Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko

Wasting My Time, You’re Just Wasting Time

On eighties pop music, intelligence, and analyzing film

::: L. Jablonski

A gunshot rings through an afternoon wasteland, and a bottle explodes. Three boys are sitting in the sun-bleached field, deconstructing an animated cartoon.

“First of all, Papa Smurf didn’t create Smurfette,” one boy says in disgust, the gun falling forgotten to his side. “Gargamel did. She was sent in as Gargamel’s evil spy with the intent of destroying the Smurf village. But the overwhelming goodness of the Smurf way of life transformed her. And as for the whole gang-bang scenario . . . it just couldn’t happen. Smurfs are asexual,” he continues, as if this should all be common knowledge and the biology of Smurfs taught in every high school science class. He finishes his speech to the chagrin of his squinting friends.

“Damn it, Donnie,” one of the boys sighs. “Why do you gotta get so smart on us?”

The film is Donnie Darko, a cult favorite if there ever was one. Many a mind has developed migraines trying to interpret the dizzy gyrations of Donnie’s journey through the Tangent Universe. Film students and Internet bloggers alike can philosophize for hours on the metaphor of a boy following a dark rabbit down the eighteenth hole and the science of popping placebos. Donnie Darko, as a cinematic experiment, just seems to ask for interpretation.

Or does it just ask what Sean Smith asks? Why do we have to get so smart?

Follow the metaphor

Film is about communication—but so is music. So is the Internet. So is homicide. Everyone has a message they want to get across, so it seems natural for humans to interpret film as having deeper meanings. But maybe that’s not the real story. Maybe there’s no message at all. Maybe film criticism is one more exercise in human egotism, and films we label groundbreaking are simpler than we think.

Much of Donnie Darko’s conflict takes place in Middlesex Ridge School. The first real journey through those doors is taken in slow motion, accompanied by the Tears For Fears ballad “Head Over Heels.” This is the fifth chapter on the DVD edition of the Donnie Darko director’s cut, also titled “Head Over Heels.” The phrase seems out of place in a DVD full of chapters whose labels are rather straightforward, such as “Going Together,” the segment in which Gretchen agrees (if you can call it that) to be Donnie’s girl and “Inappropriate Methods,” containing the firing of Karen Pomeroy.

It’s just a song, right? Nondiagetic sound, as the film students would say? Maybe not. A closer look at the lyrics reveals that perhaps the film and the song share more than just an obsession with time.

Stormy relationship

I wanted to be with you alone, and talk about the weather

“A storm is coming. Frank says a storm is coming,” Donnie intones in front of a class at Middlesex Ridge.

The phrase “a storm is coming” has long been used as a metaphor for climactic events, both in film and in life. This meteorological metaphor—meant to symbolize not the end of the world in general, but the end of Donnie’s world—is referred to repeatedly during the course of the film. The poem is just the beginning; later, in a therapy session (now there’s a woman who wouldn’t get a message if it came up and bit her in the face), a hypnotized Donnie sobs, “The sky will open up.”

Finally, Roberta Sparrow, who has gone from being a scientific genius to the insane Grandma Death, whispers what Donnie has always known: “The storm is coming.”


A touching movie

You keep your distance with a system of touch and gentle persuasion.
I’m lost in admiration—could I need you this much?
Oh, you’re wasting my time, you’re just wasting time

The clumsy but oddly sweet romance between Donnie Darko and Gretchen Ross is handled well in the film—“well” meaning “subtly,” of course. It can be argued that the most romantic scene in the entire film is Gretchen’s refusal to kiss Donnie on the way home from school.

“I just want it to be at a time . . . at a time when . . .” Gretchen falters.

Donnie finishes her thought for her: “When it reminds you how beautiful the world can be?”

Gretchen frowns, her gaze darting to a clump of trees. “Yeah. And right now there’s some fat guy over there staring at us.”

It takes Donnie and Gretchen nearly the entire film, in fact, to express physical affection in any way, shape, or form. Their time together is quiet—a hand held here, a brief kiss there, and yet the two characters form the strongest bond out of any two characters in the entire film—except, perhaps, the bond between Donnie and the dark rabbit of his nightmares.


I made a fire and watching it burn thought of your future
With one foot in the past now just how long will it last?
No, no, no. Have you no ambition?

“Donnie Darko,” Gretchen muses on that first walk home from school. “What kind of a name is that? Sounds like a superhero.”

Donnie arches a brow. “How do you know I’m not?”

It’s not so far from the truth. If Donnie’s not a superhero, he is most definitely an equal opportunity villain. Not satisfied with the flooding of the school, Donnie takes vandalism to a whole new level with the burning of Jim Cunningham’s house, graduating in a matter of minutes from disgruntled student to arsonist. The flames eating at Cunningham’s portrait are nicely symbolic, but Donnie cares nothing for the metaphor he’s unwittingly created, nor for the child pornography he accidentally exposes with his crime. The deed is done—fitting punishment for a man who thinks himself fit to tell kids their own ambitions. “No one knows what they want to be when they grow up,” Donnie laughs into the microphone at Cunningham’s question-and-answer session. “I think you’re the Antichrist.”

Childhood memories

One line of the Tears For Fears song seems to have more significance in the film than any others. During the “Head Over Heels” sequence of Donnie Darko, the lyrics are mixed so that the line “with one foot in the past, now just how long will it last?” is certain to play during the scene (chronologically, it wouldn’t have appeared in the sequence, which is too short to allow the entire song to play). One can argue, naturally, that these lines are in keeping with the film’s obsession with time. Donnie himself is the only character “with one foot in the past” and the other in the future. His visions bring him to tears in his therapist’s office, or light him with the smile of an angel as he promises social misfit Cherita Chen that someday everything will be better for her.

My mother and my brothers used to breathing clean air and dreaming I’m a doctor.

Dr. Spock could have taken a few pages out of the Darkos’ book. Eddie and Rose Darko rarely express distress over Donnie’s apparent mental malaise, and when they do, it turns almost immediately into a joke. “Our son just called me a bitch,” Rose Darko laments in one of the opening scenes of the film. “You’re not a bitch,” her husband soothes. “You’re bitchin’, but you’re not a bitch.”

Likewise, when Donnie is suspended for telling uptight teacher Kitty Farmer to “forcibly insert the LifeLine card into her anus” (not that there would be any room due to the stick already firmly in place there), the Darkos are less than perturbed. Rose Darko’s comment, “I think that telling any woman to forcibly insert a book into her anus is an action that should have consequences,” sounds very rehearsed, as though she knows a camera is trained on her and is recording her words.

“I think we should buy him a moped,” is Eddie Darko’s answer.

“I think we should get a divorce,” Rose responds.

Then both collapse into laughter.

But it is Rose Darko who has the final say on the parenting front. When Donnie asks her, “How does it feel to have a wacko for a son?” she answers with a tearful smile, “Wonderful.”

It’s hard to be a man when there’s a gun in your hand.

It’s nicely ironic that Donnie deconstructs the Smurfs while shooting bottles in a field. “What’s the point of living if you don’t have a dick?” he asks his friends with a shrug. The answer is he doesn’t need one—he has the gun. And while he spills his secrets to his therapist both voluntarily and under hypnosis, the one thing he keeps from her is the pistol he finds in his parents’ bedroom. It is never explained why the Darkos have the gun or how it makes the journey to Roberta Sparrow’s cellar on that last fateful night, but even Donnie, advocate of truth that he is, keeps that piece a secret.

Yes, that is a gun in his pocket, and he’s not happy to see you.

And this is my four leaf clover
I’m on the line, one open mind

One open mind.

Maybe that is the whole point. Donnie Darko, the Living Receiver, the visionary who saw that fateful storm coming. Throughout the film, only Donnie argues against the status quo—at Jim Cunningham’s seminar, during Kitty Farmer’s LifeLine exercise, in Karen Pomeroy’s English class. Even Donnie’s beloved Gretchen works against him in their duel over the point of Watership Down. “You’re missing the point,” Gretchen says. But Donnie’s argument is quite simple—there is no point to miss.

While discussing time travel with teacher Kenneth Monnitoff, Donnie’s open mind is busy figuring out ways to apply Roberta Sparrow’s theories. However, Monnittoff stops the conversation with the admission, “I can’t continue. I could lose my job.” Monnitoff, while a fan of Donnie’s, makes it clear where his loyalties lie.

Finally, when Karen Pomeroy reveals to Donnie that she has been fired, Donnie makes a sound of disgust. “You’re the only good teacher here.”

Karen allows her frustration to show on her face—it’s what she’s been waiting to hear. “Thank you,” she bursts out. Whether she knows it or not, to Karen, Donnie is truly the Living Receiver. He is the only one who has heard the message she’s been trying to beat into Middlesex’s brains.

The film’s climactic Halloween comes and goes, and Donnie treks out to the ridge as the coming “storm” darkens the sky. We see Roberta’s final teachings written on the screen as the Tangent Universe rewinds to make things right: Chapter Twelve, “Dreams,” explains that everyone affected will view the Tangent Universe as simply an awful dream. “Many will not remember,” Sparrow writes. With the death of Donnie Darko, the chaotic events erase themselves as if they never were, to be known only by the sacrificial lamb himself, the Living Receiver, for one brief minute before a jet engine falls once more into his bedroom.

In my mind’s eye
One little boy, one little man
Funny how time flies.

Which brings us back to the original question: Why do we have to get so smart? Is Donnie Darko really a deep and meaningful film when it can be deconstructed into paralleling an eighties ballad?

Or is it a credit to both film and film criticism that a movie can have so many levels, that one can mold cinematic evidence to fit nearly any theory?

Imagine what we could do with Smurfs. :::

A dark destroyer of men and empires, L. Jablonski enjoys entomology, donating blood, and waiting for the sign to change from “Don’t Walk” to “Walk.” . . . Oh, no, wait. That's someone else.

Posted by: editor on Apr 04, 2005 | 6:18 pm

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