Donnie Darko and the Messianic Motif

By Kevin Dodd


1. I must draw attention to two issues at the outset. First, my analysis will follow the story of the theatrical release rather than the Director’s Cut. Second, no one can say one’s interpretation is infallible. There are a lot of dedicated fans that maintain webpages on the film and their positions vary.

2. Sita and Rama are models of perfection in each of their genders from the beginning, so there is really little to say of “character flaws” here. Every situation can be seen as asking the question, What would the perfect man or woman do here? Of course, the issue of gender perfection is culturally bound. A full (19th century) translation of the Ramayana is available on the sacred texts site:

3. One of the more fascinating examples of this is the complex relationship of Bhishma and Amba. In an essay like this, I can do no more than draw attention to it, but I refer the reader to Book 5, sections 174-195. Again, a nineteenth century English translation of the Mahabharata is available on the sacred texts site:

4. Moses will be seen as the perfect image of God by the later mysticism of the Zohar. The other patriarchs may be associated with certain aspects of God like love or power (David is most closely associated with God’s Shekhinah, or “presence,” in this mystic text), but Moses will mirror the whole image.

5. I am aware that some traditions developed notions of multiple messiahs, but this cannot be covered in an introduction like this.

6. The Director’s Cut version adds pages directly into the movie. The pages, however, are not identical in every case with the ones in the first release.

7. It is here that my interpretation may generate the greatest resistance. There is nothing in the excerpts of the book that requires the death of the Living Receiver and there is nothing in the movie that demands that Donnie must die. But I think it is the most defensible position in light of statements like this. Is it just coincidence that all known Living Receivers die from the artifact? See also footnote 11.

8. Donnie Darko works with the same tensions present in the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity and Islam, between a divine providential and predestinating will and human free will and responsibility. St. Augustine worked out an influential solution that I think fits here as well. For him, God directs human events at the level of human beings’ unconscious drives so that the human will is never coerced. One acts freely from one’s innate desires, over which one has no control, and so inevitably works in consonance with God’s direction. All the “Manipulated,” except Frank (who acts as a surrogate for a heralding angel and therefore is above a conscious/unconscious dichotomy) act spontaneously and freely at the conscious level, but their unconscious life is fixed by a overwhelming desire to “save themselves from oblivion” and therefore is preoccupied with Donnie, the Living Receiver. And this desire appears governed by God. So Donnie sees the liquid spears emanating from the chest (paragraph 8) as divine “workers” leading one into a predetermined future, but just as easily they can be seen as expressing the desires on which the people will soon freely act.

There is something rather amusing, by the way, about the fixation on the Living Receiver. Western teenagers tend to think that everyone is as obsessed with them as they are with themselves. In Donnie Darko’s case, everyone actually is. In that Donnie moves beyond his self-preoccupation, the movie can be seen as depicting his “coming of age.”

9. Religious myths frequently include an idea that the situation is ripe for the hero to appear. In mainstream Christian theology, with its anti-Judaic tendencies, God prepared the nation of Israel until, in “the fullness of time,” Jesus was born with a universal message and salvation. In Theravada Buddhism, there is the story of the future Buddha meditating in the Tusita heaven. When approached by a host of divine beings telling him that it was time for him to be reborn for the last time and attain his Buddhaship, the future Buddha makes five great observations whether the time is right or not. Do humans live for the correct number of years? Is the subcontinent of India ready? What about a suitable district within it? Is there a proper family into which to be born? Is there a woman fit enough to bear him? By examining the context of Donnie Darko’s life, we see how the situation was perfectly suited for the Manipulated Living and Dead to direct him to his messianic destiny. Some of it will be obvious from what follows.

10. Ms. Sparrow must step into the street to check her mailbox, and she lives at a treacherous turn in the road.

11. I am arguing that Donnie’s greatest fear, and therefore the likeliest point for him to refuse his “mission,” is dying alone. What is the point of addressing this fear if he can survive in the primary universe along with everyone else? The Manipulated Living and Dead would not be setting up contexts of love to overcome his fear, but ones appealing to simple enlightened self-interest.

12. The Director’s Cut emphasizes this reconciliation even more forcefully.

13. This is the centerpiece of the so-called “Ensurance Trap” noted in paragraph 15, because Donnie then shoots Frank, killing him. It will only be a matter of hours before the police are in pursuit of him for murder.

Copyrighted by Journal of Religion and Film 2009
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