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Understanding Donnie Darko

April 25, 2013

Donnie 2

Films (and other media) involving time travel often have rather complicated and difficult-to-follow plots. That’s true to some extent of 12 Monkeys which we saw a few weeks ago, and it’s also true of some great sci-fi films like Solaris (the original version, anyway) which we’ve not viewed together. However, Donnie Darko is especially hard to make sense of. Ultimately, you have to make up your own mind about the plot, but I think it’s especially important to keep the following categories in mind. I’ve included short descriptions of my understanding of them, but I’ll take corrections if you’ve got ’em:

  • Living Receiver – Donnie during the events of 1988, perhaps (Sister) Roberta Sparrow, a.k.a. Grandma Death in 1944,
  • Manipulated Dead – Frank Anderson (the scary bunny) and Gretchen Ross (Donnie’s girlfriend),
  • Manipulated Living – Everybody else in 1988,
  • Primary Universe – That’s where we live,
  • Tangent Universe – That’s the short-lived universe in which the events of this film take place. If it were not to be collapsed near the end of Donnie Darko, its existence would threaten that of the primary universe,
  • The Artifact – An object that gets duplicated in the creation of the tangent universe and that causes some, much, or all of the differences between the primary universe and the tangent universe. The living receiver must send the artifact from the tangent universe to the primary universe in order to collapse the the former and resume the latter,
  • The Ensurance Trap – The manipulated dead put the living receiver into a situation where he/she has little or no choice but to send the artifact back.

The main points of the plot seem to go something like this:

  1. Ghost Frank wakes Donnie and leads him from his room.
  2. The tangent universe comes into existence causing the jet engine to crash into Donnie’s now empty room. Donnie becomes the living receiver.
  3. Donnie floods the school, partly as a result of reading Graham Greene’s “The Destructors” in Karen Pomeroy’s class and partly as a result of talking to Ghost Frank.
  4. Donnie and Gretchen meet because school is canceled. They start to date.
  5. Donnie and Kenneth Monnitoff talk about time travel. Donnie gets The Philosophy of Time Travel and learns about its author, Roberta Sparrow.
  6. Donnie disrupts Jim Cunningham’s simply gripping speech about love and fear. He and Gretchen then go to see The Evil Dead.
  7. After Gretchen falls asleep in the theater, Ghost Frank visits Donnie and establishes that he’s been shot through the eye.
  8. Donnie, persuaded again by Ghost Frank, burns down Jim’s house, revealing the latter’s “kiddie porn” distribution hub.
  9. Kitty Farmer volunteers to testify on behalf of Jim. As a result Donne’s mother, Rose, has to leave town to chaperon Donnie’s younger sister, Sam, on a trip to Los Angeles.
  10. Donnie and his older sister, Elizabeth, take the opportunity to throw a Halloween party. Elizabeth’s boyfriend, not-yet-dead-Frank, is sent out to buy beer.
  11. Donnie, Gretchen, and friends go to visit Roberta at her house but are surprised by school douchebags Ricky Danforth and Seth Devlin. Ricky and Seth attack Donnie and Gretchen and scare off their knee-biting friends.
  12. Not-yet-dead-Frank, on his return from the beer run, swerves to miss Roberta and runs over Gretchen instead, killing her. In the process, Gretchen becomes one of the manipulated dead. (Deus ex Machina)
  13. Donnie, recognizing not-yet-dead-Frank because of his bunny costume, shoots him through the eye. Frank now becomes Ghost Frank, the other manipulated dead in the film.
  14. Donnie, now guilty of vandalism, arson, B&E, and murder – and without his lady love – seems to have nothing to live for. He (somehow) causes the jet engine from the plane that his mother and younger sister are on to fall off and enter a portal from the tangent universe back to the primary universe.
  15. The tangent universe rewinds to the moment of its creation of ceases to exist.
  16. The jet engine falls through the portal in the primary universe and kills Donnie.
  17. Gretchen, alive in the primary universe but with only the faintest glimmering of events in the tangent universe rides her bike past the Darko house  and asks what happened.

Obviously, this leaves out a lot, but I’m going for the main points here. Contact me with suggestions or corrections if you’ve got them. Hope that helps!

Update: Typos, typos, typos

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