When Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko came out a little over 15 years ago, it belonged to the strange class of movies, books, and albums whose releases were dramatically affected by the tragedy of September 11. October of 2001 was not a great time to release a film that involved a jet engine falling on a house, especially a weirdo art-flick from a lower-rung distributor that had little in the way of advance buzz. Donnie Darko’s time in the cultural eye appeared like it would be brief.
Until, of course, it wasn’t. Thanks to growing word-of-mouth and a return to the big screen as a midnight movie, including a two-year stint at the Pioneer Theater in New York City, Donnie Darko has since become a landmark of cult filmmaking and the go-to for self-aggrandizing high-schoolers (this one included) just dipping their toes into a more eccentric world of cinema. While there’s a real risk of that kind of teenage love powering a fierce backlash, Donnie Darko holds up as a well-made, well-acted, and imaginative inflation of pubescent angst into what it often feels like to a teenager: the end of the world.
One thing that also remains true is that the ending’s still really weird. Part of Donnie Darko’s appeal has always been its convoluted plot, which goes a little something like this: Donnie, played with supreme creepiness by Jake Gyllenhaal, is a hyperintelligent and misunderstood teenage boy — sound familiar? It’s you! — who just so happens to be visited by a man named Frank in a giant rabbit suit. Frank lures Donnie out to a golf course one night and then tells him that in 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds, the world is going to end. Then a jet engine falls on his room.
What follows is a mash-up between a time-travel mind-twister, a commentary on American suburbia, and a high-school set coming-of-age-story, complete with plenty of Biblical allusions. There’s something for every precocious teenage viewer, and it all coalesces in the ending, which is violent, obtuse, and unexplained, tragic in content but not in tone — a surprise, to say the least, but one in keeping with the spirit of the film.
So, what happens at the end of Donnie Darko? Let’s start with what literally takes place: Donnie, under the guidance of Frank — who simultaneously reveals his human form — burns down the house of motivational speaker and town guru Jim Cunningham, played by Patrick Swayze. Within the house, firefighters discover a kiddie porn dungeon; he’s arrested, and Beth Grant’s Kitty Farmer stays home to help Cunningham’s defense. Kitty asks Donnie’s mom to accompany their daughters’ dance troupe to Los Angeles, in the process saying the film’s most immortal line: “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!” Donnie, meanwhile, has become fixated on time travel, fueled by a book given to him by the school’s science teacher; in the book, he finds evidence of the strange wormlike things he sees sprouting from peoples’ chests, allowing him to see their paths through life.
Donnie’s mom and sister go out of town. His other sister, played by Gyllenhaal’s real-life sister Maggie, gets into Harvard. Like teenagers, they throw a party. During that party, Donnie, Gretchen, and Donnie’s two friends go to try and find Grandma Death, a.k.a. Roberta Sparrow, the author of Donnie’s time-travel book. Instead, they find two bullies, who attack them. Gretchen gets knocked into the road and run over by a car, which, it turns out, is driven by Frank, seemingly unaware he’s been showing up in Donnie’s visions. Donnie shoots Frank in the face with a gun his time-worm had led him to, giving him a wound that matches the one Frank has when he reveals himself to Donnie. Taking Gretchen’s body, Donnie goes to a hill and sees a strange end-of-world vortex, just as Frank had foretold. The plane carrying Donnie’s sister and mother seems to get caught in that storm, crashing, at which point Donnie successfully manages to go back in time, to when the jet engine first fell on his house — except, this time, he doesn’t leave his room, instead laughing to himself as the engine — which, we now understand, comes from the future — crashes into the house, killing him.
Okay! So what the hell does any of this mean? Only Richard Kelly could tell you that for sure, but there are some definite clues within the film regarding how it should be read. The first is in its general relationship to puberty. At one point, Donnie’s therapist tells him that his manias are stemming from “an inability to cope with the forces in the world that he perceives to be threatening.” Puberty, of course, is the point at which we begin to confront these forces. It’s our emergence into adulthood, and that wrenching away from the innocence of childhood is painful for Donnie, who regresses into a childlike state when his therapist puts him under hypnosis. In the way that films like Carrie express a fear of menstruation, Donnie Darko appears to be an exploration of the male capacity for violence and destruction that comes with Donnie’s progress into adulthood.
In that sense, Frank functions as a sort of instigator, a manifestation of Donnie’s masculine and personal tendency toward violence. But there’s also a Jungian reading to this dynamic, which hinges on his connection to Gretchen, played with spot-on earnestness by a young Jena Malone. Gretchen represents an antidote to Donnie’s anger and loneliness; she sees him as he is, rather than as he seems to be, and in that way gets through to him. If Frank is Donnie’s shadow, his responsiveness to Gretchen seems to indicate the awakening of his anima, the female aspect of the male subconscious and a portal into the collective unconscious.
Gretchen, then, offers a promise of hope and light in a world that otherwise looks hopeless and dark — so hopeless and dark, in fact, that it will shortly end. That dynamic also exists in the dichotomy between Cunningham and Donnie. It’s no stretch to say that Donnie exists in the world of Donnie Darko as a Christlike figure; he is a prophet, carrying knowledge of God through his experience with time travel (or moving in God’s channel, as he describes it to his teacher). Cunningham, on the other hand, is the Antichrist, a name Donnie calls him to his face, and he preaches a false gospel — fear is an illusion that just has to be dismissed — in order to enrich himself and obscure his own shadow. (He even has a picture of himself in his house, which is an Antichrist move if there ever was one.) On Halloween, Donnie and Gretchen go see a double feature of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and it’s there that Frank visits and reveals himself to Donnie, as Satan revealed himself to Christ.
In The Last Temptation of Christ, Satan tempts Jesus with the image of an earthly life lived happily, with a family, but Jesus passes up the promise of that life to die on the cross. In Donnie Darko, Donnie ultimately makes a similar sacrifice. In the present-day timeline of the film, the result of Donnie following Frank’s instructions is violence, death, and catastrophe: By burning down the house, he reveals Cunningham’s true nature, but also forces his mother on the doomed flight to L.A. At the same time, Gretchen dies in a fight that Donnie leads her into, and Frank dies as well, shot by Donnie as punishment for running over Gretchen. When the timeline resets at the end of the film, Donnie sacrifices his life in order to prevent these things from happening. If there’s a way to travel in God’s channel, that sacrifice appears to be it.
On the one hand, this ending seems to fulfill Roberta Sparrow’s prophecy, whispered into Donnie’s ear, that “every living creature on Earth dies alone.” On the other, he not only forestalls the deaths of the people he loves; Donnie giving up his own life may also prevent the Rapture that seems to come as the inevitable end of his and Frank’s journey. As Gary Jules sang, it’s a mad world.