Substantially more than a film about adolescent uncertainty, Donnie Darko examines the phenomenon of teen rebellion. Set in Middlesex during the October of 1988, the eponymous protagonist is a teenage schoolboy who has insights into the nature of society and time. As a consequence he is in therapy.
Diagnosed to be sharing the same waking hallucinations as schizophrenics, Donnie is seeing omens through a glass darkly. This begins with a vision in a strange rabbit costume who ensures Donnie is outside the family home when an unidentifiable jet engine falls from the sky and crushes his room. In the circumstances Donnie tries to make sense of things by connecting seemingly unrelated remarks and events, and while his therapist decides to up the dosage, they gather the momentum of coincidence. The teenager instinctively detects both lies and corruption, but his teachers are prevented from helping him join the dots in an intelligible sequence. Instead he tries to do so through the creepy bunny's prognostication.
His opposition to the corruption he senses sets him on a collision course with authority figures. He reserves especial enmity for brash self-improvement evangelist Jim Cunningham, who shills a trite dichotomy between fear and love in order to explain human motivation. Donnie is concerned about the balance between free will and determinism, and can see through the deception, but cannot make an impression on those content to be mislead. He eventually exposes Cunningham as a criminal, but even that does not entirely break the spell. The film suggests that there are different ways of being satisfied with appearances, and different appearances to be satisfied with. The point at which Donnie knows his knowledge will impact negatively on others is the point he realizes he must retrospectively erase himself from the story. That is the essential tragedy of this tragicomedy.
At the Aero cinema, while the Evil Dead porch swing beats its ominous coda, the film's funereal score crescendoes, and Donnie starts working out a way to go back in time so as to sacrifice himself in the aviation accident. In fact, as Donnie sneaks out to wreak mayhem on Cunningham's mock Tudor mansion the audience learns that the other feature showing at the Aero is The Last Temptation of Christ.
His decision to reverse the course of his last 28 days is made so he can selflessly disqualify himself from life in the interest of those he loves. His final scene suggests that he is a typical teenager engaging in daydreams. That is perhaps a comment on the mercy of limited appreciation of danger in the young vis-a-vis the ever-present threat of death.
Directed by Richard Kelly
Copyright © Roger Arley Smith 2016
Image credit: Magnus Manske San Diego Comic-Con 2011: Frank the Bunny from Donnie Darko