Essay Preview: Donnie Darko
Report this essay
To view the film Donnie Darko is to constantly ask one important question, “What if?” From the beginning, the audience wonders, “what will happen if Donnie doesn’t take his meds?” (Or maybe, from the very beginning, “what if a car drove over poor Donnie sleeping the middle of the road?”). At the inciting incident, we wonder “what if Frank hadn’t called Donnie out of bed?” (Would we even have a movie?) As Act II begins, the audience must ask, “what if the school hadn’t closed down?” (Would Donnie and Gretchen ever had a chance to fall in love?) Later on we’re invited to ask, “what if Dr. Monnitoff and Karen Pomeroy were really given the freedom that they need to help Donnie?” (What if Donnie never had burned down Jim Cunningham’s house, exposing his kiddie porn dungeon? What if Sparkle Motion hadn’t impressed the Star Search scout? What if Jim’s trial hadn’t forced Kitty to hand over chaperone duties to Rose? What if Elizabeth hadn’t gotten into Harvard? What if Frank hadn’t gone on a beer run? What if Karen Pomeroy had written something less poetic than “Cellar Door” on her chalkboard? And so on…) These pivotal moments represent the causal links that form the narrative structure of the film—the choices that Donnie makes (or are made in his behalf) that propel him towards his goal. If one were to diagram the story on a flow diagram, we would see how each pivotal point moves the story from one clear direction to another. We would also see that at one of these pivotal points, the decision tree grows a funny little branch that somehow finds its way back up to the beginning of the diagram—essentially creating a whole new universe of possibilities. It is this “multiverse” concept that has blown more than its fair share of minds in the years since the release of Donnie Darko and is what, conventionally, lends credence to the theory that the structure of the narrative can rightly be labeled “Nonlinear.”
However, what if we asked another “what if” question? What if, in fact, the events of this protagonist’s journey never actually happened at all? What if, instead of a nonlinear narrative in which two separate timelines converge into one, nothing really happens at all? What if Donnie never got out of bed? In this paper, I’ll argue that, while the narrative structure of Donnie Darko can be viewed in the scope of a nonlinear looking glass, a closer examination may demonstrate a more conventional (yet equally complex and satisfying) classic unified narrative structure. First, I’ll take a look at the question of genre and its implications to the understanding of the story. Next, I’ll consider the “rules” as devised by the film’s web site and director’s cut and contrast them to Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell’s theories on dreams and myths. Then I’ll touch upon how these points of contention can actually serve to support each separate interpretation, deepening the enjoyment of the film. And finally, I’ll examine how the setting of the story (regardless of the chronological understanding) informs the structure.
The concept of genre (and its inherent structural rules) in regards to Donnie Darko is essential to the viewers understanding of the film. If one is to assume that the film is, in most regards, a Fantasy genre story–as described by Robert McKee as playing “with time, space, and the physical, bending and mixing the laws of nature and the supernatural” (85), then one might also regard the nonlinear structure of the story to be “true” to the logic and conventions of the genre. In other words, the extra-reality concept of time travel is logically and consistently applied to the plot–the timeline of the story does indeed loop from a point in the near future to the present of the films plot. If, on the other hand, the viewer peers deeper into genre and understands Donnie Darko to be an Education Plot–wherein Donnie experiences a “deep change in [his] view of life, people, or self from the negative to the positive” (McKee 81)–then the logic of the nonlinear plotting becomes, perhaps, merely metaphorical and not inherent to the literal reading of the story. Or, if one assumes a Psycho-Drama subgenre, then perhaps the nonlinear plotting of the story exists only in the diseased mind of the protagonist and, therefore, the narrative actually plays out in a strictly linear fashion.
Much has been written and debated concerning the meaning and structure of Donnie Darko from the perspective of the Fantasy (or Sci-fi) genre. In fact, based on differences between the original theatrical version of the film (which I have chosen to use for my analysis) and the extended version released in 2004, Donnie Darko: Director’s Cut, it would seem that Kelly wrote and directed his film based on the Fantasy genre. However, the creator of a piece of art isn’t necessarily the final arbiter of meaning for the work. Once a work of art reaches an audience, the original intended meaning bends and transforms with the force of the audience’s experience of the work. It’s not enough to determine what the creator of the work meant; we must also consider our own perspective and how the work affects us. With that in mind, I’d argue that, despite Kelly’s best efforts to retain his intended perspective (and with the acknowledgement that we can’t completely know what he intended), a different genre perspective might better explain the meaning and structure of the narrative. If one reads the structure of the narrative in a fairly straightforward manner (with extra clues provided by the director’s cut), then one could understand the time line of the narrative as nonlinear. Events at the end of the story (the jet engine detaching from the plane carrying Rose and Samantha) occur near the beginning of the story (with Donnie directly in the trajectory of the falling engine). In this perspective, we are forced to align all subsequent events along the time line, with the understanding that there is a perfectly reasonable (and consistent) explanation for a seemingly impossible causal loop. This interpretation requires the audience to suspend disbelief and accept that, perhaps, Roberta Sparrow’s “Philosophy of Time Travel” could be a valid and useful guide to Donnie’s understanding of the causal relationship between his actions and future events.
On the other hand, we’re talking about a six-foot tall, grotesque bunny that speaks directly into the protagonist’s head and instructs him to flood schools and burn down houses. With some quick exposition (not to mention several visits to a therapist’s office), we’re given some very clear clues that Donnie might not be in his right mind. Dr. Thurman, as one might expect from a rational psychiatrist, believes that Frank is a “daylight hallucination” and a “manifestation of his subconscious mind”