It was probably only a matter of time before Donnie Darko (written and directed by a 26-year-old Richard Kelly) got shown at movie night. Cristeta was the one to finally pull the trigger. Of course, she had to do it with a downloaded copy that was so badly compressed that at times it was like watching the film on an 8-bit NES, but them’s the breaks. But before the movie, she graced us with a second consecutive Key and Peele sketch, this one probably just as funny as the first:
That’s a pretty straightforward sketch, which is the complete opposite of our feature film. Cristeta decided to show the theatrical version rather than the director’s cut which doesn’t really help things unless you prefer an inscrutable movie. Let me set the whole thing up for you:
A severely troubled teen eponomously named Donnie Darko is awakened in the middle of the night (October second, for what it’s worth) by a ghastly human-sized rabbit named Frank who leads Donnie out to a golf course and tells him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. (Guess how I remembered that number?)
While Donnie is sleeping off his giant rabbit encounter on one of the greens, a jet engine falls into his bedroom – the rest of his family escapes, but it would have certainly killed Donnie had he been there. But there’s more – see, there aren’t any planes missing engines, and the NTSB or the FAA or whoever it was investigating the accident is a bit flummoxed about where this engine came from in the first place.
And now, right here at the beginning of the film, would be a good time to interrupt the narrative and try to give some sort of rationale for what is going on in this movie. It’s not easy. Even with the director’s cut of the film and the director’s commentary on the film, and a plethora of websites dedicated to explaining the film’s premise, I don’t think there’s a good, solid, rational answer. In fact, from watching the director’s commentary, I’m pretty convinced that Kelly himself didn’t really know what this film was about – he appears to have set up this giant-rabbit-jet-engine thing and then tried to write some physics around it. He was 26, and he ended up making a powerful movie. Sure, his plot was completely irrational, but I think we can cut him a bit of slack. So here, in as few words as possible, I’m going to try to give a flavor for what is happening.
First: There has been some sort of rip in the space-time continuum. Presumably this is not the first time that such a thing has happened – in fact, the “key” to Donnie understanding what he is about to go through is a book written by the woman nicknamed “Grandma Death”, an old kooky lady who lives on the outskirts of town which would have been based on her understanding of a previous anomalous event.
Second: These anomalies have some common features. Most importantly, they create something called “tangent universes”. Tangent universes appear to have their time dimension run orthogonally to the time dimension in the primary universe, thus everything that occurs in a tangent universe occurs in the blink of an eye in the primary universe.
Third: Tangent universes are fundamentally unstable, and will collapse in on themselves after approximately one month (hence the 28 days warning from Frank). But, when a tangent universe is created, there is also an “artifact”, which is an unexplained object usually made of metal – our jet engine. This artifact needs to be sent into the primary universe before the collapse of the tangent universe, or the tangent universe will not collapse cleanly and will cause the formation of a black hole that could destroy the primary universe. I don’t know why.
Even more-th: The tangent universe has a “Living Receiver” (Donnie) whose job it is to send the artifact back and save the primary universe. In a previous rift, Grandma Death was presumably a Living Receiver. Furthermore, in a conspiracy of the tangent universe, many of the people closest to the Living Receiver act in such a way as to bring about the Living Receiver’s destiny of saving the primary universe.
Does any of this make any real sense? No, not really. But it’s the framework under which the rest of the story – which of course takes place in the tangent universe – plays out, so it’s important to just lay it out there. So that said, how does Donnie fulfill his destiny?
Well, it all revolves around Gretchen Ross, a new girl at school who always wears an expression of mild concern and is basically the freaky type of chick who stays quiet and doesn’t interact with others and likes cutting herself and stuff. (Note: no cutting is implied in the film.) Donnie, naturally, is a horny teenager and being psychologically disturbed is not terribly likely to land a girlfriend. The tangent universe conspires to make Gretchen into Donnie’s girlfriend. It starts with Donnie’s english teacher asking a newly-arrived Gretchen to sit by the boy she thinks is the cutest, and when Gretchen hesitates, uprooting another student to seat her next to Donnie.
That’s not nearly enough, though. Frank manipulates Donnie into a midnight axe-fest through a school water main, flooding the school and allowing Donnie to walk Gretchen home from the cancelled school day. They hit it off, because she’s freaky.
To make a long story short (especially given the verbosity explaining the universe above), Donnie is introduced to a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel – written by Grandma Death – by another teacher while his psychiatrist starts giving him placebo antipsychotics, and he starts to get a glimmer of his destiny.
But the most memorable scene, for many reasons, comes when Donnie and Gretchen attend a completely-empty midnight showing of a Halloween film festival. Though obviously Gretchen doesn’t see him, Frank shows up. Frank’s best line of the film comes after Donnie asks him why he’s wearing that stupid bunny suit: “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” Frank retorts, before taking off his mask at Donnie’s insistence.
Whoa! What happened to your eye, Frank? Frank, now lacking the reverb baritone voice of rabbit-Frank, starts apologizing to Donnie profusely for reasons that will only become clear later, but he also convinces Donnie to head out while Gretchen sleeps through the movie so that he can burn down the house of a local self-help guru.
It is quite notable what films were playing in the film fest. Evil Dead? That makes sense. Last Temptation? That’s not exactly a Halloween film. It was also not random. Last Temptation was all about Jesus willingly fulfilling his destiny by dying on the cross after being allowed to live out a life where he was finally allowed to land Mary Magdalene, once he realizes that life was an illusion. Donnie is given essentially the same destiny.
Oh, and that self-help guru? Turned out he had a kiddie porn den that was discovered by the firefighters. Long story very short, this revelation leads to Donnie’s mother and younger sister being on a particular plane the day before Halloween. Though, to be honest, that bit is so completely incidental that it may not be worth mentioning.
But things are not quite in place. Donnie is finally manipulated (by the english teacher) to take Gretchen and break into Grandma Death’s cellar while the rest of the cool kids in the town are at a Halloween party hosted at Donnie’s house. Donnie’s older sister is looking for the boy she’s dating – named Frank! – but he’s out getting beer. And, because he’s driving drunk in a bunny suit with a rad chrome mask, he ends up running over and killing Gretchen. So Donnie shoots him in the eye.
With Gretchen dead and Donnie apparently having some understanding that the tangent universe is ending anyway, he uses his new telekinetic powers to open up a vortex over his house and telekinetically wrench a jet engine off a plane coincidentally carrying his mother and sister and send that engine back through the vortex in an act of self-sacrifice.
Of course, since the tangent universe runs in orthogonal time, there’s a bit of cognitive crosstalk as it collapses, so that the primary universe’s in-his-bed-and-about-to-die Donnie has some sort of epiphany about how he is about to save the universe.
Some of the other characters also have this sort of contemporomonitons (well, they’re not premonitions), including Frank, who while designing his rad chrome Halloween feels the need to go up and touch his eye. As the Darko family stands outside their house in the dawn, in shock and mourning, Gretchen rides by and asks a bystander what’s going on. “A jet engine fell on my neighbor and killed him.” “What was his name?” she asks. “Donnie Darko. Did you know him?”
“No,” she says, and waves in silent condolence to Donnie’s mom.
You know, for being completely inscrutable as a film (much of the explanation I’ve given you comes from the Director’s Cut and online sources), it’s really good. If ever a movie makes you say, “I don’t really know what just happened, but I really liked it” it’s Donnie Darko. I think that’s pretty high praise, honestly.