Mangala Ramachandran's Multi-textual reading of Donnie Darko ANALYSIS 3
As human beings painfully aware of our own mortality and our perceived relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things, we have at one time or another in our lives asked ourselves existential questions such as the meaning and purpose of life, the existence of God, and his “master plan”. On another level, as creatures endowed with a brain that is tireless in its attempts to expand scientific frontiers and ‘go where no man has gone before,’ we are fascinated by the conundrum of time travel. On yet a third level, the power of imagination takes us into the realms of fantasy which transcends the seemingly insurmountable barriers of the former, and provides us with fantastic possibilities, and maybe even answers to these unsolved mysteries.
Donnie Darko is a film where all these realms meet and intermingle in a mind-boggling amalgam that defies classification or categorization. It is certainly not a film that pretends to have all the answers, for it raises more questions than it answers, or rather offers tantalizing possibilities to, to tease and trouble the viewer’s mind. Part of its complexity lies in the wealth of allusion and allegory that the film is replete with, the obscure and elusive nature of which adds to the heavy atmosphere of dark mystery and other-worldliness of a story that is otherwise based in typical American upper middle class suburbia.
The viewer could shrug off Donnie Darko as a film about the bizarre fantasies of a schizophrenic 14-year-old boy. Yet, like a kaleidoscope that shows different images at every turn, the film reveals more startling nuances and complex patterns with every viewing, that appear, at first glance, to have no meaning or relevance. Delving into related literature such as the Graham Greene short story, The Destructors, (which is being studied by Donnie’s class in the film), the film’s website content, and mainly the invaluable Cellar Door website, we get some insight into certain aspects of the story.
In the short story, for instance, the author describes the boys as “…working with the seriousness of creators – and destruction after all is a form of creation. A kind of imagination had seen the house as it had now become.” We are also when the house has been completely destroyed except for the walls, that, “Walls could be preserved. Facades were valuable. They could build inside again more beautifully than before.” And at the very end, how “…one moment the house had stood there with such dignity … like a man in a top hat, and then, bang, crash, there wasn’t anything left – not anything.”
We can draw a parallel inference between Trevor’s motivation in this story, and Donnie’s vandalism and passionate indictment of Jim Cunningham in the film. As Trevor says when Blackie asks him if he hates Mr. Thomas, “All this hate … is hooey. There’s only things.” Both Trevor and Donnie want to destroy the hypocrisy and corruption of the society they live in, and in both cases, their attempts to rid society of its evils come in the form of anti-social acts – acts of vandalism.
It’s not only the vandalism that is common to Donnie and Trevor, but also “… an odd quality of danger, of the unpredictable,” as Greene says about Trevor, and which is portrayed very effectively by Donnie throughout the film. Moreover, the viewer gets the feeling from Donnie’s behavior what Greene further says about Trevor’s demolition idea, that “… this plan had been with him all his life, pondered through the seasons, now in his 15th year crystallized with the pain of puberty.” This feeling of an implacable, impending doomsday is heightened in the film by the record of time running out slowly but surely (“_ days remain.”).
The issue of time travel and the role of the sinister rabbit, Frank, are much more confusing and sometimes contradictory, but the Cellar Door website provides some insight, especially in relation to Roberta Sparrow’s book, The Philosophy of Time Travel. To the question “Why a rabbit?” the website explains that “… the rabbit (symbolically) expresses hope that life will be renewed, and better than before,” which could be one interpretation of what Donnie achieves by sacrificing his life, as Frank leads him to do. We are also told that “it is a symbol of self-sacrifice,” which also happens in the film when Donnie shoots “Frank”.
In Sparrow’s book we are told that “…metal is the transitional element for the construction of Artifact vessels” – the jet engine – which is what Mr. Monnitoff also tells Donnie as a specification for a spacecraft made for time travel. Even though the movie website seems even more cryptic than the film itself, it does mention (or imply) that both Sparrow and Monnitoff died alone, and that the latter worked at NASA and the CIA before becoming a teacher. No reasons are given for his sudden change in career/life paths.
The mysterious appearance of the disembodied jet engine out of nowhere “… provides the first sign that a tangent universe has occurred,” according to the book on time travel. Also that “Divine intervention is deemed the only logical conclusion for the appearance of the Artifact … as their appearance on Earth seems to defy logical explanation.” From the book, we can also identify Donnie as “The Living Receiver…(who is) … chosen to guide the Artifact into position for its journey back to the Primary Universe … (and is) … tormented by terrifying dreams, visions, and auditory hallucinations during his time within the tangent universe.”
The contradiction here is that if Donnie is a Living Receiver, his visions of Frank, and being governed by Frank’s directives are not hallucinations – and if Frank and everything that ensues once he appears (?) on the scene are figments of Donnie’s sick mind, then he cannot be a Living Receiver (LR). However, to return to the theme of time travel and Sparrow’s book, she also predicts that the Manipulated Living surround the LR, will fear him and try to destroy him, and are prone to violent behavior, as their task is to assist the LR in returning the Artifact to the Primary Universe. We can see how this explains the crude and bizarre behavior of the two bullies in Donnie and Gretchen’s class, and even extend it to people like Mrs. Farmer and Jim Cunningham.
The Manipulated Dead, for instance Frank ( according to the pix of the book shown on the website) manipulates the LR by first saving his life from the jet engine while telling him that the world will end in 28 days, suggesting time travel, showing him portals, telling Donnie that “I can show you the way,” and ultimately ensuring that the Artifact returns to the Primary Universe by falling on Donnie. Gretchen, as the other Manipulated Dead, says, “ What if you could go back in time and replace the hours of pain and darkness with something better?” Which is what Donnie does when he sacrifices himself by choosing to die (crushed by the jet engine) rather than live a life in which he knows Gretchen will get violently killed as a result of her association with him. We could conclude (rather glibly) from this that Donnie traveled back in time so as to avoid a terrible fate awaiting the one he loved, and chose to get killed in doing so.
On the one hand, Sparrow’s book enlightens us on the subject of a tangent universe, time travel, Artifacts, and manipulated beings. On the other hand, however, her whispered statement to Donnie that “everyone dies alone” is another confusing and complicated issue that brings us to the subject of God. Even though, according to the obituary statements on the website, we see that Sparrow and Monnitoff did indeed die alone, we see the dialogue between Donnie and his therapist in the film, in which he says that the search for God is absurd if everyone dies alone.
This ties in with his discussion about time travel with Mr. Monnitoff, in which the latter says portals cannot appear randomly : they appear by an act of God. Donnie counters that if God controls these paths, they must be pre-destined, and if so, then we should be able to see our path (or future) if we can travel through time. Then Mr. Monnitoff points out the contradiction here – that is, if we can see our destiny we are given a choice (which is what happened to Donnie) but that would imply that there is no pre-formed destiny. To which Donnie vehemently asserts, “Not if it’s God’s channel.”
This leads us to the fantasy aspect – Donnie did not die alone for God showed him his destiny, and he traveled through time to sacrifice his life so that his loved one would not suffer a terrible fate. There we have it (or do we?!) – a haunting, disturbing tale encompassing journeys into the mind, soul-searching expeditions, and flights of fantasy, divinity and destiny, that sucks you into its vortex – and deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole…