[note: the write-up below only takes the theatrical cut of Donnie Darko into consideration. I have not seen the director’s cut nor read Kelley’s The Donnie Darko Book]
When Kojima Hideo released Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater in 2004 (the eight installment in the popular video game franchise), the stakes were higher than attaining victory or suffering defeat. After all, as a prequel to all previous entries, set thirty years before the original Metal Gear, premature death meant tampering with the flow of fate. If you waited long enough before triggering a soft reset to restart the action, the ‘Game Over’-screen would morph into a ‘Time Paradox’-message to confront you with the impossible turn of events you had created. Having no knowledge of the previous games, it’s understandable why this confused my fifteen-year-old self.
Since 2004, I have outgrown my teenage years. My addiction to story-driven games gradually evolved into a passion for films, many of which have taken me on trippy journeys that taught me a thing or two about the fickle nature of time. From Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, to The Endless or Rick and Morty, the ‘time travel and/or loop’-formula is alive and well in the hands of creative folk. Yet none of those fine works reminded me so acutely of Donnie Darko as Hosoda Mamoru’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a grand animation adventure which, a few months back, I had the pleasure of seeing on the big screen for the first time.
What struck me in Mamoru’s anime and prompted a revistation of Richard Kelly’s cult classic (which I remembered loving yet hadn’t seen in several years) was the simultaneity of Makoto’s journeys, both through adolescence and through time. Sure, Mamoru’s protagonist is a chirpier sort than Kelley’s frequently downcast and snarky Darko (a phenomenal Jake Gyllenhaal) but both are awkwardly stuck in the middle, not young enough to be called 'kids' nor mature enough to be considered 'adults'. (And yes, Donnie is wise beyond his years, but he’s puerile in other regards.)
In different ways, Makoto and Donnie experience a period in life which Graham Greene’s The Destructors (one of Donnie Darko’s significant intertexts) equates to “the pain of puberty”. What that means: they undergo changes they have no control over, and lash out against the rules and 'will' that adults impose on them – “this prescribed nonsense”, as high school teacher and kindred spirit Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) informs Donnie when losing her job on account of unconventional methods.
Despite starting with ominous notes of inalterability (through lyrics that go “Fate up against your will/ Through the thick and thin”, Frank’s doomsday countdown, and Mr. Darko’s Frankie Wheeler anecdote about a former high school acquaintance who was dogged by tragedy and died on his way to the prom) Donnie avoids being “smooshed by a jet engine” early on in the film through freaky Frank’s intervention (you know, the creepiest man in a bunny costume to ever grace the screen).
If the film as a whole can be said to exude an apocalyptic dread to capture adolescent angst – a turbulent and in-between stage when emotions can feel larger than life and the weight of the world can feel squarely placed on your shoulders – Donnie Darko formulates an escape from suffocating circumstance by being true to the intermediate existence of its teen protagonist.
Much of what transpires – in the tangent universe – can be seen as a complication and questioning of the seeming straightforwardness or mutual exclusivity of opposites. By way of its analysis of a literary intertext (The Destructors, once more) or the very way in which the tangent universe comes about, for instance, Kelley’s film sees destruction and creation as two sides of the same coin. Turning to some of the film’s characters, we notice a similar yoking of opposites.
Donnie Darko’s biggest hypocrite, for example, Patrick Swayze’s Jim Cunningham, ostensibly promotes the children’s ‘liberation from fear’ through motivational speeches but is actually also a pedophile who preys on their innocence. Much more benignly, through the figure of Roberta Sparrow, a former nun who went on to write a book on the philosophy of time travel, Donnie Darko posits that devotion to a deity need not come at the expense of scientific curiosity or vice versa.
Along the same lines, even though the film constantly debates whether free will can exist in the face of pre-determinism, many of its characters act out of a desire to somehow change things. Whether it’s Gretchen and Donnie’s science project for the betterment of mankind (glasses that would implant happy thoughts in infants to stimulate early memory development) or Kitty’s PTA speech that seeks to ban The Destructors from the curriculum on account of perceiving it a harmful influence: Donnie Darko’s characters believe in the possibility of self-effected change. (In fact, the entire film takes place against the backdrop of the 1988 presidential election.)
In an early conversation with Gretchen, Donnie also claims he wants to alter people’s perception of him into something more than just a juvie delinquent with a bad attitude. In the end, he sort of gets his wish. Following his therapist’s question of God’s existence, his conversations with his science teacher (Noah Wyle), and his take on Roberta’s book, it actually makes perfect sense for the film’s teen protagonist to question either/or narratives and side in favor of his own, cocky ‘how about both?’-proposition.
After all, the notion that Donnie ultimately comes to internalize is the one that makes him a master of his own universe, namely that he has the capacity of time traveling “within God’s channel”. It’s not the “prescribed nonsense” adults would palm off on him nor is it the embrace of a reductive theory like Cunningham’s 'lifeline' that sees actions as products of a simple dichotomy: fear or love. The final scenes in which Donnie is actually crushed by a jet engine portray the unique paradox of his existence: knowing what happens to others if he alters this outcome and therefore deciding to accept his fate; a strange hybrid of seeing destiny fulfilled by an act of free will.
This bittersweet bite of having his cake and eating it too is this adolescent’s ultimate act of rebellion, though. Far from throwing in the towel, Donnie’s self-sacrifice transforms him into a heroic savior. Gretchen (Jena Malone) may have a point when suggesting “some people are just born with tragedy in their blood” but Donnie’s tragic death is also his greatest triumph, giving life to his loved ones. The final shots are telling in their elegant simplicity: an exchange of glances and a hand-waving gesture between Gretchen and Donnie’s mom, two characters who haven’t met, yet feel like they have – a shared recognition of a recollection that’s just out of reach; a hello and farewell.
Sixteen years after its release, Donnie Darko still exists in a universe all its own. A work that welcomes endless debate thanks to its productive ambiguities, each viewing is different from the one before. That said, while it’s fun to always unearth new layers in a film that merits its cult status, here’s hoping that sometime soon we stumble upon a universe or timeline in which Richard Kelly’s career is not defined by three feature films. Surely, there are more stories to be told. Here’s hoping we get to hear them.