ye Olde Mountaintop just as the police arrive at his house to arrest him for killing Frank. Dead Gretchen is chilling in the car. On the mountain, he stares at the sky, laughing. Up in the sky, a jet engine flies off of his mom’s plane, and everybody screams.
What “happens”: The black hole is about to suck up the Tangent Universe and destroy the Primary Universe in the process. Donnie halts this by ripping the jet engine off of his mom’s plane using his telekinesis, constructing a time portal from water, and guiding the engine through it, which forces the Tangent Universe to collapse safely back…somewhere, and the Primary Universe to resume itself. There’s really no reason Donnie’s mom has to be on the plane with the broken jet engine. That, unlike everything else we’ve discussed here, makes no sense.
What actually happens: Everybody wakes up and looks freaked out in their beds. Donnie is in his bed, too, except he’s laughing. He is immediately crushed to death by the jet engine that he himself yanked from the plane. The next morning, as the cops try to figure out what happened to Donnie, Gretchen, who makes it clear to a stranger that she has never met the Darko family, waves to his mom as she cycles by. “Mad World” plays forlornly.
What “happens”: Donnie has saved the Primary Universe by sending the Artifact through the Portal, because having two jet engines in the same universe is bad. The last 28 days never happened. It’s October 2 again and everything is great, except that Donnie is dead. Nobody on the internet seems to know why Donnie had to die when Roberta Sparrow was allowed to live, and Kelly won’t tell us. The Manipulated Living all vaguely remember their journey into the Tangent Universe, as if they’ve awoken from a terrible dream; some of them are “profoundly remorseful” for the stuff they did, i.e., viewed child porn. Gretchen vaguely remembers Donnie’s mom, who vaguely remembers her, even though they literally never met in this movie.
Donnie is laughing either due to the sheer unfairness of the universe, or because he’s about to meet God, or because he has no idea he’s about to die and thinks everything is totally fine. Either that, or aliens. Either that, or he was dead all along. Either that, or he’s insane. Either that, or it was all his dream. “Mad World” plays because it’s emo and deep. Anyway. You guys get it.