This post contains nothing but spoilers for the movie Donnie Darko. Click “more” below to read the spoilers. To go to the spoiler-free main review instead, click here.
I use the term “literal plot” to describe the science fiction/time travel device that writer/director Richard Kelly asks us to accept. The word “literal” is used to distinguish this plot level from the alternate interpretation that the events of the movie only take place inside Donnie’s head.
If you’re still unclear on what the literal plot actually is, I suggest you read Stainless Steel Rat’s Donnie Darko FAQ before reading this article. This is a very worthy primer on what the plot is trying to accomplish, and although this article is an attempt to refute that view, the FAQ is still an excellent and admirable synopsis of Kelly’s plot.
All the events of Donnie Darko except the very beginning (before Donnie hears Frank’s voice call him from his bedroom) and the very end (when Donnie dies) take place in the “Tangent Universe,” an alternate reality coexisting in some way with the “Primary Universe”. According to the lore supplied via Richard Kelly’s website and DVD commentary, particularly excerpts from the fictional book The Philosophy of Time Travel, in Donnie Darko an unstable Tangent Universe has been formed which will eventually implode and carry all of existence with it (Chapter 1 of The Philosophy of Time Travel) unless the “Living Receiver” (Donnie) guides a paradoxical “Artifact” (the jet engine) “back” to the Primary Universe (Chapter 4). To do this, various characters in the Tangent Universe (most importantly Frank the bunny) set what is termed an “Ensurance Trap” (Chapter 10) to manipulate, trick or force him to send the jet engine to the Primary Universe. This “Ensurance Trap” is Donnie Darko‘s literal plot.
Although confusing on the first viewing, after a superficial reflection, this literal plot sort of makes sense. Every seemingly mysterious action Frank asks Donnie to undertake eventually leads to a result that appears to advance Donnie’s quest (flooding the school leads to his meeting and falling in love with Gretchen, burning Jim Cunningham’s house leads to his mother flying to New York). If we stop our analysis once we “get” what Kelly is doing, the movie gives the appearance of forming a satisfying closed loop.
If we tempt fate by asking a few questions further, though, the plot collapses back upon itself, forming a black hole that sucks its literal meaning into oblivion. I’ll divide the objections into three separate sections: literal plot problems, philosophical plot problems, and the most fatal obstacle of all–the thematic plot problem.
LITERAL PLOT PROBLEMS
- There’s no good explanation why Donnie Darko is chosen to save the universe. It’s too much of a coincidence to believe that the time-traveling jet engine would just happen to crash into the bedroom of the person who happens to have the power to fix the corruption in time; it’s too much of a stretch to believe that the fact that the engine crashed into Donnie’s bedroom somehow endows him with powers to alter reality.
- Donnie doesn’t have to kill his own mother and sister by ripping the jet engine off their plane. This is gratuitous; the engine could have come off any plane.
- Donnie doesn’t have to burn down Jim Cunningham’s house, because there’s no need to put his mother and sister on the plane, and because he doesn’t need to throw a Halloween party in order to complete his quest.
- Donnie and Elizabeth don’t have to throw the Halloween party. The party is dramatic and a beautiful sequence, but no event happens there that is necessary to Donnie completing his quest. All that is necessary at that point is that Donnie and Gretchen visit Grandma Death’s house; Donnie only goes there because he experiences a sudden compulsion that takes place entirely within his head. He and Gretchen could have been anywhere: at home with his parents, on a movie date, at someone else’s party, out trick-or-treating, when the compulsion struck.
- Gretchen doesn’t have to die. She will die anyway because the universe is about to end in a few hours, and Donnie knows this: it’s the first thing Frank the bunny tells him. That should be enough motivation for Donnie to save the universe. The audience must supply its own explanation for why Gretchen needs to die to motivate Donnie to complete his quest. The best inference seems to be that Donnie can’t exercise his superpowers unless he’s in deep despair or emotional turmoil.
- Donnie didn’t need to shoot Frank. Although the revelation that Frank the bunny rabbit is a real person who Donnie kills in the future is shocking and fun, it’s just window dressing, in no way necessary to Donnie’s quest. His spirit guide could have been anyone.
- If Frank the spirit guide is the same entity as Frank the guy whom Donnie kills, there’s a time-travel paradox: how can Frank’s “Manipulated Dead” ghost be around before Frank is dead? If the spirit guide is another entity of some sort, then what reason other than cheap showmanship would it have for assuming Frank’s form?
Most of the above plot problems can be reduced to a single, intuitive objection: why is this complicated Rube Goldberg-esque “Ensurance Trap” necessary to trick Donnie into saving the universe? Shouldn’t the fact that all of existence is about to end be enough to motivate Donnie?
The “Ensurance Trap” seems more like a device calculated to create a dramatic story arc rather than a sensible emergency protocol for saving the universe in case time becomes corrupted and a Tangent Universe forms. In the end, of course, the real explanation is that if a guy is asked to save the universe, and does so willingly and with little effort or sacrifice, that’s not a story worth watching.
PHILOSOPHICAL PLOT PROBLEMS:
- The entire concept of the Tangent Universe seems unnecessary. According to The Philosophy of Time Travel, the Tangent Universe is unstable and will implode, bringing the Primary Universe down with it. But the same effect could be created simply by having the Primary Universe be the one that becomes unstable and self destructive, due to the presence of the paradoxical “Artifact” (the jet engine) from the future.
- The existence of the jet engine in the Primary Universe remains paradoxical, since it originates in a Tangent Universe (coming off of the plane in which Rose and Samantha were passengers).
- The existence of the jet engine in the Tangent Universe is paradoxical, since it comes from the Tangent Universe’s future. At one point the jet engine exists in two places at the same time in the Tangent Universe: it exists as the detached engine that has presumably been removed from the Darko’s house by the FAA, and at the same time as the undetatched engine on Rose and Samantha’s plane.
- There’s no explanation of why the Tangent Universe doesn’t continue to implode after Donnie sends the jet engine into the Primary Universe. How does taking an object that was supposed to be in the Tangent Universe and moving it to another Universe correct an instability in the Tangent Universe? Without more, it’s simply an arbitrary rule that moving the Artifact from the Tangent Universe to the Primary Universe causes the Tangent Universe to dissolve harmlessly, rather than implode.
The objections above mostly stem from the “clarifying” material in The Philosophy of Time Travel, not the movie itself. Kelly seems to use the Tangent Universe concept to try to get around the “time travel paradox” (if I traveled back in time and killed my grandfather, then I would never have been born, therefore I never would have traveled back in time, thus I would never have killed him, so I would be alive to travel back in time to kill him…) But although The Philosophy of Time Travel was created by Kelly to buttress and elucidate the plot, ultimately the book’s doctrines cause more difficulties than they solve.
THE THEMATIC PLOT PROBLEM:
Donnie should sacrifice his own life to save Gretchen’s, and the rest of us, in Donnie Darko. There’s no messianic element, no Christ allegory, no emotional resonance on the literal level, if he doesn’t.
Unfortunately, the plot sets up a scenario where Donnie either doesn’t have to die, or, if he does, he makes no sacrifice by doing so.
This flaw is why Donnie Darko‘s plot ultimately fails. Since a paradoxical Artifact appears in both the Primary and the Tangent Universe, the only meaningful difference between the two is that Donnie dies in one Universe, and lives in the other.
The plot tells us, however, that the only thing Donnie needs to do to save all existence is to move the Artifact from one Universe to the other. There’s no mention of him needing to sacrifice his life: the audience must supply that idea. Some have concluded from Richard Kelly’s commentary that Donnie did not need to die to complete his quest.
But it doesn’t even matter whether the plot requires Donnie to die or not. Even if we assume that Donnie is supposed to make a choice to willingly die for the sake of others, the choice is a false one. Donnie knows that the world is going to end that Halloween night; that was Frank’s very first message to him. Donnie will die whether he chooses to save the universe or not, either when the Tangent Universe implodes, or when the jet engine crashes into him. Thus, his “sacrifice,” the emotional climax that the plot is supposed to set up, is utterly meaningless. Donnie doesn’t make any sacrifice.
The fact that Donnie’s choice is a false one means that the plot, read literally, fails to complete the quest it set out to: to tell a story of messianic sacrifice.
WHY IT DOESN’T MATTER THAT THE PLOT OF DONNIE DARKO DOESN’T MAKE SENSE
If the literal plot of Donnie Darko doesn’t make sense, does that mean that the movie is a failure?
Not at all. Kelly asks the viewer to make a choice: either the events in the Tangent Universe actually happened, or they were “all just a dream” of Donnie’s.
Usually, the “it was all just a dream” plot resolution is a cop-out by a writer who can’t figure out how to end his story, but here it actually works. In a way, it’s not important that Donnie really saves the universe or sacrifices himself: if we empathize with Donnie’s character (and we do), then emotionally, it’s only important that he thinks he does. The plot of Donnie Darko is exactly the kind of grandiose, apocalyptic fantasy that a brilliant but troubled, possibly schizophrenic teenager would have. In a movie where the central character is a bright adolescent who refuses to accept society’s standard lines, Donnie’s pseudo-sensible sci-fi solution to finding meaning in his life makes perfect sense. The genius of Kelly’s film is not that it tells an entertainingly complex time-travel tale a la Back to the Future, but that it recaptures the integrity, naivete, and the longing to recreate the world in a better way that’s the hallmark of adolescence at its best. And the movie accomplishes this feat while creating a sense of mystery and dreamlike wonder that lingers long after the credits have rolled.
Donnie Darko‘s Tangent Universe could be the most elaborate and ambitious MacGuffin ever created.
APPENDIX: A NOTE ON JIM EMERSON’S FREUDIAN INTERPRETATION OF DONNIE DARKO
Jim Emerson, an editor at RogerEbert.com, has created a curiously satisfying interpretation of Donnie Darko that sees the entire film as a psychological study of Donnie’s repressed adolescent sexuality–especially his sublimated desire to bed his own sister–and the demonic bunny Frank, in particular, as “a manifestation of that ambivalent aspect of Donnie’s own erupting id, his stifled/frustrated hormonal urges…” I usually hate Freudian interpretations of films, but Emerson is so forceful and convincing that, after reading it, I started to think he was onto something.
But I had one serious objection to Emerson’s theory: a large part of it hinged on the “fact” that Frank is Elizabeth’s boyfriend. That’s accurate, as it turns out; in another context, Kelly dropped that bit of apparent trivia in his DVD commentary. The problem is, Kelly provides no direct evidence of an intimate relationship between Frank and Elizabeth in the film.
After reading Emerson’s interpretation, I rewatched the movie searching in vain for evidence that Elizabeth and Frank were sexually involved. Elizabeth is dating someone, it’s true (she’s shown talking to a nameless boyfriend on the phone), and she knows Frank, it’s true (she asks where he is at the party), but there’s never any explicit link in the movie explaining that the person she was dating was Frank. I dismissed it as an interesting supposition that was unfortunately unsupported by the text of the screenplay, until I heard Kelly confirm the rumor on his DVD commentary. (DVD co-commentator Kevin Smith didn’t make the connection either, and correctly opined that no one would without the benefit of Kelly’s explanation).
There’s an amazing intellectual twist to this story of observing someone else’s interpretation of the movie. I had thought that Emerson’s theory was clever and interesting, but ultimately invalid because it relied on a premise that was unsupported by the movie. Then, Kelly admitted that he had intended this premise all along. He had buried it in the backstory, however, and barely hinted at the relationship in the movie. It’s almost as if the movie’s own unconscious is repressing the knowledge of Frank and Elizabeth’s intimacy. That the narrator’s repression of key plot element from the story unlocks a powerful psychological interpretation, one that itself depends on the idea that the main character is repressing feelings that stem from his knowledge of the very same fact, is almost incredible.
In fact, it’s more than a bit weird.