Donnie Darko is an intelligent, yet delirious and emotionally-ill teenager, who’s idealistic fantasy of correcting the wrongs in society, finally appears possible in a ‘tangent universe’ (an imaginative reality), where he is guided by an imaginary friend Frank, who appears as a malevolent giant bunny in Donnie’s day-time hallucinations.
In the early stages of the film, Frank literally lures Donnie from reality and introduces him to a tangent universe where Donnie observes what would’ve been, (yet ultimately is) his own death in reality, where he is crushed by a plummeting airliner engine that crashes through the roof of his house directly above his bedroom where he sleeps. In the tangent reality though, he is merely a bystander, bemused and frightened by the calamity of the aftermath, as he returns home the morning subsequent to the disaster. He realizes that his long sleep-walk adventure the previous night, (Summoned by Frank) had ensured the avoidance of his death.
The viewer is initially under the impression that Frank is a product of Donnie’s disturbed and inventive sub-conscious, as he is but a vehicle to allow Donnie’s inhibitions to express themselves through acts of desecration. In many ways, Frank seems to take advantage of Donnie’s mental state by coercing him to perpetrate crime. Yet Donnie appears to advocate his own actions, indicating his intentions for societal change, reformation, and also for companionship – he fears the prospect of “dying alone,” in which case, Frank is an ally who can assist Donnie in coping with his emotional struggles and hardships.
The fact that Donnie’s mental condition is later classified as ‘paranoid schizophrenia’ by Dr Thurman (Donnie’s psychiatrist), would appear as another viable theory or impression, for the viewer to follow. However, it proves not as strong. The reason being, is that the initial or aforementioned theory supports the film’s noteworthy theme that ‘destruction is a form of creation’ (an idea propagated by Donnie’s secondary literacy teacher, Mrs. Pomeroy), whereas the latter is a shallow, yet logical conclusion that isn’t glaringly in keeping with any underlying messages of the film itself.
Later in the film, the tangent universe allows for the discovery of Frank, as an authentic person, who is murdered by Donnie as he is directly responsible for a fatal car accident involving Donnie’s much- adored ‘tangent’ girlfriend, Gretchen. This enlightens us as to the reason for Frank’s contact with Donnie. – Frank has traveled back through time, to in-turn; open a port-hole to Donnie’s future and enable Donnie to view aspects of his life ahead as a series of visual manifestations, (ie post airliner engine catastrophe).
In doing this, he informs Donnie that Armageddon will arrive in twenty-eight days, which conveniently serves as a manipulative motive to aid his primary objective: – To discourage Donnie in continuing his life in reality; in the hope that Frank’s life will be spared.
At this point in the film, the recurring theme of time travel claims its stronghold, regardless of previous acknowledgements and inferences. For instance, in one particular scene Frank implies he is from the future, and in numerous others, Donnie is seen eagerly researching and discussing theoretical revelations, pertaining to the philosophy of time travel. Evidently though, these scenes and others, such as the ‘Frank-influenced’ despoilment of Donnie’s school and the arson of a corrupt perverts house, illustrate critical stages of Donnie’s inner journey – that is, from a disillusioned teenager, troubled by the folly of mainstream attitudinal beliefs, to an individual who transcends reality in order to subsist in an idealistically superior society, of his own invention.
After twenty-seven days of endeavor through outrageous public displays and clandestine defilement, the foretold event of Armageddon looms near. Donnie ambles through the final moments of his tangent existence (inner journey), as his character-defining tenacious dynamism begins to fade. As expected, he assumes his fatalistic mentality of “all living things have a set path,” and that humans are merely vessels traveling along “God’s channel,” gradually nearing a pre-determined destination. At this stage, Donnie’s mindset suggests a search for spiritual solace and religious meaning.
Whilst denying an utterly defeatist outlook, Donnie exerts a courageous exterior by modestly welcoming his fate, in the hope that there will be “so much to look forward to.” He is of course referring to a reformed humanity that is devoid of inadequacy, corruption and suppression.
It is here, that the film takes an unexpected turn, whereby Donnie’s inner journey in the tangent universe is virtually thwarted due to the sub-conscious acknowledgement of an audible phrase, originally voiced by his late girlfriend, Gretchen. It is part of her conjecture of emotional solace: “What if you could go back through time, and replace all those hours of pain and darkness with something better?”
At this point, Frank uses his god-like essence to summon Donnie in reality, assuming that he’d been subjected to enough to be dissuaded, and, much to the viewer’s astonishment, Donnie awakes in bed, hysterically laughing in awe and disbelief of his ‘dream.’ Whilst conscious, he remembers the tangent visions of pain and anguish, including Gretchen’s death, and the murder of Frank, and decides that his future should be exempt from more emotional suffering.
Donnie opts to conclude his inner journey heroically, by means of self-sacrifice – that is, to allow the plummeting airliner engine to destroy him, thus ensuring an extended life for his beloved female tangent counterpart, Gretchen.
The film Donnie Darko is significant to the theme of ‘imaginary journey’ as it details a person’s sinister epigrammatic voyage into the future, and consequent development of emotional alteration.
Director Richard Kelly uses the character Donnie as a representation of idealistic thought inherent in society. It is no undisclosed fact that society itself, is pervaded by thoughts and ideals that are in contrast with expected societal opinion. Kelly hints at the notion that we are engaged in the journey of life, yet our propulsion is suppressed somewhat, by the undeniable need to conform to society’s bounds and restrictions – thus society would seem to preclude humans from achieving their primary goal(s) or concluding their journeys. Also intertwined with this perception, is the suggestion of the façade of human nature. Kelly suggests it is unnatural for veritable human inclination to be constrained, hence the rationale of life-long journeys that are embarked upon to discover a sense of self.
Donnie’s self discovery is shown through his sacrifice for Gretchen. Whilst on his imaginary journey, Donnie identifies with her troubled emotions and sinister background of family trauma. He discovers a person remarkably similar to himself, so his sacrifice in essence could be perceived as an effort of self-preservation as he was intent on ensuring continuity of his ‘spirit’ within a physical entity other than himself. This is a viable interpretation, relevant to a reflective ‘inner’ journey, as it is a primary motive for initial commitment to the journey itself.
Kelly realizes that Donnie’s journey is exceedingly implausible and unrealistic. Without detracting from the intended solemnity, it seems a feat such as Donnie’s could only be surmounted by a ‘philosophical super-hero’ with ethereal powers. Kelly deliberately captures the fervent yet slightly naïve central vision of Donnie’s ideological expectations in the films title, and in Donnie’s heroic bravado. Nonetheless, he encourages provocation of thought and motivational urge on our set path in life, or inner journey.
The reason being is that humans are inclined to stray from reality, if indeed; there is an absence of true accomplishment in their existence. By this, Kelly infers that an inner journey is necessary to undergo, as it induces self-gratification and contributes to the conservation and perpetuation of ones psyche.
Director Richard Kelly uses the medium of time travel to symbolize the eternal human endeavor/journey in Donnie Darko. I use eternal, because we yearn for such an easy method as time travel to reveal future outcomes and destinations, yet we are simultaneously disenchanted by its obvious impracticalities.
Kelly expresses his interpretation of fatalism via ‘liquid spears,’ which consist of water and metal, and appear as a cylindrical protrusion from a human’s chest. In the scene known as the ‘liquid spear waltz,’ (tangent universe), Donnie in his hallucinatory state, sees these spears connected to the chests of his friends and family. He observes that the individual always follows the path of the spear, to their immediate destination.
For example, Donnie’s spear leads him to the fridge on one occasion, whilst he was thirsting for a drink. He would’ve made that same trip even if the spear wasn’t there.
Furthermore, the inclusion of mystical activity in the film, such as the liquid spear, adds to the surrealism of the tangent universe, reinforcing the ‘imaginary’ focus of Donnie’s journey. Kelly has portrayed the same dream-like atmosphere via other medium also.
For example, many of the tangent universe scenes are in slow-motion, and filmed from an aerial perspective. This informs the viewer of the simulation of the tangent universe, whilst creating a mystic atmosphere and mood.
Finally, Kelly’s concept of fatalism may well be perceived as a mere scapegoat for human failure, yet such a perception would be grossly incorrect.
He emphasizes that; we shouldn’t knowingly inhibit ourselves because we travel on a set path in life. If anything, a pre-determined future should provide motivation, and encourage one take advantage of daily opportunities and prospects.
After all, we are oblivious as to when exactly, our journey of life shall ultimately cease.