Two Outstanding Questions about Donnie Darko

One of my alltime favorite moves is Donnie Darko. Someday I’ll give it the post it deserves, explaining why I like it so much and what I get out of watching it. But for now I’ll stick to pointing out some complications that I noticed this time ’round.

Yes, I saw it again (twice) this weekend. And one of the things that always impresses me about it is how well thought-out the plot is. It’s ingenius, really, how it sort of lulls you into thinking that there are holes, but the more you think about what seem like holes, the more obvious it is that either they’re not really holes, or that they’re intentional. I really appreciate that in a film – or novel, or short story. When something is so cleverly put together that you can relax and try to puzzle out the things that don’t fit rather than making the more normal assumption that the author was just lazy. Rather like that famous example of the single inconsistent date in William Faulkner’s chronology. I apologize, I can’t remember the details, but it was pointed out to me as an undergraduate – that in one timeline of Yoknapatawpha County one of the dates is off by a year, if you cross-reference it with the events from some of Faulkner’s novels. It’s the exception that proves the rule in the completest possible sense of the term – so much so that my professor was convinced that Faulkner had done it on purpose to underscore the point – a common refrain in his novels – that there is accuracy in storytelling and accuracy in history, and that they are not the same thing.

It’s rare that I trust an author that much, but I trust Faulkner, and I trust Richard Kelly’s writing in Donnie Darko (I make no claims about his other films). So when I come across inconsistencies, I assume that there is some reason for them.

There are two that bugged me this time through.

The one – why does the movie start when it does? That opening scene is a great one – Donnie sleeping in the middle of a mountain road, to which he apparently sleepwalked (erm, sleep-biked) the night before. It seems wrong. The time bubble in which the movie takes place surely starts when Frank (the giant ghost-bunny) wakes him from his sleep and prevents him being killed by the falling jet engine. So … why does he go back to the mountain road to unwind time, and why does the movie start there? It’s especially interesting given that Donnie himself must realize that the events of the movie – such as they are – started there – the night before he first encountered Frank – rather than on the more plausible-seeming October 2. And it’s especially confusing given that the countdown Frank gives him starts from the meeting on the golf course, not from the mountain road.

The other – Gretchen has an assignment for Dr. Monnitoff – to write about the most important invention in human history. Donnie’s response makes it sound like he’s not in her Physics class. He first makes the assumption that she has Monnitoff (“It’s Monnitoff, right? That’s easy…”), which seems strange, given that they’re in the same English class and thus the same grade. More than that, he already knows the answer: soap. So all told, it sounds like Donnie took the class and had the assignment the year before. And yet – from later scenes of the movie we know that Gretchen and Donnie are both currently in Dr. Monnitoff’s class as they’re lab partners when they present their “Infant Memory Generator” project. Not only that, but the project they co-present seems to be following the theme of “great inventions.” Previously Monnitoff asked them to write about great past inventions, now he’s asking them to imagine the kind of thing that might be invented in the future, right? But if that’s the case, then why didn’t Donnie have the same essay due at the same time Gretchen did? Or – if Gretchen was doing a makeup assignment (this conversation happens on her second day of school; she’s a transfer student) – it seems somewhat implausible that (a) Monnitoff would’ve given her the exact same assignment as the rest of his students given that he’s already told them his preferred answer or that (b) Donnie would act the way that he does in telling her what the answer is. It’s certainly not going to help her to regurgitate an answer that Monnitoff will surely know someone tipped her off to, but more to the point, Donnie acts like he has to search his memory for it. It isn’t as much what he says but his general manner that makes it sound like he’s recalling something from further in the past than the previous week. Or that he would act like Gretchen is not in his Physics class when he must know that she is.

I have no clue what’s up with the first one. I would be really interested in suggestions. For the second one, I wondered if maybe it has to do with Donnie being held back a year. He mentions earlier in the same conversation that he’s held back, but if he said specifically what year I didn’t notice it. I have, however, the impression that it wasn’t the previous year, but further in the past. But I don’t really know where I get that impression, and anyway it would make sense if it were the previous year, given that his medication and therapist visits seem to be revent developments in his life (his father has to be reminded of the therapist’s name, for example, and Donnie’s sleepwalking, which apparently correlates with going off his pills, is relatively new, judging by his mother’s attitude to it). So maybe the assignment is a makeup assignment for Gretchen culled from last year’s batch, and it was one Donnie’s remembering from last year when he was in the same class for the first time. It still doesn’t really explain why he doesn’t seem to be sure that Gretchen’s in Monnitoff’s class, but the whole conversation is awkward, so it’s not hard to chalk that up to posturing.

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