Richard Kelly’s thrilling masterpiece was conspicuous, identifying itself as part horror film, part cerebral sci-fi, part ’80s coming-of-age drama and part dark comedy. It offered up more questions than answers. There are many ways that you could interpret the movie Donnie Darko. There have been many points of views and reactions shared by the viewers of the film, of whether he was in fact schizophrenic and just seeing things that he thought were real, or if there really was a break in the many universes shown in the film (Tangent Universe/Primary Universe) – Tangent meaning the “parallel universe” and the Primary meaning the world that he’s in now. Many were left baffled and confused, and others seemed to pick up on the “time travel” aspect of it. I saw some similarities between this film and The Butterfly Effect. Both circle around the aspect of time travel or the “Chaos Theory”. The Chaos Theory is defined by the branch of mathematics that deals with complex systems whose behavior is highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions, so that small alterations can give rise to strikingly great consequences. Although The Butterfly Effect focuses more on the constant changes in the lead characters life, and situations when it came to his ability to just read an excerpt from his journals and travel back to that exact moment in time and change everything, the experience is a little different when it comes to Donnie in Donnie Darko because Donnie realizes what is happening more towards the end of the movie and can’t bounce around from one traumatic experience to the next trying to change the outcome multiple times. Although, I do believe that they both focus on the same theory, the ability to change the outcome to a scenario through slight change, time travel, and a domino effect that either completely changes or reverses the outcome can be to some, a little far fetched.
But through cinematic time and how the pieces of the puzzle come together for Donnie and the audience, and through the development of the scenes and characters, it was allowed to come to fruition i.e; Gretchen’s death being reversed because Donnie “knew what to do” so time travel was implemented and even Donnie’s freak accident with the plane jet, he knew he needed to die and turn back time in order to save her life along with his little sister’s and mother’s in Donnie Darko, or Kayleigh’s death in numerous scenarios in The Butterfly Effect and Evan trying to change her inevitable death, but every time he tried he’d be back to square one. The people that were apart of the tangent universe and primary universe in Donnie Darko felt a deja vu when Donnie changed times pattern. Arguably though, in both movies they portray both characters with a mental health illness. Donnie with Schizophrenia, and Evan possibly with the same illness.
With the mise-en-scene and lighting in this film, you really end up seeing how Donnie changes throughout the movie. For example, the very beginning of the movie it shows that Donnie has clearly just woken up and is wearing his pajamas. This raises questions as to why he woke up in the middle of a road and how he got there, how does his sleepwalking come into play through the rest of the film? It also makes the audience question his identity and we are immediately introduced to a somewhat enigmatic and ambiguous character. So at this point the audience is completely confused about what’s happening, even though there are various mise-en-scene hints all of which you think of are wrong as it goes on.
The way the lighting has been used in this shot is important as it has little light so it feels as though its dusk, because the view in the sky is orange. This also fits in with his colour scheme of pajamas as they are dull colors too. The setting is very picturesque and tranquil and the low key lighting and pink/purple/orange colors of the sky in the background, suggest to the audience that it is the early morning. However, the ‘perfect painting’ sense of the setting is slightly disturbed by the presence of a character lying in the middle of the road, Donnie. The first real expression the character displays is this look of amusement. He obviously finds his current situation and whereabouts funny enough to laugh to himself about it ,which wouldn’t be present if he was scared. So the only reasonable idea could happen is he has something mentally wrong with him.
It is also shown at the end of the movie, he laughs at the fact that in the moment he’s going to die, but he’s also laughing at the fact that he has figured out what seems to be time travel, and maybe he can use it to his advantage. Which gets the audience thinking, did Donnie really die at the end of the movie? Is it just another Tangent Universe?
Furthermore, the ‘Where is Donnie?’ written on the whiteboard instantly tells us that Donnie is most likely this character opening the fridge who had fallen asleep in the middle of the road, and he’s being introduced through the simple “Where is Donnie?” and perhaps his family hadn’t known about his disappearance in the night. It also further enforces the idea that Donnie is a very enigmatic character and understanding him is even a challenge for his own parents. Donnie is puzzling character even when he’s with his parents/family, his teachers, other students. Except when he’s with Gretchen, there is a lighter atmosphere, he’s more quirky, happy, shy. It shows that despite all that he’s going through, he’s still capable of caring for someone. When it comes to school, his teachers, and other students, you see his demeanor change. He ends up being a little more detached from his surroundings, occasionally piping in here in there, whether it be in class discussing the book “The Destructors” (which essentially comes full circle and kind of intertwines with the plot a bit…i.e; when Donnie burns down the man who’s distributing child pornography’s home, along with destructing the school with the water main leak, the ax in the mascot’s head, the graphiti, creating chaos, etc…) or sticking up for Charita, the chubby asian girl. He keeps to himself and seems detached but he’s really just chaotic in his own mind. You can also feel the detachment and resentment that Donnie has towards his mother, regarding his mental health and the medication he’s taking. When it comes to Frank, you see Donnie go completely dark, zoned out, cold, but focused on what Frank tells him each time he sees him the darkness of the lighting and camera show the intensity between them. There is a shocking connection between the two, the kind that gives you goosebumps.