Was Donnie Christ or Job -- or just a crazy teen after all? Readers weigh in on Dan Kois' "Everything You Were Afraid to Ask About 'Donnie Darko.'"

Published July 27, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

[Read the story.]

OK, so you've teased out all the sci-fi and fantasy bits available on the DVD and Web site. Thanks. But it's unfortunate that one more level of complexity is buffed out and never even acknowledged in all of this: the urgent and unsubtle timing of Donnie's apocalyptic endgame at the very tip of a presidential cycle, on the eve of an election, at the turn of a decade, at the onset of a new millennium.

Considering that the movie is all dressed up like John Hughes gone slightly askew, it seems that this confusion of sex and politics gets right at its heart. I wish Kois had tried to connect the dots (or even acknowledged the dots!) between the oppressive light of Reagan's Morning in America, Mrs. Farmer's ushering of the "fucking Antichrist" Cunningham, the oncoming election, and the revelations that transform Donnie into something between a superhero and a terrorist. Yes, Donnie's sister's boyfriend guides his fate, but so does her first line in the movie -- "I'm voting for Dukakis." The political discussion that follows is one of the few events before the rip in time-space or whatever, and TV reminds us of the approaching election at every thickening turn of the plot.

"Donnie Darko" bore an eerie mark with it when it was released in 2001, and the eerie mark is glowing once more as another siècle approaches its fin...

-- Greg Bloom

Dan Kois' article on "Donnie Darko" seems to have missed what caused the creation of the tangent universe.

The universe was not in danger until Donnie Darko was lured out of his room by Frank. Doing so caused Donnie not to be killed by the jet. It was Frank's fault -- he explicitly lured Donnie away from his room at the time the jet was to crash. The tangent universe is not destroyed until Donnie sacrifices himself by going back in time and staying in his room. This is why the end of "Donnie Darko" is, in fact, blissfully tragic: He sacrifices the history wherein he falls in love with Gretchen.

This is the paradox of "Donnie Darko." How could Frank have contacted Donnie if Donnie had not already killed him and thus freed his spirit? I don't know, but it makes a damn fine movie.

-- John Dagen

I never even considered the possibility that Donnie was not crazy. The "descent" interpretation always seemed like the obvious one. I could no less have thought of Donnie as some kind of godlike character than I could have thought that Russell Crowe's mathematician in "A Beautiful Mind" had discovered a vast communist code conspiracy.

As a story about what can happen when you combine teen angst with a nasty chemical imbalance, I found "Donnie Darko" fairly brilliant and disturbing. Now, having been forced to accept that the sci-fi interpretation is probably the one intended, the movie has lost most of its appeal and rather strikes me as outlandishly fantastical and naive.

-- Joe Ferencz

I appreciated Dan Kois' review/explanation of "Donnie Darko." As someone fascinated by the movie, it was great to see all those theories and facts in one place.

Kois isn't sure about Donnie's mother's role in the jet engine crash. While I also don't have an explanation, it always intrigued me that Mom was so calm after the crash. She's not freaking out while smoking a cigarette; she seems to be relieved by the whole matter.

My personal theory has been that, although she loved her son, his mental state was an unexpected burden for her.

I have no idea how Donnie's mother could pull off something like the engine crash. Maybe she's Donnie's "God," manipulating everything.

-- Scott Sitarek

First off, thanks to Dan Kois for filling in the blanks on this compelling and confounding movie. I will have to check out the director's cut if only to enjoy a bunch of "Aha!" moments offered by his insights. That said, I think the Byzantine nature of the Tangent Universe puzzle is very similar in structure to God's challenge with Job.

The point is not simply to save the universe, but to offer Donnie a chance at healing his fractured spirit. As Kois points out, Darko is a troubled young man (and not chemically imbalanced, as Thurman later reveals). While in Tangent Middlesex, Darko uncovers insights into his despair through his interactions with nearly everyone, but especially with Sparrow and Thurman. At the core of his problem is his teen-angsty lack of connection with the people around him.

Fortunately, Tangent Gretchen teaches him that he can make the intimate connections that appear to have eluded him in the real universe. For Donnie, that revelation alone is enough to justify his sacrifice and thereby save the life of the woman he loves and, consequently, the universe.

As with Job, God could have made his point more simply. After all, the modern mind boggles at how "replacement children" could soothe a parent who has lost others so tragically. However, God's bet was just part of Job's challenge; the greater part was his internal discovery of the depths of his faith. That's something Donnie obviously appreciated.

-- Tom Cunningham

"Donnie Darko" kicked open a door in my brain that I haven't been able to shut yet. Ever since I saw it, I keep wondering about all those mysterious rabbit holes that open up before us -- what are the ramifications if we refuse to explore them? What happens if we choose not to walk down the paths that spontaneously appear beneath our feet? What if every fucked-up thing everyone ever does has to be done, or else the whole thing would fall apart?

We really don't know much about how it all works, do we? It's been very cool to get to know "Donnie Darko": If nothing else, it's a new way to look at some very old and dusty mysteries. (And the music is perfect, too.)

-- Megan Dietz

I wanted to praise Dan Kois' article on understanding "Donnie Darko," a wonderful movie that certainly benefits from a little outside explanation. I believe an answer to Kois' final question -- "Why does God or Whoever make saving the universe so complicated?" -- can be found in his reasoning for why Donnie goes through with saving the universe in the first place, even though it will lead to his own death. In going through with his role as a kind of savior, Donnie "has known love for the first time and has been given a chance to sacrifice himself for the love of Gretchen and his family and everyone," says Kois, which are the very things that force him to close off the tangential universe in which he had those experiences. It's how he can save his girl, etc.

However, I think there's a secondary (and intentional) side effect to the orchestrations of God (or Whoever) on Donnie's behalf. I'm reminded of reviews by critic Jeffrey Overstreet and author Orson Scott Card; maybe Donnie was chosen specifically. "At heart," writes Card, "this is the story of a young man who is doomed -- and a merciful God who gives him twenty-eight days of a life that never existed, in which to become a hero and a rebel, and to find love." As Kois notes, God shouldn't have to make saving the universe such a convoluted process, but that doesn't mean he did so without reason.

Such a reading of "Donnie Darko" may mark me as an optimist or overly sentimental, but I don't mind. It also adds a layer of beauty to this intriguing movie that gives me something new to think about each time I watch it.

-- McCharen Pratt

Nice interpretation, but muddled, and I can clear that up. I figured out "Donnie Darko" with two viewings, the director's commentary and some discussions with friends.

The funnel in the sky is a time-space anomaly. Why it appears is the film's MacGuffin. The plane flies into the funnel and the turbulence of the funnel rips the engine off, depositing it in Donnie's bedroom, where he should have been sleeping.

Now, the essential question is then: Why isn't he there? This is where the time-space continuum thing comes in. The anomaly in time has linked Donnie to death because 1) he was supposed to have died and 2) he is going to kill Frank. So, Frank, in the bunny suit, then becomes Donnie's guide to an alternate universe, a "potential" universe that may have happened, had Donnie not died. From that moment on, everything that happens leads inevitably to two events: Frank's murder and Gretchen's death. Donnie then has two purposes, unbeknownst to him: to save his love and save his soul. The movie then becomes a test of the quality of Donnie's soul as he is about to die.

Frank leads Donnie in almost every action he takes from then on, violent, unexplained actions that actually do no one harm, but push events toward the mortal finale where Donnie is left with the ultimate choice: Is he willing to sacrifice his own life to save the one he loves?

Because Donnie has been ripped from the normal time-space continuum, he develops the ability to "see" the direct line to future events, the blobby lines emanating from people's stomachs, which, by the way, are explained by Don Juan as the center of a human's "force," and one which a person can use to travel through time-space instantly and manipulate the world around him. Although the majority of humans never recognize this force, Donnie can now see it, controlling behavior and circumstance.

Because Donnie now has this sight, he realizes he has a choice in his own actions, and from then on he is not manipulated any longer by Frank, who, I guess, one can say represents a demon of the underworld, since he has come back from the dead to influence events in the waking world. He represents the ultimate corruption of Donnie's soul, should he fail this test.

It is not until Donnie comes face to face with death that he is given the final key to his fate: a vision of the funnel. He then recognizes, linking backward along the blobby line of his own actions, how all events have led him to this point. He now has a simple choice: Leave things as they are, where he has committed murder, his girlfriend is dead, and his mother and sister may become the victims of a plane crash, or go back and reset events to what they should have been had the funnel not intervened. And he makes his choice, which is why he is smiling in bed. Because he knows he has chosen, and he is not being directed by anything but his own conscience, because he has saved his love, his soul, and possibly his mother and sister. He has been given a key to the cosmos, and maybe he sees a future after death that we cannot see, a happier one than the unhappy life he now leaves behind.

Kelly can explain all he wants, and his story is not essentially different than mine, except that he is leaving out the essential moral heart of the story. Donnie isn't saving the universe as a whole; that's not what is at stake; he is saving the universe within himself. And that's what gives the movie its power, not the sci-fi plot, but the story of a young, troubled boy who finds himself when he makes the ultimate sacrifice for love.

-- Scott Keister

"Donnie Darko" is one of the most original movies I have ever seen, and I just wanted to add one comment to the excellent Kois article -- despite that the "fat guy in the track suit" who interrupts Gretchen and Donnie's first kiss is an FAA agent tailing the Darko clan, I think it adds much more creepy resonance and atmosphere to the film to think of it in another way. The second time I watched the film, it immediately occurred to me that the creepy fat guy was a member of the underground child pornography ring led by Jim Cunningham (and thereby hinting at all the hidden corruption and hypocrisy of the suburbs in the '80s, which was also a heavy theme). I am 18 years old, and among my peers this movie has become the ultimate Rorschach test for the Gothic set.

-- Viktor Talanin

While Dan Kois does an excellent job working with the material the director gave him, there is a crucial scene that he overlooks that adds artistic (if not scientific) insight into everything that happens.

Despite the fact that Donnie Darko goes to see "Evil Dead" on his date, the marquee outside the theater reads "Last Temptation of Christ." Thus we have the answer to the last question in the article, "Why so complicated?"

Not only is the film a dizzying statement on free will and predetermination, it is also a Christ analogy. Donnie was allowed a glimpse of a future in which he acts however he wishes (no matter how irrational -- he acts purely on impulse), but decides to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. This means even those he despises, such as the pedophile played by Patrick Swayze.

-- John Halski

By Salon Staff

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