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Donnie Darko: An Alternative View

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My personal interpretation of Donnie Darko is not related to the philosophy of time travel or any of the other type of science-fiction schemes that are usually associated with the film.

Donnie is a young man who thinks constantly about girls and experiments frequently with sexual compulsions. About that matter, his parents (especially his mother, Rose) are naïve at best. Her mother is afraid and prefers Donnie attend therapy rather than confront him about his sexual growth. She pays another woman (Dr. Thurman) instead. The therapist is friendly and Donnie reveals to her some of his fantasies. It's possible that Donnie is feeling some incestuous impulses towards his sister, since he hasn't had real experience with girls.

If we flash back to the beginning of the movie, we descend upon the Carpathian Ridge, a crescent-shaped cliff that extrudes from the dense Virginia evergreens above a deep rock canyon, where a cliff marks the end of a dirt road that winds down from above. There Donnie got used to sleeping at the edge of the cliff. The close-up shows us a bike collapsed next to him, Donnie shivering, curled up in the fetal position, maybe a sign of weakness and a clue to Donnie's search for a meaning.

In the director's cut, Elizabeth asks him about Gretchen while carving a pumpkin and is curious at the Halloween party when Donnie goes upstairs with Gretchen. This may suggest Elizabeth possesses some type of control over Donnie's sexuality in the same way the mother of the family does. Donnie endures all this family control only in his subconscious, but he isn't capable of admitting it. In the first dinner scene he gets rebellious, throwing disdainful comments to his sisters and insulting his mother afterwards. His search for sexual realization is giddy, leading him to a textbook conflicted teenager scenario which creates an alternate world – in his mind – where Donnie becomes an accidental saviour while fighting against a giant bunny monster whom he calls Frank.

The bunny is the real Elizabeth's boyfriend, becoming Donnie's competitor and sexual rival. However, the external form is devoid of human attachments, only a grotesque suit, masking Donnie's guilt. All his virtual TV fantasies and fights against matriarchal repression are reflected by the artificial evil bunny, who causes him constant dreadful visions. Frank is, by this logic, a mirror of Donnie's psyche. This also would explain his rushed demeanor when he asks Gretchen to go out with him, because his desire is owerwhelmingly intense.

Evidently Gretchen is the perfect girl for Donnie, because she comes from a dysfunctional home and hides herself from a violent male father figure. She is an angel in Donnie's eyes due to her romantic behavior but more definitively because of her sexual freedom, which separates her from the other school girls Donnie has met. Gretchen stops Donnie's advances in one scene, showing him that their future sexual relationship must also have an emotional component. She's wiser in this aspect.

In a chat with his friends Donnie uses an example of Smurfettes as asexual beings who scare him because of their lack of sexuality. In another scene from the director's cut we can infer Donnie's bitterness from this dialogue exchange between him and the teacher Ms. Pomeroy:

Karen Pomeroy: Is the death of one species less tragic than another?

Donnie: Of course. A rabbit is not like us. It has no history books… it has no knowledge of sorrow or regret. I like bunnies and all. They're cute… and they're horny. And if you're cute and horny… then you're probably happy that you don't know who you are… or why you're even alive. But the only thing I've known rabbits to do is have sex as many times as possible before they die.

So to sum up: the female figure is Gretchen and the male figure is Donnie. Donnie's lecture to his friends about Smurfettes reveals to us how important sex is for Donnie; for him life hasn't any real meaning without it. When Donnie and Gretchen establish their intimate bonds, they are happy and isolated from society, so society is now looking for a way to punish them. Donnie’s hysteria makes him run away with Gretchen, but the tragedy will appear when Frank – the evil reflection of American matriarchy and its inherent obscenity (sexual repression) – ends up killing her. Donnie prefers awaking dead to suffering a surrender to the dominant point of view of the society.

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About Elena Gonzalvo

I'm Elena Gonzalvo, a Catalonian freelance writer, and film critic. My favourite genre is Noir. My blogsite is http://jake-weird.blogspot.com
  • Charles Manning

    Frank (Blue Velvet) was a competitor to the affections of Isabella Rosselini’s character just as Frank (Donnie Darko) was a competitor to the affections of Donnie’s sister. Frank was also a projection of Jeffrey’s own sexuality just as Frank is a projection of Donnie’s sexuality.

    Donnie and Jeffrey both feel that their affection – Donnie toward his sister, and Jeffrey toward the mother figure is threatened by the frighteningly sexualized image of Frank. (which has a dual meaning of both honesty and a phallic connotation)

    So Frank is a symbol of those forces in the world that threaten to alienate him from those sources of affection.

  • thanks, Charles, you’re welcome! And yes, it’s very possible Frank also contains another extra allusion to Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (a scary character who symbolized sexual repression in Lynch’s film)

  • Charles Manning

    I think that the name “Frank” is probably an allusion to the Frank in “blue velvet.”

  • Charles Manning

    Its about time I came across an intelligent interpretation of this film. Your a cool chick. I think your take on the overarching sexual theme is entirely correct with the exception of some subtleties. However I think that much of Donnie’s confusion stems from his lack of knowledge about sex and his excessively idealistic hopes that he places on them. We can’t say that he only gets meaning from sex, he is a virgin as I understand it. We can say however that his lack of satisfaction with life and his general discontent lead him to feel that sex is the only thing that can make him happy.

  • Kendra

    thanks a lot for letting me know about your film teacher story, Paul!

  • Paul

    My film teacher knows the director. As much as I hate to say it, this is exactly what the director had to say. That’s why he cast Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

  • thanks, GuyOnInternet, you assume correctly, “Donnie Darko” is one of those movies I’ve watched too many times (so many I cannot count anymore). I like to introduce it to people I know, and of course the squizophrenia theory and my observations are compatible.

  • GuyOnInternet

    A fresh look is always nice and you have done a good job of making your argument (assuming you have watched the movie as much as you claim and are familiar with the current “theories” out there. I would like to see a more in depth article, but its really not needed for those that have “studied” the film).

    That said, I respectfully disagree with your ideas. I’m a bit more of a traditionalist and tend to stick to the schizophrenic theories myself (although, its possible, the two are not mutually exclusive)

  • thanks a lot, Paddy, glad you liked my ‘theory’!

  • I must say… This is a fantastic view of this movie… I had gotten so sick and tired of hearing the same old theories rehashed again and again,a nd as such I had kind of grown tired of the movie itself because it felt like it had kind of been explained. But I really like your idea of Sexual repression, Kendra. This is a top notch interpretation and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. All the best,


  • I’m only ashamed of simple-mindedness like yours, dear James. I haven’t said it was incest in the story, just the possibility of a teenager feeling confused towards his sexual awakening. And I’ve tried watching “Donnie Darko”, a thousand times, actually, and I’ve dedicated a good part of my free-time to think and research about it.
    It’s one of my all-time favourite films and every person who reads my site can confirm it.

  • james

    way off. nice try though. try actually *watching* the movie. Incestuous? that makes you look pretty *strange* to me. Real strange! Youv’e insulted this great piece of art and should be ashamed!

  • And other times that cigar isn’t just a cigar.
    Anyway, we are talking about “Donnie Darko”, not the most formulaic film precisely, where all cigars are simple cigars.
    And his director Richard Kelly said it’s open to interpretation, so this is my interpretation.

  • Shalebridge

    “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

  • It’s just an “alternative” vision, different of the classical time-travel theory or “schizophrenia/depression” theory.

  • j

    I really disagree with what you said. I am not sure you understood the movie.

  • j