SPOILER ALERT: PLEASE DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE FILM. THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS DETAILED DISCUSSION AND ANALYSIS OF THE PLOT.
“The three acts are separated by two ‘plot points’: events that thrust the plot in a new direction, leading into a new act of the screenplay. While the ‘Midpoint’ is a point approximately halfway through the film where the main character reaches his/her lowest point and seems farthest from fulfilling the need or objective. And finally the ‘Climax’ when the plot reaches its maximum tension and has resolution, one way or another.”
(Syd Field, Screenplay and The Screen Writer’s Workbook).
These words came back to me when I recently re-watched Donnie Darko. The film completely disregards any form of proper structure: the storyline has no coherent beginning, middle or end (aka) no visible three-act structure, but it doesn’t have the semblance of a purposeful experimental structure either. Personally, I enjoy mainstream movies as well as indie flicks and the presence or absence of a traditional narrative arc doesn’t bother me as long as the script of a film sticks to its own adopted ground-rules.
But I am wary of the films that gather a cult almost fervent following. Matthew Kenneth Bishop, in his April 2006, A Case Study of Donnie Darko: Analysing Interpretations and its Cult Status, explains that ‘multi-faceted genres are seen as a key attribute to cult status’ which means that the ‘weird dark science fiction prophetic teen-angst black comedy romantic time travel thriller religious parable’ (Locus Magazine Online, 2003, Lawrence Person) entity that is Donnie Darko falls smack bang in the middle of this definition. On top of that, it is low-budget, off-beat, quirky and non-conventional, all of which are attributes bestowed upon beloved and well-known cult films. (A paradox in itself!)
As a creative writing graduate who had scriptwriting modules, I find it very interesting to look at Donnie Darko’s treatment of content from an analytical point of view. Right from the beginning of the film, we are flung into Donnie’s world but if we hold any hope of our questions getting answered, it’s a naive one. In fact, I am going to go so far as to say that the end of the film leaves you with more questions than at the start. I enjoy not knowing the dramatic premise at the beginning of a narrative, only to slowly uncover it and the story’s purpose as we go along, some insights and revelations even surprising us. So I was intrigued by the start of Donnie Darko. Donnie makes a trip to the golf course at night which saves his life from the stray aeroplane engine and sets everything in motion (aka the inciting incident). He goes there because of a voice in his head which (we find out at the golf course) belongs to the creepy Frank The Rabbit.
Frank predicts the end of the world in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds and we automatically assume that Donnie’s objective is to prevent this ‘Doomsday’. However as the story progresses, we are witness to Donnie following Frank’s instructions which appear completely counter-productive to this assumed goal. Donnie never really approaches even the slightest culmination of his perceived goal, though not for a lack of things going on in his world. Jim Cunningham’s Fear and Love theory continues to spread like wild-fire, Donnie and Gretchen’s relationship grows stronger and the ‘Grandma Death’ references become more and more persistent and include her book, ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’. At the same time, Donnie and Professor Kenneth Monnitoff’s discussions about wormholes, time travel, space etc appear to be one way he tries to find a solution to his problem, but in reality do not really move the plot forward towards a logical conclusion. In fact, they serve to make the story more complex and spread out with numerous sub-plots that do not get resolved in Act III’s ‘Final Culmination.’
This brings me to the climax. Throughout the film, we are intrigued by the lack of a back-story or history for the narrative’s characters, and the hope of some sort of resolution spurs us on to the final act. However the climax left me sorely disappointed since it not only left the story’s ambiguity or mystery unresolved, but it actually deepened it further – thus sacrificing the natural give and take rhythm of any story for the element of possibly proving an anti-traditional narrative point. One thing I really admired about Donnie Darko’s final act is the fact that the impending doom prophesised at the start of the film actually manifests itself during the conclusion – The deaths of Gretchen and Frank, the sudden appearance of Roberta Sparrow clutching Donnie’s letter, the arrival of the wormhole funnel, the engine detaching from Donnie’s mum’s and sister’s plane etc. It was a brave choice that I would have appreciated further had it not been so frustrating for its refusal to give even vague answers.
It wasn’t so much the tragic ending (I love a good one as much as the next person) but the annoying and complete lack of any sort or form of closure. I love a good left-to-multiple-interpretations, post-modern ending where everything isn’t neatly tied up, doesn’t end up happily-ever-after or where the entire narrative is turned on its head (Fight Club is one excellent example), but there is still ultimately some sort of inevitable ‘satisfaction’ as the post-credits roll. I have to be honest when I say Donnie Darko offered me none of that even when I really wanted to feel something, having heard rapt reviews and recommendations.
In the end, Donnie’s turning back of time and sacrificing himself to restore the balance of his world is a simple enough concept, but fails to even skim the surface of the story’s intentions. The script seems to follow a linear, extremely open-ended narrative structure than a circular one, where most of the questions raised during the course of the script are left unanswered in the end and parallel storylines left frustratingly unresolved. It gave rise to a certain hollow superficiality to the proceedings. For me, this remains the script’s strength as well as weakness and stops me just short of applauding or fully appreciating the film’s cult appeal.