By Olabode Olakanmi..
In Richard Kelly’s cinematic realms there are always forces vying to influence the way characters live their lives. The most pertinent and sublime of these is the paranormal. It encroaches the other aspects of the characters lives for its own purposes, while the extent of its influence can be infinitely far reaching to relatively, in comparison, banal. Each version of “Donnie Darko” shares the same end goal, yet the source of salvation differs and drastically undercuts the protagonist and his world’s level of agency in one version more than the other.
Both “Donnie Darko” theatrical cut (2001) and director’s cut (2004) inject a hero’s attempt to avert a procedural cross-dimensional doomsday scenario into a tale of suburban malaise. Labeled as the Living Receiver, he is aided in this quest by an entity that has some to total control over the space-time continuum. If he fails the universe will collapse, ending all existence. If he succeeds his life will be forfeited.
The manipulator--individual(s) producing the psychic intrusions plaguing the protagonist--never seem to have evil intent. Still, the road to completing their desires is fraught with few positive and many negative outcomes involving emotional and physical injury, even death. At the same time, if successful, the protagonist is allowed to imbue some type of change, seemingly small in scale, to the diegesis in an emotional, yet almost vicarious manner. A compulsory reward necessitated by the use of a final Ensurance Trap.
Our hero receives much of his charge from a book entitled The Philosophy of Time Travel. Written by a nun named Roberta Sparrow who subsequently left the Church to become a teacher, the work blends spirituality and science to produce a tome that will help guide Donnie complete his mission. The boy’s Messianic arc in the theatrical cut along with discussions of agnosticism allude him to be in touch with an entity that, if not God, has many of the abilities and mannerisms attributed to the Judeo-Christian patriarch in the New Testament, supposed miracles and popular fiction. It can warp time and space and grant powers, but these are often kept vague and intangible. It cares for the spiritual and physical well being of its’ subjects. This force uses broader strokes of influence to coerce Donnie into stopping the Tangent Universe from collapsing.
From the standpoint of the director’s cut, viewers learn the temporal machinations are by a future human intelligence; due to this it will be assumed, for ease of argument, no omniscient entity exists in this diegesis. Mirroring Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd Law these people use fantastical technology, evidenced by ocular images of computer logs, grids, static chatter with instructions to PURGE, fireworks and more, to remove a dimensional infection they caused. Their technology/ability is kept vague as well, however even though many events remain the same as in the theatrical cut, the plotline provides evidence that manipulation is inputted more so and, at times, in a far cruder manner.
A prime example of these finite, yet important differences in methodology is Donnie’s prompt to write Roberta Sparrow a letter. In the theatrical cut, Donnie is given this generalized suggestion through a joke from his friend, Ronald, as they make fun of Mrs. Farmer almost hitting the former nun with her car. Whereas the director’s cut also includes Frank’s disembodied voice at a later time instructing him to write her. Sparrow’s immediate pertinence is amplified to an unneeded degree since Donnie’s path through the Tangent Universe would undoubtedly have him discover her book via Kenneth Monnitoff. While excessive, the action indubitably ensures that the most recent Living Receiver will be in place for the Ensurance Trap.
The theatrical cut offers Donnie vague dreams, i.e. future city partially submerged in water, and other images that undoubtedly affect his view of the world and, upon reflection, in part, make him realize how special he and the world truly can be. They help make what he’s reading and experiencing more palatable and resonant with his inner turmoil and the sacrifice to be made without fully occluding his faculties. Compare this to the incautious programming utilized in the director’s cut where specific images and data are constantly being fed into Donnie’s nervous system to instruct him, consciously or unconsciously, on foreshadowed events. There is less wonder presented to the protagonist, such as the lack of an ushering hand from the liquid spear, as he is moved from point A to B. Everything is reduced to psychic input jutted into his mind with no other reason than to get the job done.
One may find these examples as evidence of bias on the part of this author, nevertheless let there be a comparison of another minute but consequential difference between the two films. Near the end of both cuts Gretchen Ross, Donnie’s girlfriend, is killed by a sports car trying to avoid Roberta Sparrow. In the theatrical version, the elderly woman then merely walks back to her home, traversing the to-and-fro from the mailbox as she has done for decades. In turn, leaving Donnie to his thoughts, to the choice he must make.
The latter film has her tell Donnie to hurry, “A storm is coming.” This accident is the conflict that brings our hero low enough so there is no other option than to sacrifice his life. A caring, which is the operative word, and omniscient force would let him be as occurs in the theatrical cut. Telling Donnie to get up and go at this point in time is symptomatic of human frailty and selfishness. The comment seems redundant in the face of things and reeks with the desperation of a force that has no faith in its own tactic; one that, according to the printed procedural, has been used for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
These small choices reveal an emotive incongruity in the director’s cut. The narrative ties the healing of the universe with the emotional and spiritual renewal of the protagonist. However, this only holds entirely true for the theatrical cut which has a Deity of some sort rather than human scientists. The contents of Sparrow’s book give no indication of human involvement in the universe’s collapse, instead referring to the incident as an act of God. Which, under pejorative inspection, means the manuscript of the director’s cut is burdened with at least one important piece of misinformation. Can anything in that book be considered tantamount to truth, especially with the importance of its contents? Even if it could the work only conciliates on a base instructional level. Donnie’s pathos is resolved through experiences with others within Tangent Universe, not from the superlatively indistinct directions the book provides. The 2004 version of Donnie isn’t allowed to find himself and parts of the world worth saving. Instead, he is subjected to stimuli that merely direct him towards certain points, so that he can arrive at a destination to save others from their own mistake. He truly does die alone.
Some may claim that either way agency is completely lost no matter the manipulator’s point of origin or parallel intentions while saving the universe. This can be argued away if one is willing to modify their definition of free will to that of the theatrical cut. A segue into this definition deals with the beginnings of manipulation. Each plan of coercion has a starting point determined by the initial need for manipulation and the influencer’s level of ability to set things right with as little temporal distortion as possible.
Earlier it was deduced that an entity similar in ability to the omnipotence of a Judeo-Christian God is present in “Donnie Darko” (2001). According to The Philosophy of Time Travel this apocalyptic glitch in the universe occurs repeatedly. And every time a Living Receiver is required to go through the maneuverings to remove The Artifact. If this entity knows all why wouldn’t there by an attempt to obviate the regular breakdowns of reality altogether? Is the universe like a car that needs its oil changed every three thousand miles? This might reduce the appearance of omnipotence or cast the entity as a perpetual sadist until examining the final state Donnie.
The boy dies laughing, filled with a love of life and the trials that got him to this point. There is an attempt at catharsis in all of Kelly’s films, to show that the main characters have become spiritually improved through their ordeals. The entity, or God if you will, being all-powerful, can bend the laws of nature to its will, but chooses not to so a lost soul can find its way. Here, the path to saving the universe centers on healing the psyche of a lonely boy.
Because of the oddness and profundity of events the journey through the spiritual rabbit hole is likely a natural occurrence for each Living Receiver per universal collapse. In order to capitalize on this staple means the overarching plan must have been set in motion before the film’s events, so Donnie could be in a plane where a personality suited to youthful mistakes, i.e. burning down a house, could eventually be rescued from depression, hallucinations, psychological treatment, paranormal activity and the many confluences of activity that take place and end in an emotionally therapeutic release. A feat like this would take generations to plan and execute all the minutia of Donnie’s future life, including the lives of integral people on the margins like Roberta Sparrow, Jim Cunningham, Kenneth Monnitoff, Karen Pomeroy, Dr. Lilian Thurman or Gretchen’s family line before coming to Middlesex.
Suffice to say these chains of events may have been in place since the beginning of time itself. Thereby allowing eras for every single variable to innocuously mature from early settlers founding the town to the creation of engines, airplanes and the routes that govern them to the tender moments that lead to Donnie’s conception to young punks who “like to steal shit” to the underlying incidents that lead to Jim Cunningham’s pedophilia to Frank’s timely thirst for beer, the means to get them and much more. Ubiquity throughout the entire realm of time and space is the only way to adequately explain the buildup without drastically and spontaneously affecting the timeline. Not only for Donnie but all Living Receivers past and future, especially with so much time devoted to the revelation of Donnie’s agnostic leanings.
The director’s cut’s future humans are the less extraordinary of the manipulators. They influence out of the simple need of self-preservation, which will incidentally save the lives of everyone else in the diegesis. Without the inherent love that a Deity has for one of its subjects there is no need to have the universe collapse at all, other than it’s the result of an accident that couldn’t be resolved due to metaphysical limitation. This means their sphere of influence is somewhat restricted. Any redeeming experiences Donnie can glean are, to the future humans, minor if not separate from the difficult task at hand. No wonder the victorious feeling the fireworks are trying to ignite at the end of the mission feel subdued. They speak of a shortsightedness where nothing is as important as the goal and the end justifies the means.
With this information in hand a critical range of the humans’ influence can be hypothesized to start at a point between Roberta Sparrow’s epiphany, which led to the writing of The Philosophy of Time Travel and the first time Frank summons Donnie. Neither antecedent is early enough to build the future events in a minimalist fashion. If the former, over the next few decades minds will have to be wiped, families moved, mental illnesses, violent and sexual tendencies inputted to those born and those yet to be. If the latter, all of these would have to occur overnight or over the next couple of days to be in place for Donnie’s sacrifice less than a month later.
It makes one want to reexamine and contextualize even the smallest of events. Does Cherita, one of the lives improved through sacrifice, love Donnie because she’s known him for a while and has seen the kindness in him? Or were the levels of testosterone and other of her faculties mechanically manipulated when Donnie defended her at the bus stop? Of course, this is under the assumption from Sparrow’s book that the Living Receiver and Artifact can’t be chosen, only dealt with.
If the Living Receiver can be anyone, and there’s no evidence that’s the case, why pick Donnie? From a narrative and spiritual (entity) perspective his inward revelation is the arc that carries the viewer through the film. The spiritual and emotional rejuvenation is intertwined and just as important as the metaphysical. For this reason he is chosen. From the logic of a scientist trying to prevent existence’s destruction choosing Donnie makes little sense. Surely there would be individuals with far greater mental illnesses that could be more easily maneuvered into entering a portal. Thus, Donnie is, for some inexplicable reason, the only possible candidate by random chance or ability.
In the end, Donnie Darko dies so everyone else may exist. He makes, in the whole scheme of things, minor alterations so that two people get to live better lives. For the most part everything is the same as before, except he’s gone. This is a return to normality, a timeline of existence that initially subsists relatively free of manipulation, especially in the director’s cut. What humans know as free will, as agency, is contained within this timeline, whether created or always existing. Manipulation, loss of agency, occurs when a human is plugged into “God’s channel” and induced to perform a specific task that takes him/her out of their intended path. This extends to the Manipulated Living who are also affected by the protagonist’s choices while part of this channel.
To attain a true sense of agency loss one must finally examine the disorder left in the manipulator’s wake. In the theatrical cut, due to the higher power’s omniscience precautions are set from the beginning of time and happen as it’s wished to be and complimentarily forge the Donnie-improved timeline. Thus, a return to perhaps not free will in the truest sense, yet something that’s consistent with every other “freethinking” human being in this existence. Life returns, more or less, to its primary setting. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the director’s cut where people are permanently swayed from their normal timelines without the ability to register the difference, except in their dreams.
The future of the director’s cut will be an ever-growing lie that continually bars untold numbers from their true selves. They are on an unnatural path set by the future humans who will most likely not return to clean up their mess in order to prevent creating another one. Will this be detrimental to the universe? Is this the reason that another Living Receiver will be required generations in the future? All that is known is life will continue in some fashion till the next time the universe collapses and the pieces for healing need assembly.