from Secret Life of Movies
Richard Kelly‘s Donnie Darko (2001) is about as rare an experience at the movies as finding a genuine psychic at a fun fair. It’s a celluloid vision. Donnie is a schizo with the power to see the future and thereby create it. As in Don’t Look Now, Donnie’s visions are self-fulfilling: it’s his terrible fear of what is going to happen (on October 30, 1988, at a precise minute and hour) that causes Donnie to act in just such a way as to ensure that it does. And yet, paradoxically (and Donnie Darko is not merely about paradoxes, it is a paradox unto itself), the knowledge he gains into the mysterious workings of time through his experience permits Donnie to rewrite his destiny, by turning the clock back. This he can only do at the cost of his own life.
Initially, Donnie is spared death due to his tendency to sleepwalk, which is one symptom of his schizo-visionary state and which causes Donnie to be out on the golf course when a passenger plane jet engine falls from the sky and crashes through his bedroom. Donnie was already strange before this, but the inexplicable event (no airline claims the severed engine) only serves to cement his dementia, his sense of strangeness. At the same time, it alerts the audience to the fact that we have entered into a world every bit as weird and incomprehensible as Donnie’s world must seem to him. We have entered the Twilight Zone.
Donnie Darko is the first of its type—the surrealist teen schizo angst comedy (Static, Repo Man, Heathers, Parents, etc)—to successfully pull all the elements together and forge them into a genuine work of art. It’s a bit slack in places (Gretchen’s death, for example), and it’s occasionally self-indulgent, or perhaps just self-conscious, but it’s all of a piece. Unlike the films mentioned above (Static excepted), it has depth both of meaning and of feeling; it comes from the heart and not just the head. Donnie Darko is teen comedy romance spliced with hallucinatory horror movie, and yet the splicing is seamless, invisible and impeccable. Except in the early high school scenes (which the director seems to be deliberately undermining by speeding up the images and drowning out the sound), there’s never a sense of watching a cross genre movie. In fact Donnie Darko doesn’t seem like a genre movie at all, principally because it isn’t. It’s closer to Blue Velvet than The Faculty: It’s a rite of passage, a mythological journey. Donnie Darko is a schizo movie about adolescence in which objective reality (so far as there is one, which is debatable) is even weirder than the subjective reality of the schizo himself. It’s not that Donnie is too weird and crazy to understand what’s happening to him, it’s that he’s just weird and crazy enough.
Richard Kelly, the writer-director, has an intuitive grasp of his material that marks him as a genuine visionary, which may be just what he is. What’s more, he has sufficient grasp of his ideas and a basic movie sense (and the technical know how) to do almost full justice to his vision. In the current, post-9/11 climate, this movie is practically a revelation: a work that takes place entirely “inside” the character’s (i.e., the filmmaker’s) head, and yet connects to the universal experience. I certainly know a few young folk, adolescents or post-adolescents, who see the world a lot like Donnie does. They may not see tubes of liquid light coming out of people’s chests, and they may not literally converse with giant rabbits or travel through time; but they have the same basic, shifting sense of reality, the feeling that neither time nor space—or anything at all—is what it seems to be. These kids intuit that something, maybe not “the end of the world,” but something equally awesome and indescribable, is just around the next corner, and even that all of this has something to do with “God,” or with whatever it is we have chosen to call God, in our all-too-human reaching after the intangible.
Donnie doesn’t believe in God until he sees It. I say “It,” because Donnie doesn’t have a religious experience of a Deity, as such; what he experiences is both more subtle and more profound. He perceives a force coming out of people’s bodies, looking like a sort of tentacle that extends forward through space. The opposite of the trail left by a snail, this tentacle doesn’t follow people but leads them; it seems to anticipate their movements, and so gives Donnie a glimpse into the future. At first it seems that these tubes or tentacles are simply that: Donnie’s fourth-dimensional view of reality, i.e., when time is also a perceivable dimension, people become like tubes that twist and turn throughout the spaces they inhabit as they come and go from one point to the next and back again. But when Donnie witnesses this force emerging from his own chest, he sees something else, as the liquid light—clearly a conscious “thing” unto itself—stops and turns and beckons Donnie to follow it. He does so, and it leads him into his parents’ bedroom and to the closet, where he finds the gun with which he will shoot the boy who runs over his lover Gretchen (Lena Malone), all at the designated hour. This same boy, dressed as a giant toothy rabbit, is “Frank,” the other-dimensional entity who has been leading Donnie through his visions to the inevitable apocalypse, or revelation: that Donnie is just a play thing in the hands of Fate. Yet in Donnie Darko, “Fate,” less oppressively but even more mysteriously, is a living Force that exists inside Donnie and within every other living creature.
Donnie admits to his shrink (Katherine Ross) that he has thought about the question of God, or more precisely whether or not he is “alone,” until it has lost all meaning. To Donnie, “the quest for God is absurd.” Yet despite this, or maybe because of it, Donnie finds God. When he witnesses this inexplicable phenomenon, he doesn’t have to think about it; there’s no two and two to put together here, he just knows. And when Donnie speaks with his science teacher, the latter can’t grok Donnie’s discovery as anything but a paradox. If you can see your future, he insists, then surely you have the option of altering it? Donnie has the privileged knowledge of the prophet: he hasn’t just heard about this “God,” he has seen it. “Not if you stay in God’s channel!” he says, or words to this effect. He’s speaking about Destiny vs. Fate.
What Donnie Darko is saying is that there is only one destiny for each of us (or rather, one destiny per person per universe), that this is our path, and that the only “free will” we have (the only way to escape from mere predestination) is to live out this destiny, to find and then stay within “God’s Channel.” The third alternative (never voiced) is to reject our destiny, to rebel, as Lucifer did, and sever our connection to the Universe, the Divine, and so fall out of the sacred groove, out of God’s Channel. Apparently Donnie’s experience, from his narrowly escaping death to his boldly embracing it by entering the time vortex (expressly in order to save Gretchen from the fate that should have been his), is solely for Donnie (and us) to learn this vital truth. The movie gives us the philosopher’s stone and holy grail of human endeavour, the truth that will reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable conundrum of destiny (God) and free will. Donnie didn’t fall out of God’s Channel by surviving, however; what he did (so far as I understand the movie) was to enter into a parallel universe, an alternate time stream in which he survived, and thereby got to see what would happen if he did live, and so understand the meaning of his death, the reason behind it. At the risk of being pat, the movie might be seen as Donnie’s dark and troubling dream, in the final moments before that jet engine lands on him and death takes him forever.
Like Run Lola Run, Donnie Darko adheres to a very old religious tradition, that of blood sacrifice. It suggests that when God, or Death, decides to take someone, He cannot be denied. If His intended prey somehow evades Him, by some unexpected miracle, He will simply take someone else, usually someone close to the original choice of victim. This is not just religious belief, however; it’s also something like physics. It’s as if Donnie’s unwritten escape creates the opposite of a vortex, a sort of excess of particles in the universe, and that this imbalance has to be corrected by the removal of someone else, preferably someone as similar to the intended “target” as possible. For this reason Gretchen is taken. Having seen all this, Donnie is given a choice. Like John Baxter in Don’t Look Now, Donnie has the all-too-rare gift of seeing God’s plan in action, His method, His modus operandi. Unlike Baxter, however, Donnie is smart (or crazy/open/adolescent) enough to understand what he sees and act upon it, to seize the opportunity of intervening and become co-designer of his destiny. He does indeed, as Gretchen has intuited, become a Super Hero. (Super Heroes have always been schizos; Donnie Darko gives us the first schizo to become a Super Hero.)
Recognizing that he only survived due to a glitch in space-time, Donnie uses the same glitch to repair the damage, and in the act sacrifices himself. The glitch, however, will always remain: there’s still that mysterious jet engine to contend with. Maybe the glitch is Donnie himself? Being on the verge of developing the power to see through the illusion of time and space, to see God Itself in action, Donnie is one of those freaks of nature (like the white-faced dynamo of Powder) who simply has to be removed (translated to a higher dimension) before his existence causes the whole universe to collapse. Donnie’s gift of magic allows him to escape his death, but then it forces him to see why his dearth was necessary, and so compels him (if he wants to stay in God’s Channel) to go back to meet it at the designated time. As a result, the world does not end. This time. But if people (and movies) like Donnie Darko are becoming more and more frequent phenomena, in a world where neither science nor religion is equipped to reconcile the awesome paradox of a magical reality run by God, then it’s only a matter of time. Like all good prophets, Donnie Darko warns us, in the most entertaining fashion, to get ready. The sky’s about to open.