Michael Holmes

In one of the most memorable scenes of “Donnie Darko,” the 2001 sleeper hit and cult classic, Donnie becomes so agitated by his friends’ wildly inaccurate speculation about the sexual habits of Smurfs that he spends the next two minutes of screen time explaining how the Smurfs are asexual and the whole “gang bang” theory is therefore illogical. “What’s the point of living if you don’t have a dick?” he exclaims.

When I got to this part, first, I laughed. Then, I was perplexed. This film tells a story with a complex plot. The many elements of the story include: a sleepwalking teenager with symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, the demonic man-sized bunny rabbit who manipulates him, a vague allusion to an impending apocalypse that the audience is barely clued into, a strange suburb home to a pedophile and a mad old lady, the fabric of space-time, wormholes and countless other puzzling details. Why would such a film devote a full two minutes to a discussion about Smurf sexuality?

It then occurred to me that despite the reputation of “Donnie Darko” for being a puzzle film, its true accomplishment lies in its psychological realism. The moments that most moved me weren’t the big plot reveals, like when I found out that the jet engine that fell from the sky into Donnie’s bedroom at the beginning of the film was actually spewed out of a wormhole that Donnie witnesses at the end of the film. In many ways, the “revelation” that the most of the film took place in a parallel universe and Donnie was eventually going to travel back in time felt expected, inevitable, even.

What was unexpected was the emotional intensity embedded within this complex plot. I felt the irrepressible frustration Donnie felt when Kitty Farmer, his pedantic, simpering high school teacher, insisted that everything in life can be classified somewhere on the spectrum between love and fear.

“Life isn’t that simple,” Donnie yells at her, “I mean, who cares if Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love.” Donnie recognizes the subtleties of human emotions; his sensitivity emanates in every interaction, every gentle touch, every pregnant pause.

Other characters are also layered with heartfelt and complex emotions. When Donnie’s mother finds out from his psychiatrist that he’s been hallucinating a giant bunny rabbit called Frank, you can feel within Donnie’s mother’s terse replies the despair of a mother trying to protect her child but fearing she is failing. Reflected in her voice is the existential dread that underlies the entire film. It is, after all, a film about the final 28 days before the world supposedly will end. But the characters alert us to the minor-apocalypses they experience every day, in their daily life, that have nothing to do with the implosion of the universe and everything to do with the trials of being human.

This scene is interspersed with cuts of Donnie seeing Frank in the mirror and manically stabbing Frank in the eye. The physical horror of Frank’s eye being mutilated speaks directly to the emotional horror experienced by Rose Darko, whose psyche is being ravaged by the difficulties of dealing with her son’s mental state. The horror within her mind is far greater and far more profound than the body horror without.

It isn’t just good acting that allows the film to have such emotional resonance. The narrative context — a suburban town unwittingly hurtling toward apocalypse — elevates the psychological landscape of ordinary people to a cosmic scale. The universe is a metaphor for the mind. Contained within it are horrors, confusions and time warps. This film got its hooks into me.

So, back to the Smurfs’ sexuality. That scene clues us into Donnie’s preoccupation with sex. In one hypnotherapy session with his psychiatrist, Donnie, deep in a hypnotic fugue, gleefully expresses his desire to have sex with Christina Applegate and begins masturbating under hypnosis. There’s no narrative reason for Donnie to be a sexually charged teenager. It does nothing for the plot. However, it does everything for the realism of the film. Not all of Donnie’s deepest thoughts are profound philosophical musings. Sometimes, he is just a horny teenager, like any other teenager. It’s moments like this that alert me to what the film is really doing: It is offering us a fleeting glimpse into how people really are.

The Smurf sex talk also explains Donnie’s deeply selfless, sensitive and eventually self-sacrificial love for Gretchen, who he met less than a month before he decides to sacrifice his life for her. Because we can see Donnie as human, with our basest compulsions like horniness, we can understand the irrational nature of a great love. It defies all instincts for self-preservation. Such a love is willing to destroy oneself for the sake of another.

So much of the emotional drama of Donnie Darko takes places obliquely. That’s not to say it allows the audience to observe the emotional unraveling from a cool distance. The scenes bleed with emotional intensity. But you do need to work hard in order to understand what the characters are feeling and the reasons why they say these inexplicable, strange things, such as Donnie’s feverish defense of Smurf sexuality.

I think many people realize this, but they attribute it to the narrative complexity of the film, rather than its emotional complexity. They explain their perplexity away by constructing elaborate explanations that offer theories and counter-theories on what the film is actually about. Even the director Richard Kelly said, “This film kinda does need CliffsNotes.”

Roger Ebert described Donnie Darko as a puzzle, “a kind of movie that calls out not merely to be experienced but to be solved”. But seeing the film just as a puzzle detracts from the powerful portrait of human psychology and emotions that it offers. Unlike some other films that are primarily puzzles, like “Mulholland Drive,” in which the characters are units in a complex game of cinematic Sudoku, the characters who inhabit the world of “Donnie Darko” are first and foremost human beings. The whole science-fiction–wormhole–time-travel contrivance, while novel, feels like a mere vehicle for the emotional drama that is at the core of the film.

In trying to devise a rational explanation that ties all of the film’s inexplicable elements into neat bows, we are doing exactly what Kitty Farmer did — oversimplifying the complexities and nuances of human life into an orderly dichotomy. Is it simpler and more satisfying to explain away each absurd detail of the movie? Certainly. But does doing so alienate us from the emotional heart of the film? Of course. And we may well be more sensitive and empathetic people if we could sit in the emotional discomfort that the movie evokes in us, rather than trying to explain it away as just science fiction.

Ko Lyn Cheang | kolyn.cheang@yale.edu

Correction, March 9: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the woman Donnie desired to have sex with as Christina Applebee. The name should be Christina Applegate.