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• Autopsy™ Donnie Darko •


Donnie Darko: Fear and Loathing in an Alternate Dimension

- X gives this film a 5 [out of 5] Scalpel Rating™ -






On the surface, "Donnie Darko" appears to be a smorgasbord of deviance, destruction, overactive hormones, paranoia, teen angst, and delusion. And, it is. Yet, if one looks below the cleverly disguised subcutaneous layer, one will discover a beautifully haunting, original work of art.

The film begins on October 2, 1988, a few weeks short of the Bush-Dukakis Presidential Election, and finds the title character asleep on a stretch of road. He wakes up, looks around him, and smiles, as he hops on his bike, and pedals back home, still in his pajama's, as Echo and the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon" plays in the background.

We soon find out that Donnie is in therapy, and on medication, due in part to a previous juvenile arson charge. He is also afflicted with sleepwalking, and audiovisual hallucinations, which involve a 7 foot tall, skeletal looking rabbit named Frank. Frank introduces himself to Donnie that same night, when he awakens and beckons Donnie out of bed and into the street, to deliver a message that the world will end in "28 days:6 hours:42 minutes:12 seconds". Donnie needs time to digest this information, and takes a walk. Lucky for him that he has heeded the call of Frank, because the falling engine of a mysterious airplane crashes into his bedroom that evening, and Donnie's life is miraculously spared. Since there were no flight plans logged for this aircraft, a strange FAA cover-up occurs, and Donnie's family is told to "keep quiet about the details", and agree with what the press says.

I found it interesting that the exact phrase "28 days:6 hours:42 minutes:12 seconds", was used. When one reduces the numbers of these figures, the remainder is "7", which some believe, is the number of God, and this theme of a Higher Being, who may [or may not be] in control, follows us throughout the film.

Another interesting fact worth noting is the presentation of the number 28, and the presence of a rabbit. 28 is the number of days in the Menstrual Cycle, and rabbits can signify fertility, life, and the continuity of it. It is further interesting to note that this was no ordinary rabbit, but a nearly 7 foot tall one [another repeat of the number 7], and he was quite frightening to look at. This seems to suggest that Donnie viewed life as somewhat scary and confusing, and, in the context of this film, and life itself, who can blame him?

Soon after his near brush with death, Donnie meets a classmate named Gretchen, who becomes his girlfriend and confidant. Gretchen is also a troubled youth, as she and her mother are on the run from her murderous stepfather. "What kind of name is Donnie Darko?" Gretchen asks him " it sounds some kind of Superhero". "What makes you think that i'm not?", he quips slyly. This statement, which seems like a playful interaction between the two, takes on a whole new meaning as we get deeper into the film. There is a sense of camaraderie between Donnie and Gretchen, and for a moment, it appears that things might actually turn out ok.

And, in a way, everything does. But i will save that for later.

Donnie appears to be something of a pariah in the Catholic school that he attends, although he does have several friends, and teachers who seem to like him. One of these is Professor Monnitoff, and his girlfriend/fellow teacher Karyn Pomeroy [played by Drew Barrymore, in a surprisingly wonderful adult role]. He also seems to have the interest and compassion of his therapist, Dr. Thurman [played by a frightfully aged Katharine Ross of "The Graduate"]. She has diagnosed him with Borderline Paranoid Schizophrenia, and, while she seems both caring and willing to help him, she also appears equally helpless to do so, as Donnie "slips deeper and deeper into unreality".

Although Donnie is troubled, he is certainly not ignorant or unlearned. He struggles with forms of indoctrination at school, and rails against them with a fervent passion. He seems to be the only one in his class who understands the symbolism in Graham Greene's short story "The Destructors", a tale about maligned youths, who destroy a house from inward, out. Destruction, is a form of Creativity, and it is only by destroying, that one can change things. This story also shows us that by weakening the "structure" of things, one can cause these things to fall, and this is lesson that Donnie finds quite valuable, on both an external, and internal level.

Typical of "The Teenage Experience", Donnie is viewing the hypocrisy of others, and questioning/testing the existence of God, Science, and the meaning of life. His principal states that his Iowa Test Scores are "intimidating", and that he doesn't understand why Donnie can't seem to "get along", and feels the need to test everything to the limit. In many ways, Donnie is a modern day Haulden Caufield, whose wry observations about what he encounters around him, capture the true essence of the experience, and dichotomy of alienation of The Genius/Madman. The appearance and presence of Frank, who instructs Donnie to commit minor and major acts of vandalism, is paramount to the whole "change by destruction" theory, although it certainly does not help Donnie's popularity with the authorities.

Donnie also finds himself challenging the local self help guru, Jim Cunningham, whose motivational program "Controlling Fear", seems to be sweeping the town faster than a bush fire in Kansas. A teacher at Donnie's school, Mrs. Farmer, is particularly supportive of Mr. Cunningham's program, and works it into her curriculum. There is a scene where Mrs. Farmer draws a line on the blackboard, and at one end puts the word "Fear", and at the opposite end, the word "Love", and gives the children situations which they must read off of flash cards, and then place an "X" on the timeline, where they believe the motivation of the particular act falls. According to Mr. Cunningham, all acts are ultimately the product of Fear or Love, and there is no attention given to myriad other human emotions. Donnie, of course protests this exercise, and disrupts the entire class of Mrs. Farmer. He also disrupts a public speaking event, where Jim Cunningham appears at the school, trying to tout his program to the parents, teachers and students of this small suburban community.

The plot thickens, when Prof. Monnitoff gives Donnie a copy of a book written by the town madwoman, Roberta Sparrow [aka "Grandma Death"], who walks back and forth to her mailbox each day, awaiting a letter that never seems to arrive. Ms. Sparrow is a former nun/teacher, turned scientist/recluse, when she discovers certain theories, and publishes a book called "The Philosophy of Time Travel", which is supposedly somewhat of a predecessor to Steven Hawking's "A Brief History of Time". In a sense, Ms. Sparrow becomes a Dr. Emmett Brown [from "Back to the Future"] figure, and Donnie plays the part of Marty McFly, although there is little interaction between the two, on a personal level. But, by reading her book, Donnie becomes interested in The Wormhole Theory, and soon begins to see these portals everywhere, which only adds to his increasing suspicion about the truth of where this is all leading. Further confirmation occurs when Donnie has a talk with Prof. Monnitoff about the theories presented in the book, and decides that these wormholes are actually messengers of God, working in conjunction with Science, leading each being to their personal destiny. On a particular night, Donnie is watching television with his family, and begins to notice wormholes sprouting from the Solar Plexus of nearly everyone in the room, and he follows his, which leads him to his father's bedroom, where he finds a gun in the closet. Donnie becomes convinced that this gun will play a part in his destiny, and takes it for safe keeping.

And the strangest part of all this, is that he is right.

There is another minor character in the film, whom i think holds much importance to the story, even though most of her dialogue consists of telling other people to "Chut up" [shut up]. Her name is Cherita Chen, and she is a studious, shy and overweight Chinese girl, who wears earmuffs constantly, and spends most of her time engrossing herself in various projects, trying to escape the torment of her fellow classmates. The wearing of the earmuffs was significant to me, for, it was as if she were trying to block out the world, and live in her own little domain, much like Donnie. Donnie appears to have some sort of respect for Cherita, and in his own way, wants things to work out for her.

An interesting scene in the film occurs, when there is a talent contest, the winners of which, will get to appear on "Star Search", and Cherita plans a moving and interpretive dance to classical music. Her performance is basically ignored and overshadowed by another group of girls who perform a flashy, choreographed dance routine to the tune of Duran Duran's "Notorious". This dance group goes by the name of "Sparkle Motion", and this scene, the name of the group, and the reaction of the crowd sums up the entire sociopolitical theme of the late 1980's, in such a perfectly wonderful way. "Find your Bliss" was the catch phrase of this time period, where people seemed to become more selfish, and less interested in the affairs and dilemmas of others, focusing instead on those trivial things which would make their own lives happier. There was also a move away from free forms of interpretive expression, to more rigid, conservative and "acceptable" things. Keep in mind that George Bush won the presidential election of 1988, the time period that this film was set in.

There is a thread of "aloneness", and the fear of it, that runs through this entire film. It is central to the entire meaning of, and it is significant particularly to the outcome of the movie. It is also something that makes this film so pristinely dark and beautiful. Aloneness can be a frightening thing, and Donnie dips us into this emotion, and infects us with it. This theme of fear and aloneness is presented to us in myriad ways, throughout the course of the film.

When Donnie sees his therapist, he tells her that "I must obey Frank because he saved my life. i have to obey him, or i will be left all alone.... i won't know the master plan, or what all of this means". "Do you feel alone?" Doctor Thurman asks him. "I try not to think that i am, but i can't help it", he answers. He then continues, telling her that in his initial run in with Roberta Sparrow, she whispered something in his ear. "What was it?" the therapist questions. "Every living creature on earth dies alone" he answers. "Does this frighten you?" she asks. "Yes, because it would mean that the search for God, and his will would be pointless and absurd". He then begins to cry, saying "I don't want to be alone".

Jim Cunningham, and his motivational "Controlling Fear" course, preys on the fears of others, to make both his program, and himself successful, and this need for attention and recognition as the "town savior", is itself based in fear. Mrs. Farmer, [who is the embodiment of a woman, straight out of the 1950's with her beehive hairdo, and mentality], is afraid that people are losing their "family values", and steps in to inject some of this doctrine into the lives of her students. Gretchen is afraid that her insane stepfather will find her and her mother. Doctor Thurman, and Mr. and Mrs. Darko are afraid that they will lose Donnie to his "illness". Professor Monnitoff and Miss Pomeroy are afraid that their new teaching approaches, will be rejected by the conservative school where they are instructors. Cherita is afraid that she is doomed to live her life alone and misunderstood. Grandma death is fearful that the mysterious letter which she is awaiting, will never arrive. The list goes on and on.

As the countdown to doomsday continues, Donnie finds himself at a local movie theater with Gretchen, to view a Halloween Double Feature, consisting of "Evil Dead", and another, mysterious movie, the title of, we are unable to see on the theater marquee. Gretchen falls asleep almost immediately, and Donnie becomes aware of the presence of Frank, who is sitting in the same row. "Why do you always wear that stupid rabbit suit?" Donnie asks him, to which Frank replies "Why do you always wear that stupid human suit?", and this troubles Donnie, as he begins to realize that Frank is just a person wearing a rabbit suit, but is not a real rabbit, and that Frank's answer seems to suggest that Donnie is not a real human either. [More to come on this theory.... don't you just love a mystery?] Frank removes the rabbit mask, and Donnie sees that one of his eyes is blown out, and he asks him what happened, and Frank cryptically answers "I'm so sorry". He then instructs Donnie to burn down the house of Jim Cunningham, which Donnie obeys, and, when he leaves the theater, we see the other movie that is playing, listed on the marquee. "The Last Temptation of Christ". This was so significant to the entire film, as, the latter mentioned film gives us another look at the life of Jesus. One that is much more darker, and much less pretty than the story that we all know. A story of a man, not quite human, who has doubts, and fears about fulfilling the confusing destiny that seems to have been laid out before him.

Donnie succeeds in torching the Cunningham residence, and even makes it back to the theater before Gretchen awakens. The next day, while watching the news, Donnie discovers that, in the aftermath of the fire, Mr. Cunningham was arrested on charges of propagating a child pornography ring, and Donnie smiles evilly, as his suspicions of Jim are confirmed. It is all coming together for Donnie, and he "knows" that he has done the right thing, and is in accordance with both the will of God, and the wormhole, which is leading him to his final destination. The town savior has been moved aside, so that the real hero can step forth.

In the meantime, "Sparkle Motion" wins a spot on Star Search. Mrs. Farmer is victorious, as their coach, but this victory is short lived, when she discovers the truth about Jim Cunningham, but, being somewhat of a disciple of his, she rallies in his defense. As a result, she must also forfeit taking the children to their competition. She then asks Donnie's family to chaperone the kids, via airplane, to their Star Search appearance. Donnie and his older sister are the only two Darko's who stay behind. This of course is all playing a part in Donnie's destiny, and the destiny of everyone in the film.

While the Darko's are away, Donnie's sister Maggie receives notification that she has just been accepted to college. Donnie suggests that they throw a celebratory
Halloween/Victory party in her honor, and she agrees. The party scene is my favorite part of the movie. It is where everything comes together for Donnie, and it is beautifully done. We become aware of the presence of the mysterious Smoking Jogger, who has appeared at least one other time, earlier in the film, as he seems to be watching the Darko residence, as the costumed guests arrive.

A distraught Gretchen shows up at the party, telling Donnie that her house has been destroyed, and her mother is missing, and she fears that her stepfather has at last found them. She and Donnie go upstairs, where they talk about it, and she tells Donnie that "some people are just born with tragedy in their blood". Gretchen, too is becoming more aware of what is happening, and what has to happen, and this is her way of dealing with it, and assuring Donnie that he is on the right track. The two make love, and then go back downstairs, as The Church's "Under the Milky Way" is playing. The line "It leads you here, despite your destination", is quite evident. Donnie sprouts a wormhole, and follows it to the kitchen, where a message on the fridge says "Frank was here.... went for beer", and Donnie clutches Gretchen, and tells her that they have to get out of there and go to Grandma Death's house. She, and his two best friends are confused, but follow him, on their bikes, into the night, in a scene that is reminiscent of the film, "ET". They arrive at Grandma's house, and Donnie utters the words "Cellar Door" [which was spoken to him earlier by Ms. Pomeroy, where she tells him that out of all the endless phrases in the English language, that this phrase is the "most beautiful"]. They enter the basement, and are attacked by two local kids, who are in the act of vandalizing Grandma's house. The struggle continues outside, where Gretchen is thrown into the street, and Donnie is attacked by one of the boys, who holds a knife to his throat, as Donnie utters the phrase "Deus Ex Machina", which is Latin for "God in the Machine", and stems from ancient times, when there was a public play or performance, and at the end, there would be resolution, when God came down from heaven, to ensure a happy ending. He also utters "our savior", soon after this.

A car comes speeding down the road, swerving to avoid Grandma Death [who is standing in the middle of the road, clutching in her hand, the letter from Donnie, which has finally arrived], and Gretchen is struck and killed instantly. The car stops, and out comes the driver. It is Frank [who is actually the new boyfriend of Donnie's older sister], and Franks friend. Donnie fires the gun at Frank, shooting him in the right eye, which kills him, and then instructs the passenger of the car to "go home and tell your parents that everything will be ok". The portal is now opened, and Donnie sees clearly, for the first time in the film, what his true destiny is, and he scoops up the dead body of Gretchen, and makes his way back home. The scene shifts to the airplane which is carrying the Darko family, back from their victorious Star Search appearance, and an engine falls from the plane, and into the portal.

The scene then goes back to the one at the beginning, where it is the evening of October 2nd, and Donnie is in his bed, finally peaceful, because his mission and purpose has been accomplished. The engine crashes into his bedroom, and kills him. In the aftermath of this disaster, Donnie's family stands outside the house, grieving over his death, as his body is taken from the wreckage. Gretchen rides down the street on a bicycle, and stops to ask an onlooker what happened. He tells her, and then asks if she knew Donnie, to which she answers "No", and then looks over to Rose, and waves at her, as the two gaze at one another, with a faint recognition in their eyes.

Confused enough yet? Perhaps what follows may clear up some of your questions and doubts.

In the beginning of the film, when the Grandfather clock in the Darko home strikes midnight, there is a break in the space-time continuum, and reality splits, much like a fork in the road. The universe becomes out of alignment, creating an alternate dimension, where Donnie and the other characters of this film, are living similar, but more ultimately tragic lives.

Donnie is summoned out of bed by Frank, who delivers the message of doom to him, and the rest of the film concerns Donnie both questioning, and coming to terms with the fact that he has been chosen to make things right again, and mend the break in reality. But this of course comes with a price.

It turns out that Donnie IS in fact a superhero, [dare i call him an Anti-Superhero?]/Jesus figure, and he rushes to find out what it is that he must do to save the universe from this alternate future. All the characters in the film become messengers, which help guide Donnie towards those things which he needs to accomplish during the course of the film. Even the mysterious Smoking Jogger is actually an FAA agent, who was sent into the alternate reality, to keep tabs on Donnie.

One of the most beautiful moments in the film, is where Grandma Death stands in the road, clutching the letter from Donnie, that she has waited her whole life to receive. This signals to her that her waiting was not in vain..... that the airplane engine can now be dispatched back into the past, the branch in the universe will be fused, and the original world that they had all known, would be back on course. She does not even seem to take notice of the dead bodies of Frank and Gretchen, and instead, wanders back towards her house, knowing that what she sees is no longer real.

After all this is accomplished, the alternate universe unwinds, extinguishes, and is vanished.

The acts of vandalism that he has committed...... the flooding of the school.... the burning of Jim's house...., his combative attitude, and "irrational" fears, all come together, forming events which ensure that his family will be on that plane at the exact time when the engine will fall into the portal, which is opened when Donnie kills Frank. Donnie has now committed the ultimate act of heroism, and made a conscious decision to give up his life, in order to save the lives of others, and it is carried through, with firm exactness and determination. He is no longer afraid. He no longer will be alone. He is truly a hero, and he can die with a peacefulness that he has
never experienced in his life.

The final minutes of the film are beautiful on so many levels. Just after the plane crashes into the Darko home, killing Donnie, several of the main characters are shown, waking up from the noise of the accident. An acoustic cover version of Tears for Fears "Mad World" plays in the background. Doctor Thurman sits up in bed, clutching at her chest.... Professor Monnitoff stirs in his bed.... Cherita smiles, finally having a moment of peace..... Jim sobs hysterically.... Mrs. Farmer grabs at her face in horror... Frank sits, surrounded by the sketches he has done for his Halloween Rabbit costume, touching his eye.

They all have some faint memory of the alternate futures, from which they were saved.

©X 2002
all "Autopsy™/Autopsia™ Film Reviews" ©X 2002, and may not be downloaded, copied, displayed, distributed or reproduced in any format, without my signed and NOTARIZED permission. all rights reserved.

Please do not be fooled by Geocities.com member Alex P. Stevens, aka 'DonnieDarkoJ', and Daniel Spratlin of http://kungfuninja.blogspot.com/, who took it upon themselves to [ahem] "borrow" the above Autopsy, and had the audacity to use it on their sites without having my permission and/or giving credit to myself or the website where they copied it from. Neither of these plagiarists are the original author of The Donnie Darko Autopsy. UGH!


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