We continue Cult Month this week with Donnie Darko, a film I now associate with mind-twisting confusion and post-viewing alcohol consumption. Donnie Darko is a very difficult film to talk about without discussing the ending, hence an editorial rather than a review. The last 15 minutes of this film is not only nonsensical but completely change the context, theme and even genre that the film had been presenting thus far. This being the case, I am giving my readership (such as it is) this warning: if you have not seen Donnie Darko, go watch it.
It’s an incredibly fascinating piece of cinema that is absolutely worth your time. You can find it on Blu-Ray and DVD and it’s currently available on Netflix. Afterward, if you are experiencing the same sort of shock and confusion as I did, feel free to come and join us. Readers are advised to keep in mind that this isn’t an in-depth dissection of the film’s time travel mechanics or how it all ties up in the end. Rather, this is simply conjectured as to why the filmmakers decided to completely change almost everything about their own movie in the last couple of minutes and why it surprisingly still feels like the same film.
Angsty, mentally unbalanced teen Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives a life of teenage rebellion in the suburbs with his family. However, his life takes an unusual shift as he begins receiving visits from a figure in a monstrous rabbit costume (James Duvall). Only introducing himself as Frank, the figure tells Donnie when the world is going to end. This sends Donnie on a path of self-discovery and, along with his girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone), perhaps a path to saving the world with time travel.
What Was Presented
One of the most impressive things about Donnie Darko is that it manages to keep a lot of thematic balls in the air at once. It’s an effective deconstruction of the high school film, stripping down all the shiny bliss of John Hughes-esque films to reveal the complicated emotions and dark intensity of the high school experience. Even while doing this, however, it manages to carve out its own identity as a unique coming of age story. It has a lot to say about society’s view of mental illness in the 90s, mostly that teenagers who had serious mental problems were either ignored or heavily medicated to the point of sedation.
It has a lot of questions raised about faith and to what point god has divine sovereignty in our lives; there’s a televangelist type speaker at their school who turns out to be a pedophile. Donnie talks with his science professor about whether god has fated them to a certain path in life if he knows everything that will happen. Frank becomes Donnie’s god, in a way, as he blindly follows the frightening rabbit to committing acts of destruction.
Perhaps you may have noticed that one of the things I haven’t mentioned was time travel, one of the fundamental elements of the film. There’s a very good reason for that: all the other thematic exploration is so much more interesting that at some point you stop focusing on the time travel and just get absorbed by the rest of it. This is a shame since it leaves you completely unprepared for…
…the Last 15 Minutes
The insanity begins when Gretchen gets run over by a car driven by a boy named Frank, dressed in a Halloween costume that looks exactly like the rabbit Donnie has seen during his visions. Donnie kills him, using the gun in his father’s closet to shoot Frank in the eye. From here, the entire film becomes about time travel and the oncoming apocalypse which at this point had been in the background driving the plot. Donnie drives over a ridge overlooking the valley as a dark cloud consumes the town.
Through this cloud flies his mother and younger sister; their plane loses a turbine which falls through a wormhole, landing in Donnie’s room at the beginning of the film. Donnie, through unexplained reasons you won’t know about if you haven’t read the fictional, in-universe book, travels back to when the turbine fell through his room, making sure he’s there to be crushed by it. This makes it so that the entire film we’ve been watching didn’t actually happen. The many people who Donnie touched in an alternate reality wake up from strange dreams (apparently) and Gretchen rides by the Darko household and waves to Mrs. Darko in a strange recognition.
The issue isn’t that the ending doesn’t make a lot of sense on a first viewing (and not even after a bit of research). There are plenty of films that require a second viewing or intense concentration in order to follow. The problem is that the film completely changes what it’s about at the very end. Why did the writer/director choose to do this? Was this his intention from the beginning?
While we have no straight answers without a direct word from the director, I have the feeling that although this was going to be the ending from the beginning, the keyword is “focus”. Up to this point, the film had given very little serious attention to time travel, instead focusing on the drama of its characters and social commentary. Although time travel was on the margins it was never the main focus. Because of this, the ending feels like a payoff to a theme never fully established: what kind of effect an individual life has on so many people. As I can recall, there was only a single scene in which that question was raided, but it was not brought up again.
It’s Still the Same Movie
What’s incredible about the ending is that even though it goes from teen drama to sci-fi, societal commentary to exploring universal themes and even erases the entire film up to that point, the ending of Donnie Darko still feels like the same film that you’ve been watching for the past two hours. It still maintains the melancholy atmosphere, the magical surrealism and delivers the payoff needed for Frank’s prophecy, even if the audience is not completely sure of what that payoff is. While not everybody will get the payoff they may have liked to see, it still feels like an appropriate ending to the film.
Donnie Darko Conclusion:
Donnie Darko’s ending wouldn’t have been so confusing if it didn’t require having to read the in-universe fictional book and if it had been set up properly. However, I feel that it’s one of those endings that get better when you watch the film a second time. I can’t attest to that since I’ve only watched it once, but I’ve seen enough movies to recognize an acquired taste. However, don’t let this post make you think I hated the movie; as I said it’s a well-made, unique piece of cinema with plenty of interesting topics covered just enough to leave the audience thinking about them.
If you ignored my spoiler warning and read this post before watching it, watch it anyway. You’re not gonna get another experience like this for awhile, if ever.
Next week, we go up to eleven.