Donnie Darko: Morality, Mortality and a scary bunny named Frank
John H. Christensen, náš externí přispěvatel z Dánska, rozplétá složitou filozofickou spleť prvního kultovního sci-fi snímku 21. století, Donnie Darko. Následující článek vznikl exklusivně pro časopis 25fps a je psán anglicky . Českého překladu se na našich stránkách dočkáte v prvních březnových dnech.
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that’s difficult to fit into a single category or genre. Richard Kelly’s film Donnie Darko from 2001 certainly fits under this category, but it goes even further than that; like its refusal to belong to a clearly definable genre, this film almost intentionally tries to defy standard interpretation. Sure, there’s no question that the film carries several embedded themes, but what are they and why are they? Like a well crafted puzzle, its clues are scattered all over for you to find and collect − all the while teasing that the solution − the “real answer” − is just around the next proverbial corner. In this article I will attempt to gather pieces of the puzzle and, for what it’s worth, offer my own discussion and interpretation of individual themes one puzzle piece at a time as well as the movie as a whole. Throughout, I also will compare my interpretation to that of director Richard Kelly – while not similar, the two interpretations should hopefully be compatible. A couple of quick things before we start: the article applies first and foremost to the regular DVD version of Donnie Darko (not the longer director’s cut or film festival version) and assumes that the reader has seen the film. Furthermore, it assumes that everything within the film is intentional and meant to be used as part of the interpretation. Ok, with that let’s start! Please join me as we go into the rabbit hole − of a bunny named Frank.
Puzzle piece 1: The internal universe
Now, the first step in order to solve this massive puzzle and get to the heart of the movie’s message is to establish a general idea of the film’s internal logic and its events. Here’s what we know: the world will end at a very specific time, and Donnie has some role to play in it. The question is what that role is, and why the world will end. I hope to answer these questions during this article, but first things first – let’s start with Frank.
Let us first assume from the clues given in the film that the character of Frank exists off-screen as a breathing, normal human being for most of the film. We’ll call him “Human Frank”. At the Halloween party at the Darko house, Human Frank writes the message on the refrigerator whiteboard which reads “Frank was here, went to get more beer”. Later that same evening, Human Frank and his friend decide to drive up past Grandma Death’s house, where he inadvertently kills Gretchen and meets Donnie for the first time. In that scene, it seems that Donnie obviously knows who Frank is, but Human Frank has no idea who Donnie is. When Donnie subsequently shoots Human Frank, he dies, turns into “Bunny Frank” and travels back in time with the foreknowledge of what will eventually happen. Thus, when we see Bunny Frank at the beginning of the film and onwards, he has already been shot in the eye, as evidenced when he takes off the mask in the movie theatre and when Donnie stabs his eye through the mirror in the bathroom scene. From this reasoning, it follows that Frank cannot be an imaginary character! In order for Donnie to be imagining Bunny Frank so particularly − in that specific costume and shot in the eye, Donnie must have somehow been aware of what Human Frank would wear at the Halloween party and what would eventually happen to him. That party is still in Donnie’s future and not even planned, since Donnie’s parents went away on short notice to coach Sparkle Motion. So, now we have the first piece of the puzzle – Frank Bunny is real, and not merely part of Donnie’s imagination. Furthermore, since Frank then actually travelled in time, time travel is possible in this movie’s internal universe.
As for how it happened, that is − under which circumstances − director Richard Kelly explains on the 2-disc DVD set that on the night of November 2nd, 2002, the world branched into two; the primary universe where Donnie dies, and the tangent universe, a secondary universe, where Donnie is alive by talking to Frank in the garden. More on those universes and their impact on the world a little later on.
Puzzle piece 2: Freedom of choice
Having learnt a little more about the film’s universe, we delve a little deeper into its primary themes. One in particular stands out as the main key to understanding the film: character choices. Throughout the plot, characters are constantly talking about choice, asked to choose or relate to the nature of choice. Teach Graham Greene’s “The Destructors” in school or ban it? Sparkle Motion or Cherita’s poetry reading at the school performance? Mordern English teacher Karen Pomeroy or narrow-viewed gym/social teacher Kitty Palmer? The choice even extends to Dukakis vs. George Bush senior in the 1988 election (the election is mentioned during dinner, on TV and on the whiteboard on the fridge, which at one point says “Vote Dukakis”). Conversely, when dealing with Frank, Donnie tells his therapist that he needs to obey Frank, and writes “They made me do it” when vandalising the school. Ok, so characters are thematically presented with choices or have choices taken away from them, but what does that mean?
Well, consider for a moment the “choice” of Jim Cunningham’s fear vs. love in which a situation is given, like “Steve finds a wallet and keeps all the money for himself”. In Cunningham’s system, the act of not returning a wallet can be attributed to either fear or love. However, as Donnie remarks both in class and at the motivational Cunningham lecture, this doesn’t make sense – choosing between fear or love is merely an illusion of choice. Life is so much bigger, so much better and so much more complex than to simply cram each situation into one of two categories. (In that way, yet another choice is created − one between Cunningham and Darko’s view of the world respectively). It’s seemingly one thing to be forced into a choice we do not wish (such as Donnie’s vandalism), but willingly reducing these choices lessens our life to the point of the choice itself no longer having proper value − such as choosing between “fear or love” in a situation which has only peripheral connection to either.
This also makes sense within the film itself and its character portrayal, as the characters who prescribe to the “less choice”-view, such as Kitty Palmer, the school’s principal and Jim Cunningham are definitely either narrow-minded, judgemental or morally corrupt; Cunningham is discovered to have a child pornography dungeon, Kitty refuses to accept facts or opposite points of view on several occasions (Cunningham’s imprisonment, Donnie objecting to the Fear-Love system etc.) and Principal Cole proceeds to fire Karen Pomeroy without proper cause or explanation. The characters who prescribe to the “more choice”-view, such as Donnie, Gretchen and Karen Pomeroy certainly have their own problems, but they do, however, hold nuanced world views and are willing and capable to defend these positions through intelligent (if aggressive) discussion. Characters “in between” include Donnie’s physics teacher who chooses to give him the Philosophy of Time Travel, but refuses to speak more about it and Donnie’s mother Rose, who has second thoughts about coaching Sparkle Motion, but ends up pressured into it. Finally, outside this distinction entirely, we find Grandma Death and Bunny Frank. These characters are never given direct choices to deal with as their roles are special within the story – one is travelling in time, the other almost lives outside it. As they don’t relate to choices similarly to all the other characters, it makes sense that they are not faced with them.
(Interestingly, if the protagonists are “more choice” and the antagonists are “less choice”, is Bunny Frank then an evil character? He apparently isn’t offering Donnie a lot of choice to carry out his bidding, at least according to Donnie himself. On the other hand, this could simply be in order to exempt Donnie from willingly choosing vandalism and arson.)
The impact of characters‘ choices in this world is quite apparent; generally, characters in this movie lean towards the simpler, less fulfilling choices, aka. the “bad” choices in terms of wanting to understand the nuances in life. People choose Sparkle Motion as opposed to Cherita’s autumn poetry, Graham Greene is banned from the school curriculum, Jim Cunningham’s self help methods are popular and Karen Pomeroy is fired. During the Parent-teacher meeting where “The Destroyers” is being banned, Frank says to Donnie that “they are in great danger” − very likely alluding to the fact that in banning the book, these people are proceeding down a path of intolerance and unwillingness to accept difference in views and opinion. In taking away choice, reason and value in life, they are, in short, causing the end of the world as foretold by Frank. So, the 2nd puzzle piece is in place: It would seem that the world in Donnie Darko ends because its characters continuously simplify their lives by choosing badly. Unfortunately, there’s a problem and it still doesn’t explain Donnie’s part in it.
Puzzle Piece 3: Predestination and determinism
To reiterate, the conclusion in puzzle piece 2 is this: Characters are presented with choices and in choosing the bad options, it causes the end of the world. However, all of this hinges on the fact that the characters even have freedom of choice, and unfortunately, there’s plenty of indication in the film to suggest that they may, in fact, not have that freedom – and that is the next step of the puzzle.
While watching football with his dad and a friend, Donnie suddenly sees translucent, liquid spears coming out of everyone’s chests. “Like workers, assigned to each one of us”, he later explains to his therapist. These spears seem to be guiding every individual character towards his or her eventual actions, much like how a train has no choice but to follow the set tracks of the railroad. To explain it more thoroughly, imagine the characters in a movie that you own on DVD. You’ve seen the film many times and know the plot and how it ends. No matter how many times you watch it, it will always end the same way. However, the characters in the film don’t know how it will end; from their perspective, they think that they’re freely choosing when in fact, the plot must always be the same – Rick Blaine will always put Ilsa Lund on the plane out of Casablanca, Maximus will always avenge his family in Gladiator and the Ewoks will always be instrumental in defeating the Empire. When the spears come out of people’s chests in Donnie Darko, it’s a recognition of that predetermination, not just in terms of the characters‘ lack of choice within their own universe, but also in life – meaning that right now, me writing this, you reading this − everyone − are living their own DVD right now, thinking that we choose freely, when in fact there is no other way that we could have chosen. The conversation between Donnie and his science teacher Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff shortly after Cunningham’s conference confirms this: “Each vessel travels along a vector of space time along its centre of gravity”, he starts, to which Donnie replies that, “If God controls time, then all time is pre-decided [because that means] that every living thing follows through a set path”. “[But] if we were able to see our destinies manifest themselves visually”, Monnitoff continues, “then we would be given a choice to betray our chosen destinies”. ”Not if you’re travelling within God’s channel”, Donnie argues back, thereby cementing the notion of “no free will” completely.
What Donnie is expressing here is a form of predestination (also known as predetermination). He is assuming that if there is a God who is omnipotent, controls time and the ultimate fate of humanity, that Being would in essence already know the “end of the DVD” so to speak, meaning that whatever choice we make, we were always predestined to make it. Even though the idea may seem quite strange, counter-intuitive or even absurd when put this bluntly and with such consequences, the idea is still very prominent in everyday life. When things happen to us, we sometimes say that “things happen for a reason”, a lot of people believe in fate or destiny in some form and most believe that a certain behaviour will come back to reward or punish us (like, “Good things happen to good people”). Some people believe in astrology, tarot and other ways of predicting the future. What’s common to all of these things is that they speak of the future as something that is partially or wholly foreseeable regardless of your actions, and that is a form of predestination. It’s what Richard Kelly calls “the manipulated dead” and “the manipulated living” in his own interpretation. He divides the characters into who lives and who dies within the primary and tangent universe, but there’s no question that they are in fact manipulated in order to carry out a greater plan relating to the main character of Donnie Darko.
In the conversation mentioned, Donnie uses the concept of God as the entity responsible for predestination. Conversations about God are quite prominent in the plot, and it’s therefore probably safe to assume that it’s some form of divinity that’s pulling the strings to cause predetermination, at least according to Donnie. This is however also why Donnie says that “the belief in God is absurd if everyone dies alone”. After all, if God controls everything, why make everyone die alone? That’s certainly not the act of someone who is all wise and merciful. However, it’s also entirely possible to establish this relation without the use of divine influence. In the theory known as determinism, it’s argued that the choices we as humans make will always be the result of past choices. That makes sense, as we do indeed call upon our past experiences to make present choices. For example, if you try banana ice cream and hate it, the next time you’re offered, it’s easy to predict that you will say no. That’s a relatively simple situation, but determinism takes the result of this prior information or influence even further and says that every single situation is like that in varying degrees of complexity. And indeed why wouldn’t it be? Like a huge chain of events or a giant database, A leading to B, B leading to C etc., the choice you decide to make in the present will always be influenced by gathered experience, and even the need to be unpredictable sometimes must come from something. Obviously, there is no way to obtain all of that information in order to use it, but it doesn’t change the fact that if all the information was available and we were able to analyse it, then you could theoretically predict the exact action a person would take in a given choice situation. In either case, a choice presented would, according to predestination and determinism, not be a choice at all. Instead, it would either merely be a predictable product of your experience or an already determined part of a giant master plan.
This puts a whole new light on character choices in Donnie Darko. Since characters are predestined to carry out their fates in accordance with some master plan, they can’t be held responsible for making those “bad choices” mentioned earlier (banning literature, firing Karen Pomeroy etc.) as they have no real say in the matter. In reality, they choose nothing as everything was always going to happen that way. As an example, if you sign a document while someone points a gun at your head, whatever the document says actually has nothing to do with your actual actions or opinions as you had no choice at the time. “I have to obey him, he saved my life. I have to obey him, or I’ll be left all alone, and then I won’t be able to figure out what this is all about […] I won’t be able to know his master plan“, Donnie confesses in therapy. This is puzzle piece 3, and a much darker one: it seems the world ends because it is destined to end, since humans will inevitably always choose badly as part of who and what they are. In other words, we’re doomed. If only there was some sort of saviour to absolve the inherent sin and wrongness of humankind… hmm.
Puzzle Piece 4: Choices within God’s channel
Enter Donnie Darko, the person Gretchen thinks sounds like a superhero name. And like a superhero, Donnie will do the impossible – he will be given a choice, a real, not-predestined choice and save humanity. As Donnie is able to see the spears coming out of everyone, it seems in that particular scene that he is given the choice to follow it or not. He ultimately chooses to do so, and he is led to the gun that will kill Human Frank. Well, if the assumption that he is actually able to choose “within God’s channel” (as mentioned in the discussion with his science teacher) is correct, what choice is it that must he make to save humanity?
On October 2nd, a jet engine crashes through Donnie Darko’s room. He’s outside on the lawn at the time, talking to Bunny Frank, and therefore survives (thus creating Richard Kelly’s “tangent universe”). In this universe, Donnie is given a glimpse of what will happen if the world continues on that particular path. To put it mildly, the results aren’t very encouraging – his girlfriend dies, the boyfriend of Donnie’s sister (Human Frank) is shot through the eye, his parents will die in a plane crash (thus creating the paradox of the jet engine falling back through a time portal and landing on the house on October 2nd), Jim Cunningham’s lectures will grow in popularity, Karen Pomeroy will lose her job, Donnie will be ordered to perform vandalism and arson and the world will end.
That is his choice at the end of the film, when it is once again October 2nd: get out of bed, go into the garden and survive for 28 more days, knowing that due to predestination, everything will happen the exact same way again – or do what nobody else can and make a choice to stay in bed, thus sacrificing himself to change the course of the future and save humanity. He knows it too, because he tells Cherita that “thing will be better for you, I promise”. He tells Human Frank’s friend after Frank gets shot to “tell his parents that everything will be all right” and as he drives the lifeless body of Gretchen home, he thinks about how she always wished she could experience how beautiful life could be. He even laughs when the jet engine crashes through the roof, because this choice is made willingly in the knowledge that now, things will be better. And they are, as seen in the closing montage. The shallow, “less choice” characters are full of despair, while the “More choice” characters look hopeful. Donnie has saved humanity, and that is the final puzzle piece: Donnie’s role in this is to save humanity, as he is the only one who has a choice to do so. He does so by willingly dying so the rest of the world can turn out better.
The religious overtones are unmistakable here, but definitely also intentional and even very cleverly incorporated. Check out the scene where Donnie walks away from the cinema after he meets Frank and Gretchen has fallen asleep – the double feature on cinema sign reads Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. In The Last Temptation of Christ, dying Jesus on the cross yells angrily to God why he is being forsaken and is, as a result, taken down and allowed to live a normal life. As humans, however, are now full of sin and no longer forgiven for them, this leads to horrible character decisions which ultimately leads to the end of the world – at which point Jesus falls to his knees and begs for forgiveness, where upon he finds himself back on the cross on the day of his crucifixion – now smiling and happily accepting his fate, knowing that his death will save the world. Hmm, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it!
Conclusion: Putting it all together
We have all the pieces now. Puzzle piece 1 established our goal, the universe and the timeline in relation to the story and Frank. Puzzle piece 2 examined the importance of choice and postulated that the world ended because of bad character choices. Puzzle piece 3 went one step further and argued that while it looks like choice, it’s merely the illusion of such, meaning that no character could actually be responsible for those bad decisions and that, quite gloomily, that means the world would “have no choice but to end”. In the 4th and final puzzle piece, it’s discovered that one person does indeed have a choice: Donnie Darko, which is why he ultimately willingly accepts his fate to change the future and save humanity. All this combined explains both why the world is ending, and what Donnie Darko’s involvement is – these are the two main questions we set out to answer in the beginning of the article, having in the process analysed the message of the film and its themes of free will, predestination and religion.
Questions? Comments? Agree or disagree? Feel free to send any inquiries or critiques to firstname.lastname@example.org – however, I ask that you please do so in English, as I am Danish and not at all able to understand Czech. Thanks.