Photo: Everett Collection from the film Donnie Darko (2001). L to R: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, James Duval. Director/Writer: Richard Kelly.
28 days. 06 hours. 42 minutes. 12 seconds.
Donnie Darko has been on my mind lately. It started when I was listening to a playlist on Spotify, and Gary Jules’s cover of the Tears For Fears song “Mad World” came on. It’s a song I’ve known for years, and it’s a song I know well. But for some reason the lyrics “Children waiting for the day they feel good, happy birthday, happy birthday” have been etched into my consciousness as of late.
Selfishly, what comes to mind first is that my birthday is right around the corner, and while I am the first to make a celebration out of it, this year, it will hardly be one for the books. For one thing, I won’t be able to see most of my friends IRL because of the obvious pandemic; but the other thing is that my birthday is right after the election, and it has the potential to be insanely depressing if Trump wins. No matter how hard I’m phonebanking or how many postcards I’m writing to registered voters in swing states, the reality is: I, as an individual, have no control over the results of the election.
It’s so gut-wrenching and tragic to think, as a country, we could make the same mistake of electing Donald Trump all over again—especially after we’ve impeached him and after over 220,000+ people have died of COVID (which he has so terribly mismanaged—and that’s putting it generously). In 2016, it was definitely disheartening (to say the least) when Trump won after my 24th birthday, but we had no idea what was to come. Many of us said “He’ll kill us all,” but biological warfare wasn’t the method many of us had in mind.
The other reason those lyrics resonate is because I’ve been thinking about how children are reacting to this in a broader, existentialist way. After being a substitute teacher in some of the most underserved areas of Philadelphia, right up until the eruption of the COVID outbreak in March, I’ve had to put myself in the shoes of young kids more often than not this year. And yet, I simply can’t imagine processing this through the lens of a child. For toddlers and really young ones, they don’t know a world where people’s faces are not half-covered in masks and bandanas. This is the world they inherited. This is normal to them. It’s so incredibly dystopian in the worst possible way to think that depending on how long this lasts, some of them could be spending their most formative years in a deadly pandemic. They will no doubt miss out on many generational milestones—not to mention that for some kids with disabilities, the format of online school could be a certifiable form of torture for them.
Photography by Richard Feldman of Marcus Stern’s 2007 stage adaptation of Donnie Darko at ART, Cambridge, MA. L to R: David Mawhinney, Will Peebles, Alexandra Fulton.
In a recent rewatch of the film, I arrived at the conclusion that Donnie Darko is not meant to be totally understood. It is not an intellectually accessible film, and yet, it’s an extremely popular film with Gen Xers, Xennials, and millennials. There’s a language in this film that somehow resonates deeply with most of us who grew up in the American suburbs during the late ’80s to early 2000s. If you’re reading this and have never seen it—my attempt to describe its plot will be poor at best, as the film is truly an anomaly that defies description, but I’m willing to give it a go. (Warning, spoilers lie ahead.)
The film focuses on the titular character: a teenage boy—played by Jake Gyllenhaal, in one of the seminal roles of his career—who narrowly evades death when a jet engine crashes into his bedroom in the middle of the night, due to his habit of sleepwalking. He encounters a grotesque-looking rabbit named Frank, who informs him that he has 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds before the world ends. The rest of the movie follows Donnie trying to make sense of Frank’s constant resurfacing and baffling messaging, while simultaneously coming to his own identity—within the confines of a conservative suburban town during the height of the Reagan Era. A book called The Philosophy Of Time Travel, astral-projected bubble-like blobs bursting out of people’s chests, a troubled girl named Gretchen (Jena Malone) escaping her murderous stepdad, a Motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze), and an all-girl dance team called “Sparkle Motion” are prominently involved as well.
A friend once told me she felt that millennials’ shadow generation is the ’80s, and while AIDS and COVID are not the same, there is a feeling of bleakness and a general cry for answers in both of these disorienting times. Although I did not live through the ’80s, relics of that time commonly appeared in my childhood, both aesthetically and ideologically. Even my father, for as long as I can remember, stressed to me that most of what he learned in business came from a book called The Power Of Positive Thinking. The idea that in order to achieve success, you simply must visualize the things that you want and set your mind to thinking positively—perfectly mirrors the bullshit self-help movement of the ’80s represented in Jim Cunningham’s phoney motivational speech he pitches to Donnie’s class in the film (to which Donnie brilliantly calls Jim the antichrist, to the repulsion of many of the adults around him).
Photographer & actor unknown, Northeastern University’s production of Donnie Darko (by Marcus Stern), Boston, MA (2013). Director: Matti Gray.
Off the coattails of Women’s Lib. and the Sexual Revolution, Reaganism was designed to comfort the white, upper class suburbanites who felt that they were about to lose their power within the capitalist structure, echoing a familiar call to “Make America Great Again.” The effects of Reagan’s administration—which cut social programs; ignored AIDS (pointing the fingers back at the LGBT community and blaming us for it); proclaimed black women were “welfare queens” who were poisoning the water; and claimed that large corporations were the good guys who were unfairly being blamed—can still be felt today. Ronald Reagan’s hatred of disenfranchised communities, and that of the “other,” had a stronghold over the generation of my parents, administrators, and gatekeepers of my adolescence. Perhaps what feels so truthful about the film is that it is a film about 1988, but it is filmed in 2000—so it has the quality of both time periods blending together.
In the minds of most of white suburban boomers (who, in fairness, inherited a lot of these world views from the silent generation and the greatest generation--and most of the “adults” when the film is set in 1988, would’ve been from the generations previous), despite the fallout of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and a great recession—it was somehow the fault of everyone else for not being able to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and “deal with it.” Boomers say “they had it hard, too and turned out fine”—which is a complete lie they’ve told themselves so many times they believe it as truth—despite them growing up with one of the most lucrative economies of the 21st century. They believed those who spoke out against the system that oppressed them were the problem. They were simply uneducated, childish, and needed to shut up and stay in their lane because the grown-ups were talking. It is this attitude that dominates almost all of the adults in this film—sans the adults who skew on the younger side, such as Donnie’s English teacher, Karen Pomeroy (played by Drew Barrymore, who helped co-produce the film) and his science teacher, Dr. Jim Monnitoff (Noah Wyle). Both of these characters encourage outside-the-box and independent thought. This ultimately ends up becoming the demise of Ms. Pomeroy, who is subsequently fired after Donnie’s uptight, conservative gym teacher, Kitty Farmer (played by an iconic Beth Grant), scapegoats her for corrupting her students by teaching The Destructors by Graham Greene. Kitty links the teaching of the book to an act of vandalism committed at the school (which we learn Donnie or Frank is responsible for, depending on how you interpret it).
Photo: Everett Collection from the film Donnie Darko (2001). L to R: Jake Gyllenhaal, Beth Grant.
In one of my favorite scenes of the film, Ms. Farmer forces Donnie and his classmates to participate in an activity based on Jim Cunningham’s speeches, where they have to place an “exercise card” on a continuum drawn out of chalk. On either end of the chalkboard continuum, the seemingly polarizing feelings of “fear” or “love” are written. Donnie is asked to identify if the subject of his hypothetical situation (named “Ling Ling”) is motivated by fear or love if she hesitates to turn in a lost wallet she found on the ground in the following exchange:
Donnie: Well, life isn't that simple. I mean, who cares if Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love.
Kitty Farmer: Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions.
Donnie: Okay. But you're not listening to me. There are other things that need to be taken into account here, like the whole spectrum of human emotion. You can't just lump everything into these two categories and then just deny everything else.
While there is definitely a read of the film that points to Donnie Darko simply being an angsty teen struggling with schizophrenic visions and “anger problems”—there is equally an interpretation that suggests that Donnie is a “chosen one” on a mission to save the world, who is tapped into visions that others cannot see or understand. Donnie is an unlikely candidate for a superhero, but then again, were Peter Parker or Clark Kent obvious choices for superheroes? It is usually those who we least expect to save the day. And one could even argue that the day is not fully saved in Donnie Darko, because the question of what a “day” is is subjective within the context of a film that explores subjects such as parallel universes and time travel. At the end of the film, it is clear that Donnie is caught between two different universes, and each have different outcomes—both are equally bleak, resulting in a jet engine crashing into his house.
I learned that there are additional scenes in the Director’s Cut of the film that help provide way more context as to what The Philosophy Of Time Travel actually says. While director/writer Richard Kelly himself considers both cuts of the film to be equally strong, I would argue that the omission of some of the book’s passages, in addition to a cut scene from the commercial release where Donnie’s psychiatrist (Katharine Ross, of The Stepford Wives fame) admits to him that his medication is actually a placebo, makes a huge difference in how an audience member interprets the film. I will try as best as I can to try and summarize some of the key elements of TPOTT and how it relates to our times, but it still requires a dense reading.
Essentially, the fictional author of TPOTT, Roberta Sparrow (known in the film as “Grandma Death”), states that there are two universes within the paradigm of time travel: the “primary universe” and the “tangent universe.” While it is not explained why tangent universes occur, it states a tangent universe can only last a few weeks before collapsing in on itself (which would explain why at the end of the film, a giant wormhole comes out of the sky like a reverse tornado). It also explains that there is an “Artifact,” almost always made from metal (in this case, the jet engine), that is dropped in the physical world, which must be returned to the “primary universe.” The metal object is received by a “Living Receiver” (Donnie). The LR is granted fourth-dimensional powers such as mind-control, telekinesis, and the ability to control water. There are also the “Manipulative Living,” which are made up of the friends and neighbors of the LR who are to act with hostility and resistance as the LR attempts to bring the metal object back to the primary universe. There are also the “Manipulated Dead.” The Manipulated Dead hold more power than the LR if a person dies within the Tangent Dimension (in this case, Gretchen, Donnie’s love interest). The Manipulated Dead are able to contact the LR in ways the Manipulated Living cannot. I raised an eyebrow when reading the section “Dreams,” which states: “When the Manipulated awaken from their Journey into the Tangent Universe, they are often haunted by the experience in their dreams. Many of them will not remember.” This would explain the ending of the film when “Mad World” comes in, where all the characters are in various stages of their sleep cycles—seemingly subconsciously feeling the reverberations and effects of their outcomes in the Primary Universe.
I’ve seen a few articles thrown around lately that suggest we might be living in a simulation, and that scientists feel they are getting closer to coming into contact with parallel universes. While I’m inclined to think that what’s happened with Trump and COVID is the result of a “tangent universe,” it wouldn’t hold up to Sparrow/Kelly’s theory that they can only last for a few weeks before collapsing. But one can’t help but feel that someone as unqualified as Donald Trump leading our country through one of the deadliest pandemics of the 21st century, that this is all some sort of time travel experiment gone terribly, terribly wrong. However, one thing is certain—bad time travel experiment or not—it would seem like time is running out. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either. Leading scientists say we only have about 11 years before the effects of climate change are irreversible, and that we’ve only seen the beginning of the worst. Even the guys who made that creepy countdown in Union Square have now updated it to reflect a countdown estimation of 7 years before climate change destroys the earth. And then of course, from the time I write this, there are only 13 days before the election comes around, which—no matter which way it goes—will have a ripple effect on the rest of the world.
Lastly, in an interview from 2016 at the British Film Institute, Kelly states: “People may not notice this, but all of my films take place in election years. 1988 for Donnie Darko, an alternate narrative of 2008 for The Southend Tales, and then 1976 for The Box—and I gravitate towards stories that are imprinted with a specific date and time because I think that’s how my brain works. I want to make sure that the characters exist in a very specific timeline. There’s also something about the days surrounding an election that feel embedded with more tension, suspense and emotion.”
One thing is for sure: with a global pandemic and a looming election—along with the approval of a new, extremely conservative Supreme Court judge who may or may not be linked to Christian cult—it’s a very, very mad world outside.
Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly: “Everyone is mentaly ill to some degree” | BFI. Dec 22, 2016. www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBKDOl9JP9Q
Ananthaswamy, Anil. Do We Live In A Simulation? The Chances Are About 50-50. October 13, 2020. Scientific American.
Letzer, Rafi. Why Some Scientists Think There’s A “Mirror Universe” Hiding In Space-Time. June 22, 2020. https://www.livescience.com/truth-behind-nasa-mirror-parallel-universe.html
Collier, Stutter, Union Square’s giant metronome clock is now a climate crisis countdown. September 22, 2020, Time Out New York.
Author Unknown, Only 11 Years Left To Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change, Speakers Warn during General Assembly High-Level Meeting. March 28, 2019, United Nations Press Release.
Donnie Darko Explained: The Ending And What It Meant. March 30, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZrPYryNhWs
The Philosophy Of Time Travel Wiki Fandom: https://wakeupdonnie.fandom.com/wiki/The_Philosophy_of_Time_Travel