Donnie Darko is the clear hero of this movie, whether he appears to be a misguided miscreant, schizophrenic wacko, or artistic genius searching for truth. That being said, is he a saviour figure?
Donnie begins the film as just plain troubled. His sleepwalking takes him further and further from home when it happens, to places he does not recognize. Symbolically, perhaps, this could be a sign that Donnie's sphere of understanding is widening: he is trying to make sense of a world he has no control against being forced into, even in sleep, and when he wakes up, he has no idea where he is. Spiritually, the same is true. In his discussions with his therapist, Donnie says that he believes the search for God is "absurd", if "every living creature on this earth dies alone", something Grandma Death tells him. Yet, his increased awareness becomes even more potent once Frank enters Donnie's world. Donnie learns that he has the power to control time, as well as water and fire, according to "The Philosophy of Time Travel": "The Living Receiver is often blessed with Fourth Dimensional Powers (assuming time is, in fact, the fourth dimension). These include increased strength, telekinesis, mind control, and the ability to conjure fire and water."
Donnie needs telekinesis (the ability to move objects with one's mind) to move the jet engine into the time portal. He conjures water to flood the school, and fire to burn down Jim Cunningham's house. These are superpowers, the likes of which are usually find in comic books. Even Gretchen makes reference to Donnie's superhero-ish sounding name. It is Richard Kelly himself who makes an important link: "[Donnie Darko] is a comic book story in a way and he is a kind of superhero. I think there is a messiah undercurrent to a lot of superhero stories. Any time you are dealing with a hero who has to save the world there is going to be a link to Christ mythology."
One day in English class, Donnie recites a poem he's written that shows
that Donnie is beginning to take on the idea that he has a huge
responsibility to take on:
A storm is coming, Frank says.
A storm that will swallow the children,
and I will deliver them from the kingdom of pain.
I will deliver the children to their doorsteps.
I will send the monsters back to the underground.
I will send them back to a place where no one can see them.
Except for me.
Because I am Donnie Darko.
Donnie realizes that in order to restore order to the world, his
world, he has to sacrifice his own life. The scenes of the film never leave Middlesex, the suburban town in which it is set, so we have no way of knowing if the "black hole" portal that the Tangent Universe causes will affect anything outside of Donnie's realm of understanding, but we know he puts himself in harm's way to save the lives of everyone he knows. In so doing, as we see in the sequence that follows the engine crushing him in his bed, the effects of this sacrifice are far reaching. There is a montage of cuts to many of the main characters waking in their beds. Jim Cunningham is weeping into his hands, Frank (not wearing his bunny costume) looks horrified, and moves to touch his intact right eye. Ms. Farmer's mouth is agape in shock. These people are being affected beyond time and space, because of the actions of Donnie Darko. Going beyond that, though, in the text of "The Philosophy of Time Travel" that is included in scenes in the Director's Cut of the film, and in the Donnie Darko Book, Roberta Sparrow writes that the black hole eventually caused by the appearance of a Tangent Universe is "capable of destroying all existence".
The concept of God in the Machine: deus ex machina
, is mentioned during the film, and it is writer Lawrence Person who theorizes that the jet engine falling from the sky is exactly that. As a plot device, this sort of thing is usually frowned upon, but it drills home an important point, that Person elaborates on. He discusses that the Frank that Donnie kills seems drastically different than the Frank that is a messenger from the future. The "future Frank", is not the "present Frank", according to Person, but rather, a "Divine Messenger", given a form that Donnie would without a doubt recognize when the time came. It is Frank who guides Donnie, who teaches him of his power and who shows him how to manifest it.
In an interview, Richard Kelly says that it was intentional for "The Last Temptation Of Christ" to appear as one of the movies on a double bill that Donnie and Gretchen attend, and Person continues his theorizing by pointing out that the title temptation was one for Christ to live life like the rest of us, instead of going ahead with his divine purpose. Donnie, in a similar way, is chosen by God, and as a "reward for laying down his life", Donnie is given 28 more days to live his life, like a normal teenager, finding and making love and fighting authority, shooting beer bottles with his friends. In return, God signals Donnie, whose faith in what is to happen is growing stronger and stronger: when attacked toward the end of the film by a knife-wielding punk from his school, Donnie snarls "Dea ex machina
" at him, because he knows what is coming, and what's more, he knows there's nothing anyone can do to stop it.
Of course, Person's theorizing is exactly that, theorizing, and just as the film chastizes the single-minded characters for searching for one easy solution, I would chastize anyone who tried to make a case for one "right" interpretation of the film. Jake Gyllenhaal, who played the character of Donnie Darko, wrote in a foreword for the Donnie Darko Book: "What is Donnie Darko about? I have no idea, at least not a conscious one...no one - including the man from whose mind it emerged - ever had a simple answer to that question. And that, ironically, is the very thing the film is actually about. There is no single answer to any question."
So, is Donnie Darko meant to be a saviour figure, a messiah? In some ways, it seems inevitable, but the film succeeds not by hiding from Christianity, nor by preaching it, but by making the film comparable to real life: there are no easy answers, and in the end, we have to come up with our own beliefs.