Donnie Darko (2001) and the Glorification of Heroism

Review of the Director’s Cut • Spoiler Alert! • 3rd Viewing

The sheer amount of Tears for Fears songs featured in this movie gave it an automatic +1 in my scoring, I’m not gonna lie. 

I’m more intrigued by Richard Kelly’s take on teenage pretentiousness and portended angst than whatever the f**k is happening in the tangent dimension; how this multiverse conundrum plays into Donnie’s quest is important however, less so the logistics of it more so the implication of what it shows us in human reaction and interpretation to such a “holy” situation. 

Frank (imaginary or not) basically delivers Donnie his defined “purpose” on a coded platter, a sort of heroic purpose that the pre-adult youth often cries to receive as it’s an abstract concept that would essentially fulfill an inexplicable reason for existence. The revelation of suddenly being the cheesy prospect of the “chosen one”, the person who knocks down the dominos and sets forth a truth of what human life will be onward is the godlike burden we as juvenile jerks all f**king wished we could behold; with our introduction to suicidal inclination in exposure to the off-putting real world which results in a loss of innocence, a sacrifice would eventually seem more keen to a teenager than living out the rest of their lives with “no purpose”. 

The universes of A (created past) and B (sacrificed future) or whatever the devil that creepy (but kinda) handsome science teacher tells us about is representative of Donnie’s non-existent envision of this metaphysical “meaning” in life that teenagers love to cook up as something unobtainable but hopefully there. “Meaning” and “purpose”, two words I took way too seriously to heart as an adolescent lad and two words Donnie seems to take too seriously as well; that can’t just be coincidence; it’s puberty-esc phasing. Donnie’s almost religious upbringing makes him feel like a prophet in a way, producing God’s path in what he and “Frank” see as good, as they seem to indulge in juvenile acts as necessities rather than acts of egoism like most hot-topic-loving students will convince themselves of; they’re saving the world and s**t, I don’t know; the film’s perspective forces you primarily into Donnie’s so we have no idea if the true agents of evil are in Donnie or his enemies, and that’s why I fancy interpreting the movie as a take on pretentious nature to fulfill empty holes in our mentally ill states. It fits well in the “pointless destruction” line too, the destruction of “cause why not?”, at least it’s something that blocks up human desperation — the fate of the airplane engine crash is what introduces us to this concept; there’s no real reason for it to happen but it nonetheless inspires a worthwhile goal in Donnie/Frank.

“Controlling fear” in nihilism is what makes Donnie feel powerful, and in the long run he ends up coincidentally being right in almost every case scenario, feeding his ever growing god-complex and his idea that maybe the world really is predetermined for him to heal it. The “the manipulated living will do anything to avoid themselves from oblivion” line, which people usually take as explanation of people who are intentionally arranged to increase the chances of Donnie saving the world, I think is actually used to further provoke a polar opposite characteristic between the cowardly characters in the film and Donnie who eventually accepts oblivion. Sometimes translating nature in a divine way also leads to tragedy in the physical world when taken too far, like what happens to Gretchen; again, we have no idea for sure if the tangent dimension was the real one or if the original was, or maybe both; for all we know the original was the dream all along and the tangent was always the reality that Donnie and “Frank” (and Frank’s friend who shows up at the end that I think is the actual person who ran Gretchen over considering Frank is likely a figment imagination of Donnie’s) sought to tamper with, and they really did kill this innocent girl in their quest for heroism. 

Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that Donnie Darko is about the confusing desire to be a part of something as significant as a passion of Christ: the one who bites the bullet or absorbs the sins, hence a “pretentious nature” for those who want to recreate it; it’s really amplified home to me in the final montage of the movie as well, where everybody is laying down seemingly wishing for that sort of abstract destiny which is glorified in the minds of us all by fictional novellas (like the time travel textbook Granny wrote) or stuff like mainstream media to end us from self and world hatred. We’ll just continue making friendly waves of hope till we die, wondering if such a phenomenon ever did happen among those who surround us. Not all of us can possibly be just normal, right? You’d hope for a Donnie Darko to pop up every once in a while, at least someone special enough where you’d be willing to say their FULL name 24/7, haha.

I guess, in hindsight, the film could also be about accepting or dealing with the existentialist crisis of a predetermined world that you are slowly becoming aware of is predetermined, but I don’t know; I like my Jesus poser theory a little better. I rather accept that Donnie Darko is about schizophrenically convincing yourself to be a prophet through mania, less so about knowing by fact that you 100% are one based on the indisputable laws of predetermination. I have an unfortunate gut feeling however that Richard Kelly meant for this movie to be interpreted as Donnie being a hero after all of this, but at the same time, I do think the movie is ambiguous enough to suggest that he also fooled himself through the hero’s journey with all the crazy “scientific” and “philosophical” theories he learns and indulges in throughout the film, plus the addition of his mental illness and therapy sort of insinuates that he could’ve been manipulated by his own emotional state. The plane engine probably did travel through two dimensions but could that have helped provoked Donnie’s reality and his inclination that he had superpowers? Was his close call really just an accident all along that encouraged his new identity, and Frank is just a divine concept that he had made up in a hypnotic state of his own self-indulgent mind? Is the final scene of the movie just Donnie’s dream he has after looking out into the sky, considering it would be the ideal dream to have that would definitively prove he had saved the world in the end through his radical methods and ultimate sacrifice — f**k Jim, though; good on Donnie for ruining his life. 

You could combine these two theories together although and just say that the movie is about growing a god-complex through the existential crisis of finding out your world is predetermined in, furthermore, making you a hero. That answer works too, and it would fit snuggly that it would choose a teenager to undergo these circumstances, out of any age group out there.

Onto flaws, the film sort of uninspiredly hurls these concepts at you with deliberately worded dialogue and of course LITERALLY written phrases on screen; probably my least favorite part of this entire movie that draws it back from being a “masterpiece” is its careless establishments of exposition. Richard Kelly has this obnoxious way of emphasizing every fine detail you need to know (especially in the director’s cut) in order to understand the time travel and predetermination aspects of the film, and honestly a bit more ambiguity could’ve enhanced the mystery and varying interpretations of the film, enriching the longevity of the movie to others. I think what Kelly is better at doing here though is actually keeping the thematic of the film ambiguous by having so many motifs just spouted out at random, which has encouraged my interpretations in this review; if they were as blatant as the plot though, Donnie Darko may have just been a try-hard failure in my mind. Luckily, that’s very far from the truth! It’s a try-hard success! 

I understand it’s a piece of the “manipulated living” concept that people are purposely unorthodox to enact Donnie to achieve his potential, but it’s still idly used to transaction the audience into understanding story terminologies or hinting to them that whats happening in front of them is strictly in the hands of God; there are actual moments in here that defy the logic it sets up, and even if a world was based on predetermination, logic would still be at least believed to have transpired in the characters who are forcibly escalated to these certain places; like Drew Barrymore getting fired is so out of pocket, you’d think the principal would at the bare minimum convince his own self and Drew that there were a reason to do it in the first place, even if he was destined to do it; yet, he doesn’t even explain to Drew why, and that sort of defies human behavior to me. We all spiel bulls**t to convince ourselves we’re right more than we just stay silent to convince ourselves we’re right as far as I’m concerned! 

The film’s awkwardly hilarious delivery and absurdly random lines are definitely Lynch-inspired fare, but I still can’t tell if that’s a bad thing or a cop-out maneuver to actually putting in the work of believable performances, but I guess it fits well enough with the dream-state feel and almost sitcom-ish depiction of the suburban family neighborhood. The adults who ironically provoke the teenagers whether it be with the demanding Karens and the pedophilic hypocrites of the world are sort of furthermore implemented to erect this surreal essence, but it’s also painfully obvious the only reason they’re THIS far-fetched in stereotypical extremism is so that it can feed into Donnie’s eventual transformation into a know-it-all god-complex — “love & fear”, Franks & mirrors; I would think myself to be smarter than others after hearing that crap too honestly! Hey, these exaggerations may not be the most creative way to reflect the reality of our own teenage experience and how we manipulatively saw the adult logic, but at least it’s easy to comprehend it in general which may just be preferable for a film this brimmed in ideas; it’s probably what lead to Donnie Darko‘s wide-scaled cult following in the first place. 

Michael Andrews’ score is great though; I think it covers the tracks of a movie that could’ve came off way cringier than what Kelly is working with here in terms of intentionally The Room-ish dialogue and Lynchian dream-state atmosphering — you can’t really go wrong with Gary Jules’ cover of “Mad World” or the iconic “Manipulated Living” track. On a technical level, I’d actually say Richard Kelly and editors Sam Bauer and Eric Strand are best at concurring two ongoing events; it happens on a couple occasions in the movie and it’s disturbingly hypnotic. The editing here is sometimes exceptionally effective, especially as we near the end of the film. 

Maybe I’m diving WAY too into Donnie Darko than what it was meant to be dissected as with all the intentionally and kinda needlessly complex time travel arrangement that’s going on in the background which I’ve come to accept just boils down to the process of events occurring in two set worlds of “hybrid-predetermination” with its back and forths of time, as I’m almost certain Kelly meant for none of what I’ve just said to be his intention especially in the themes I’ve discussed, but ya know, I guess that’s the beauty of Donnie Darko or whatever the cool kids say. Sometimes the dynamic combo of pandering ambiguity and blatant spoon-feeding blurs the line so carelessly that it works in its favor, cause jeez does it do that so much to a point where the film becomes an unintentional gem of an experience; there’s nothing out there this bloated in its own ideas pilling than in Donnie Darko, and it makes it hard not to want to dissect the hell out of it whether you hated it or loved it. 

The Frank the Bunny outfit is still one of my favorite costume designs ever, and probably because of my nostalgia for or the DIY cheapness of it that sort of hits home that Donnie and Frank’s ambitions are likely born from a hoax that they had devised out of the very last imaginative innocence they had before becoming adults, who knows? Him revealing his face in the movie theater is still absolutely one of the most iconic scenes in film to me, mainly because 1) Evil Dead, 2) empty theater, and 3) Steve Baker’s For Whom the Bell Tolls; it’s a heavenly scenario that I wish I could experience myself! Embracing my illogical bias, alas. 

Verdict: A-

“Donnie Darko” is now available to rent on Amazon Prime.    

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