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THE BIG LEBOWSKI’s Most Enduring Fan Theory

For two decades now, one figure has loomed large over the cinematic landscape, clad in a shabby bathrobe, clutching a hastily made White Russian, and just wanting someone to pay for his beloved rug, which really did tie the room together. That dude is THE Dude, the slacker hero played by Jeff Bridges at the center of the Coen Brothers’ cult classic, The Big Lebowski. This week marks the 20th anniversary of The Big Lebowski, so what better time to dig into an old fan theory than right now? So today on The Dan Cave we’re going to run down an old classic: What if Donny is just a figment of Walter’s imagination?

One popular The Big Lebowski fan theory suggests that Steve Buscemi’s character Donny was in fact a ghost the whole time. The fan theory posits that Donny was one of Walter’s (John Goodman) war buddies who tragically died in Vietnam. His remains were eventually returned to Los Angeles, and Walter was able to retrieve them so that he could later scatter them. While we see Walter’s frequent conversations with Donny and his vocal outbursts towards his sinewy friend who is clearly out of his element, it is, in fact, an actualized figment of Walter’s imagination, a lingering symptom of his PTSD that he incurred while fighting overseas.

via Giphy

It’s a solid theory and it almost holds up to scrutiny. Throughout the movie, Walter is essentially the only one who interacts with Donny save for one or two moments here or there. Unless, of course, only the viewing audience can see Donny, and everyone else sees Walter speaking in two different voices. Given this context, it feels as though everyone else is simply too polite to bring up the fact that Walter is screaming into the void, perhaps because they know the toll his service took on him.

Buscemi himself lent credence to this theory in a 2011 Q&A following a screening of the movie, but the Coen Bros. weren’t as confident in this bit of fan speculation. Speaking with The Huffington Post in 2016, Ethan Coen countered with a question: “Doesn’t the Dude get covered in Donny’s ashes at the end?”

via Giphy

Now that’s is a fair point. The Dude definitely gets covered in ashes at the end of the movie. But who is to say that those aren’t actually Donny’s ashes that Walter had in his possession?

And yes, the Dude does seemingly interact directly with Donny once or twice. At one point, Donny tells the Dude that his phone is ringing and the Dude thanks him. But maybe–and just maybe–we’re experiencing a sort of Tyler Durden/Fight Club scenario and Walter is the one actually telling Dude about his phone, and Dude, having been so fed up with the events that led him to this point, finds it easier just to play along rather than explode in anger at his friend’s condition.

via Giphy

Or maybe Donny isn’t imaginary at all. In fact, Ethan Coen would take it one step further. In an interview he said, “Well, you could say any of the characters are imaginary if you wanna stretch it that far.

It was a good point, his brother Joel thought. “Ethan just pointed out something that’s very important, which is that all the characters are imaginary,” Joel Coen said. “They were all imagined. They don’t exist in reality. They were just made up for the movie.”

via Giphy

Now I don’t know about you guys, but that kind of pedantry is something that neither I nor the Dude will abide.

But what do you think? Do you agree with this fan theory? Do you think the Coen Brothers are playing coy? Let me know in the comments below

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Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of books about Star Wars and the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter (@DanCasey).

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