Donnie Darko is a strange movie, twisted with the dark threads of a troubled young man’s struggle with mental illness, a struggle further knotted by the thin silver of science fiction. It is a plot whose hold on its sense of reality is as tenuous as its central character’s. That is what I like about it.
The movie opens with teenaged Donnie Darko waking huddled on a mountain street, and follows him as his experiences intensify in increasingly surreal leaps. He sleepwalks. A large bunny, its face distorted, speaks to him. He is told the world will end. A turbine unhinges from a phantom plane and crashes through Donnie’s bedroom, where he would have been had he not greeted the gray-eared figure with the broken voice.
Is what Donnie Darko sees real? We are never told, and we with Donnie are allowed to wonder. Will the world end, or is it Donnie’s world that is collapsing? He’s in therapy, after all. He takes medicine. He tells his therapist that the monstrous bunny’s name is Frank.
Is time travel possible? Again we are never told, since the whole plot may have disintegrated into a schizophrenic’s hallucination. Is he a broken hero, or a broken teenager? He saves his girlfriend’s life, after all – but at an immense and perplexing cost.
I’ve left out most of the plot, which is impossible to describe in any sensible way without giving in to the weight of ordering all of the pieces into artificial closure. The director himself tried to do this. There is a “director’s cut” of the movie that insists on a convoluted and rigorous theory of freedom and time travel that rather ruins the melancholy fun. What I like about the movie is the opposite: the plot flexes delicately in the mind of each viewer, impossible to hammer into a straight line. Time itself, in the movie, does not run in a straight line.
There is a way in which the movie refuses to end. It loops back upon itself in the lazy curves of the musical waltz that suffuses its soundtrack.
Most great stories have a certain way of not ending. They live on with those who experience them; they open themselves to avenues much wider than an artist’s intent; they invite us to encounter them again. It is not simple obsession or speculation that makes a story great, nor the number of devotees. It is instead a sort of freedom borne by the story that makes it great, a freedom that is integral to it, a freedom complicated by its reception. It is hard to describe great stories except to say they do not end. They have a way of not ending. They suggest that there are stories other than their own.
It is the broken story that cannot help but collapse without a further breath. It is the broken story that can accept no narrative but its own, and so inevitably suffocates itself to death. Broken stories invite nothing but the firing of distracted neurons. They suggest nothing. Perhaps a sequel – much the same, only worse.
Sometimes I like to remember that in Christianity the story has a way of not ending. There is an ending, and the ending is already enclosed in the story. But anyone who claims to grasp that ending, whole and entire, has not grasped it at all. The story has a way of not ending, borne aloft by the peerless force of divine freedom, a freedom that is integral to Christianity and that invites us receive it. It is ended – and it is not ended.
I am not suggesting that Donnie Darko is a Christian story. One can only claim so much about a movie featuring a young man wandering about dream-like with an axe. I am not even suggesting that Donnie Darko is a great movie, though I like it a whole lot.What I am claiming is that the movie’s puzzle – its very puzzling-ness, its complex request that we sit with it again – is suggestive of something in all great stories. And I am claiming that Christianity has an analogous greatness about it. Analogous because it is not identical. It is a story that is also about the world ending; it is a story that bends time back upon itself; it is a story with room for response. But it is also a story that ceases being only a story; it is a story that refuses to be merely a fiction. And here, most of all, it is important to remember that the ending – even the very end – has a certain way of not ending. Not at all. Not at all like a story.
Of course, it also has a distressing lack of giant nightmare bunnies.