Donnie Darko and the Tyranny of the Franks


Perhaps the most enduring movies are those that tempt us into deep interpretation even as they resist all efforts to impose meaning on them. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo works like this, as does John Ford’s The Searchers, and Rian Johnson’s Brick, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger and John Carpenter’s They Live and Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7. Movies like these elude the capture nets of logic, gliding effortlessly across boundaries and thresholds, like the invisible rabbit in Gabriella Giandelli’s INTERIORAE series (Fantagraphics Books).

Movies like this, they figure out a way to dominate us.


“Watching Hollywood films delayed both reinforces and breaks down these oppositions [between active male and passive female]. The narrative drive tends to weaken if the spectator is able to control its flow, to repeat and return to certain sequences while skipping others. The smooth linearity and forward movement of the story become jagged and uneven, undermining the male protagonist’s command over the action.” Laura Mulvey from Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image

“Most of what we ‘see’ is really just what we ‘remember’ because at any given moment, the majority of the image will not be seen, merely remembered. The cognitive quilt that was sewed by foveal vision is the cognitive map we have, both obscuring and defining the shape of the real image that lies beneath.” Mark Stephen Meadows, from Pause and Effect

1. Donnie and his girlfriend Gretchen are outside the theater, buying tickets for Evil Dead. In an early version of the Evil Dead script, there is this exchange as the characters arrive at the remote cabin:

LINDA:  This place is perfect.

CHERYL: The woods come awfully close to the house don’t they?

SCOTT: So what’s wrong with the woods, they can’t bite ya.

CHERYL: It’s just a little claustrophobic, that’s all.

LINDA: Well, I think it’s beautiful.

2. CUT to inside the theater, as Donnie and Gretchen watch the movie. The camera slowly tracks closer, showing them to us in right profile.

 We hear the sound of The Evil Dead, but will we see its images? In some part of our brain, we understand that this is a copyright question, and that the Law and what it says about Property determines and shapes the context for what we are permitted to see. Will we be permitted to see what Donnie sees?

In an interview with Rebecca Murray, Richard Kelly said:

In the script, they went to see the movie “C.H.U.D.” But our friends at 20th Century Fox Archives told us it would take 8-12 weeks before they could process the paperwork to begin to tell us whether or not we might be able to use the footage from “C.H.U.D.” We needed to know in a week, and it wasn’t going to happen. Linda McDonough at Flower Films is close friends with Sam Raimi’s producing partner. Sam Raimi and his partner own “Evil Dead.” They own the negative so there isn’t a sludge of bureaucracy associated with getting “Evil Dead.” You’ve got to call up Sam’s partner, and he’s cool. He’s like, “Yeah, sure you can use it.” We could get it and it became so much more appropriate.

3. CUT to their left profile, close-up. Gretchen sleeps. In terms of narrative point of view, we are gradually being drawn into Donnie’s consciousness. In his classic study The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth explored the mechanisms by which literature drew readers into an imaginative identification with characters: “The changes which go to make up the story are all changes in fact and circumstance and knowledge, never in the essential worth or rightness of the character herself. She must be accepted at her own estimate from the beginning, and that estimate must, for greatest effect, be as close as possible to the readers estimate of his own importance. Whether we call this effect identification or not, it is clearly the closest that literature can come to making us feel events as if they were happening to ourselves.” The curious thing here is Booth’s notion that how readers feel about a character is linked to how they feel about themselves. In this sense, we might say that movies are projections on at least two levels: of light onto the screen, and of ourselves into that light.

4. CUT to a shot of Evil Dead, as suggested from Donnie’s point of view. The audience is now cut (“sutured”) into Donnie’s angle of vision, and this is the most totalitarian aspect of cinema: to assume control of our gaze so completely that when we look, we look through the eyes of another. Jacques Aumont has written about “the frequent use in cinema of ‘frames within frames (or ‘over-framing’), for instance through the inclusion of a mirror or a window.” Rather than fill the screen with The Evil Dead, Kelly has left space around it, so that we literally are watching a frame within a frame, which serves as a visual reminder that not only is Evil Dead just a movie, but so is Donnie Darko.

5. CUT back to a shot of Donnie watching the movie again, as he slowly turns his head towards the camera.

6. CUT to a shot from the same angle as in #2, this time with Frank sitting beside them. Frank functions as the evil “other” and projection of Donnie himself, just as Frank (Dennis Hopper) functions this way for Jeffrey in Blue Velvet. And then there is little “Donny” in Blue Velvet, a time-warped echo of Donnie Darko himself. This tangle of associations doesn’t really mean anything on an interpretive level, and it’s not something most viewers of Donnie Darko might even notice. Let’s just leave it at this: the Frank/Frank, Donnie/Donny connections are terrifying, either by design, or by coincidence, and are perhaps better left as one of the film’s mysteries. The demonic bunny mask echoes not only the implied reverse of the invisible pooka/rabbit from Harvey (1950), but also more obscure sources, such as the Easter Bunny (with its overdetermined ears) in “Hopping Down the Bunny Trail” from the 1980 DC comic “Unexpected.”

7. CUT back to Donnie, who asks Frank: “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?”

8. CUT to Frank, who slowly turns to face Donnie, and who replies: “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” This recalls (in the same impossible time-wormhole way that governs the logic of the film) another David Lynch project, his series of short films “Rabbits” (2002) some of which made its way into Inland Empire, and which features humans wearing rabbit suits to such a visually literal extent that the figures become at once non-human and non-rabbit at the same time.

Neglected, forgotten, and ignored in these “CUTS” are the cuts we make ourselves as we watch the film, our eyes choosing what to look at in any individual shot. But also the cuts we make between the film itself and our surroundings: whatever it is that tempts and distracts us in the theater or at home or in a coffee shop or in a dorm room or on a train or wherever we are as we watch the movie. Liberated from the dark, movies no longer tyrannize us today. Who would have guessed that one day we would find ourselves longing not for freedom from the image, but for bondage to it? And yet, just when you think you are free, along comes something like the Franks . . .

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →