Donnie Darko: Choice or Predestination

Quentin Forberg is a Tree District Books author. His first work, For Februus In Hiding, is a collection of poetry and short story. You can read a preview and purchase his work using this link.


The dilemma casual viewers encounter when watching Donnie Darko is the complex plot. Granted, the plot alone holds and hides layers of great storytelling, but most pour their energy into understanding what exactly happens.

From time travel to an apocalyptic bunny, things can get confusing but the question why is often ignored. Not to diminish an excellent plot, but Donnie Darko’s true beauty hides in its philosophical intricacies. However, and much like the plot, Donnie Darko presents those ideas in a unique but convoluted way.

Donnie is at once every teenager and no teenager. He experiences angst like the rest of us, but his constant feelings of loneliness cause him to detach from reality. Through his detachment from reality, Richard Kelly is able to use schizophrenic hallucinations as a vehicle to visualize our perception of internal and external realities.

Frank the bunny, for the sake of analysis, is a subconscious guide, helping Donnie Darko merge those two realities of existence. Now, as the story continues, Donnie’s sleepwalking saves him from death, as he is not in bed when the turbine crashes through his roof.

Now, defining the sleepwalking, and his subsequent actions though the influence of Frank becomes imperative. Is he just acting out Graham Greene’s Destructors? Is he destroying the social and cultural institutions he has deemed to be bad? We can assume so.

The school is corrupt and full of censorship. Mrs. Farmer openly pushes a morally dangerous man. Donnie Darko eventually burns Jim Cunningham’s house down and exposes his kiddy porn stash. All of these observations are merited, but what do they mean?

Donnie Darko, an individual whose name sounds superhero-esque, is able to topple corrupt institutions - but how? By madly acting out his delusions of a rabbit? No, by understanding his subconscious moral compass.

Through his sleepwalking, he is able to break away from conformist thought and act as a lone rebel to save what is good. What is confounding about this story is, Donnie’s eventual self sacrifice and erasure of his psychotic actions.

This begs the question: what is true, choice or predestination? Donnie is predestined to carry out Frank’s actions just as he is predestined to simply die, but he is given a choice.

He values saving Gretchen and Frank over toppling corrupt institutions. Not to say those institutions are validated, but human life and love come first. As mentioned in the film, it’s not possible to simply categorize things binarily.

What does this say about how we live our own lives? We don’t have the power to travel through time or visualize our subconscious as a rabbit with a demonic voice, but we have the power of choice and a moral compass.

Richard Kelly uses teenage angst, the fear of death, and the confusion of finding our own place within the world as a link between us and Donnie Darko. Just like him, we are able to value human life over anything else and criticize corrupt institution. However, it is not through destruction that we find peace, rather through self sacrifice and love.

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