Is there a song that never fails to remind you of a special place or person? Is there a painting on your wall that grabs your attention every time you enter your room? Is there a movie you could watch over and over? For me, that movie is the 2001 psychological thriller, “Donnie Darko.” I’ve probably seen it a dozen times. I get something different out of each viewing, which keeps me coming back to it time and time again.
For a variety of reasons, we can develop strong connections to certain artistic works. When we experience art, we often (unwittingly) form attachments and associations that determine what it means to us. Sometimes, art reaches you at a pivotal moment and gives you something you didn’t know you needed. Serendipitous encounters like this can be profound and create lasting attachments. Such was the case with me and “Donnie Darko.” It burrowed into a shadowy recess of my mind and has been there ever since.
“Donnie Darko” is a difficult film to summarize, as the nature of the events depicted depends completely upon one’s interpretation of them. Donnie is a troubled teen living an upper-middle-class suburban life in 1988. He is roused from his sleep one night by a phantasmal, human-sized bunny-rabbit named Frank, who tells Donnie that the world will end in approximately one month—on Halloween. Immediately afterwards, a jet engine unexplainedly crashes into his room. Frank continues to appear to Donnie, delivering more cryptic portents and eventually, bizarre instructions. Convinced that Frank has saved his life, Donnie obeys.
As the “end of the world” approaches, Frank’s commands become increasingly nefarious and Donnie’s mental condition deteriorates. At one point, his psychologist indicates to his parents that he may have schizophrenia. This is left ambiguous, though, and viewers are left to decide for themselves whether they are witnessing the delusions of a troubled mind or not. Regardless of this possibility, the events comprising the remainder of the film are perplexing—especially during the first viewing. I won’t spoil anything, but things get spooky.
When I watched “Donnie Darko” for the first time, I was astonished. The experience was numinous in the sense that, although the plot was baffling to me, it seemed to cohere in a way I could not quite explain. Quotes, motifs and images from the film constantly appeared in my thoughts, beckoning me to take a closer look. It all had a mysterious allure that I found irresistible. Add to that a top-notch cast, a unique and memorable soundtrack and impeccable cinematography, and I was hooked.
One of the beautiful things about “Donnie Darko” is that it rewards multiple viewings. Once you know where things are headed, seemingly irrelevant details and incongruous remarks acquire new significance. Pieces of the puzzle start to fit together. The strange thing is that no matter how much you try to analyze and dissect the film to discover what it “really means,” a single, undeniable explanation never emerges. I spent hours reading through fan theories, but there seemed to be just as much evidence for the “mental illness” theory as for the “Christ allegory” theory or “critique of white 1980’s conservatism” theory, etc. I tried sketching out my own interpretation, but there were always loose ends that couldn’t be tied up.
I’ve come to realize this ultimate ambiguity is part of the genius of “Donnie Darko.” For first-time viewers, it provides a thrilling, mind-bending experience. Returning viewers will appreciate new subtleties but be no less perplexed, while hardcore fans will pore over every minute detail and argue endlessly for their favored interpretation. Yet no interpretation is canonical—not even (by his own admission) that of director Richard Kelly. The interpretations end up revealing more about the person who dreamed them up than about the movie itself.
This is where my investigations eventually led me—not to the answers I craved, but to a new question. I wanted to know what “Donnie Darko” really means, when I should have been asking why “Donnie Darko” is meaningful to me. That’s why I find new meaning every time I watch it. I thought I was gradually comprehending more and more of a great mystery hidden purposely in the film. Actually, each viewing found me at a different point in my life, with a certain level of maturity and set of circumstances and problems. Accordingly, I gravitated toward different themes and aspects of the film depending on what was most resonant with my state of mind at the time.
So, why did “Donnie Darko” resonate so strongly and instantly with me? To be frank, it was probably because I could empathize with Donnie’s experience of privileged, suburban teen angst. However, at that time, a reminder of the pettiness of my personal struggles was not what I needed. What I needed then was an inspiring message about growing up, sacrifice and love, and that’s what I saw in “Donnie Darko.”
It is said art reflects life, and insofar as living lends itself to an infinity of possible interpretations, “Donnie Darko” is incredibly successful. Provocative experiences with art can remind us that we do not see things the way they are, we see things the way we are. This may be part of the reason why art can entrance us—we see something of ourselves in it, even if we do not yet know what or why.