Donnie Darko wasn’t my first taste of textual analysis, but it certainly was one of my favourites. After analysing this film in year 11 media I’ve never got it out of my head, I was contemplating a tattoo at one stage.. who’s kidding, i’m probably still contemplating getting a Donnie Darko tattoo. But the point is.., that textual analysis does not ‘ruin’ films for people, textual analysis can often ‘make’ a film, or for me, add to the already impressive allure of the film.
Donnie Darko in general is about a ‘troubled teenager’ (Donnie) that narrowly escapes death when a jet-engine crashes into his bedroom, by following a giant Bunny rabbit named Frank outside. Frank proceeds to tell Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, which causes Donnie to go on a series of adventures investigating the possibility of Frank’s claims.
This sounds simple enough? weird. But simple enough, right?
For a film that was directed by 26 year old, first time director Richard Kelly the film is incredibly complicated, well at least to the uninitiated viewer. The surprising thing about this though, is that many people who end up watching the film, and not understanding ‘what the film is about’, still say that they love the film? In fact the confusing aspects of Donnie Darko seemed to be Donnie Darko’s greatest strength, making it the biggest film of Richard Kelly’s career and a major cult classic.
But how many ways are there to read Donnie Darko? Well if your an open-minded person, you’d say there’s a million + but if your focus is on summation then i’d say that there are three major ways to read Donnie Darko:
- The Time Travel Hypothesis
- The Looping Tangent Universe
and of the course, the forever tacky
4. It was all a dream
but that explanation sucks, so I’m omitting it.
Note: The explanations of these films will make no sense whatsoever if you haven’t seen the film, though I think without seeing the film it would make for some funny reading, so maybe read it anyway?
Time Travel Hypothesis Explained:
The film Donnie Darko exists in a ‘tangent universe’, where there is a ‘tangent universe’ there is an ‘artefact’, in this case the ‘artefac’t is the jet engine of the airplane that crashes into Donnie’s room at the beginning of the film, that was meant to kill him, but didn’t because Frank woke Donnie up. Throughout the film Donnie acts as a ‘living receiver’, which is the person who is chosen at random who’s mission is to guide the ‘artefact’ out of the ‘tangent universe’. The living receiver is blessed with supernatural powers, thus explaining Donnie’s ability to control elements like water and fire as well as his incredible strength which allows him to axe chop a metal pipe within the film. Even though Donnie is the living receiver, he is not aware of this, he also not immediately aware of his ‘goal’ nor of ideas regarding the tangent universe and artefacts etc. until he accumulates knowledge from various sources such as the philosophy of time travel book, the manipulated dead and the manipulated living. The manipulated dead (Frank and Gretchen) are people who die within the tangent universe that are connected to the living receiver, thus allowing them to guide Donnie with their knowledge of the impending disaster. The manipulated living are people connected to the living receiver that subconsciously help guide the living receiver.
This Donnie essentially goes throughout the film attempting to understand Frank’s claims, understand the concept of time travel and eventually understand what he is being shown by the philosophy of time travel book, the manipulated dead and the manipulated living in order to deal with the impending end of the world in 28 days. By the end of the film Donnie becomes aware of how to guide the ‘artefact’ out of ‘tangent universe’ thus ensuring that the primary universe be reinstated.
Within the film it is implied that Donnie is schizophrenic (Donnie’s medication and visits to psychologist) and thus assumes that the major plot driver of this film, Frank, is simply a hallucination caused by Donnie’s illness. This theory is plausible as all major aspects of the film could be attributable to this, however it was most likely added by Kelly as a red herring to allow first time watchers to still enjoy the confusing film.
The Looping Tangent Universe Explained:
This theory very much follows the philosophy of time travel hypothesis but with one major change: the tangent universe is created every 28 days then it collapses, looping back to October 2nd then starting all over again. This posits the tangent universe as a time loop that can only end when Donnie is successful at returning the jet engine into the primary universe. This suggests that our viewing of Donnie Darko is simply Donnie’s first successful attempt at ending the time loop, however there have been many failed previous attempts. Aspects of the film that point to this hypothesis include Donnie laughing at the beginning of the film, suggesting he is remembering something from the previous tangent universe loop and the fact that characters Mrs Pomeroy, Grandma Death and Dr Thurman all seem to have inside knowledge about what is going on.
To sum up:
These alternate readings of Donnie Darko are the perfect example of the beauty of textual analysis, within textual analysis you often subconsciously or consciously impress your own ideas onto texts, it’s hard to escape this as thought formation is innate and will ultimately underlie the choices and perceptions you make and have in life. However maybe seeing an element of yourself, or reading into a text in a unique way is not always negative but explains why media can have such a strong emotional impact on viewers. For me, the multiple ways to read the film, as well as the individual way in which I read the film only added to my interest and respect for the film itself, thus I think textual analysis can be a wonderfully personal and beautiful thing.
To finish, here’s one of my favourite scenes from Donnie Darko:
Catch you later, Louise Alice Wilson