The Theories of Donnie Darko


A family friend first recommended Donnie Darko (2001) when I was a moody teenager. At first I brushed off this initial introduction, and it wasn’t until I happened upon the film playing late at night a year later that I watched it. Guess what, I loved it.

Donnie Darko is the story of well, Donnie Darko (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a teen in 1980s Virginia. His day-to-day activities comprise dodging bullies, having discussions about The Smurfs with his friends, and talking to Frank, a figure wearing a demonic rabbit costume. At their first meeting, Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, and 42 minutes. Upon returning home in the morning, Donnie finds a jet engine crashed into his bedroom. No one can pinpoint where the engine came from.

Across the next 28 days Donnie has repeated visits from Frank, which causes concern not only for himself, but also for his therapist. She deduces that Donnie suffers from hallucinations commonly associated with schizophrenia. Donnie in the meanwhile finds himself influenced by Frank – causing important events which shake his local community. Each event influences the next until we get to the climax of the film – and its ending.

Although a critical hit, the film itself was a commercial failure, maybe because they released the film so soon after the 9/11 attacks. But box office figures improved in the UK, and word-of-mouth promotion ensured it gained a strong cult following. Upon the first watch, the film is very confusing. Many people have often remarked that Donnie Darko makes little sense – and that the film reeks of pseudo-intellectualism. In fact the main reason why I liked it so much was because I enjoyed the characters and the aesthetics. Which is vain but I’ve never pretended anything otherwise. However, the Director’s Cut released in 2004, and gives further explanation to what happens. Spoilers are unavoidable – for those that have never seen Donnie Darko this is the point to click off the page.

In the Director’s Cut we see Donnie learn more about the theories of time travel written by Roberta Sparrow – a senile woman known by Donnie and his friends as “Grandma Death”. According to Sparrow, time is usually a stable construct but can sometimes gets corrupted – this results in an alternate universe. In the film – the alternate universe begins right at the film’s start and the story takes places during this reality. The alternate universe also creates an artifact, an element in the alternate universe which is an anomaly. The artifact in this case is the jet engine.

For the end of the world to stop, someone needs to guide the artifact out – the person given the job is the Living Receiver. Chosen at random, this person happened to be Donnie. He is, as we know, not aware of his status – and it is only over the course of the film he realizes what his destiny is. Due to this explanation, many have questioned who Roberta Sparrow is, and how she got this information. A common argument is that Roberta was another Living Receiver, having got that position when a previous incident occurred.

The Director’s Cut had some mixed reviews, as some were angry at the director for deciding to reveal the theories. Was it because some had theories about the film now disproven? Or did they enjoy feeling they were smarter than everyone else? As I don’t care about being smarter than anyone else (never have been – never will), I didn’t care, at least I better understood this film now – and my love of it increased.

For me, the only other films I had seen about time travel happened to be flashy and fun. Back To The Future and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure are two notable examples. This is not to insult either one of those films, BTTF was a childhood favorite of mine and I even wrote an article about Bill and Ted for this edition of Femnista! But I love Donnie Darko for not being a squeaky clean production like the other two. For a science fiction film, Donnie Darko has some real, relatable characters sparring against the sheer amount of darkness that exists in our world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.

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