Director: Richard Kelley, 2001.
Donnie Darko is a weird, complex and confusing film. Writer-director Kelley's debut movie opened in only 58 theaters, incredible in retrospect as this film has become a cult classic since then.
One problem with the film is it is hard to classify. It blends and bends genres. It is a horror, teen film, psychological drama, a sci fi flick, a fantasy movie, and mystery while at the same time including time travel. Wow, what is it? All of the above and more.
Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled teenager in a dysfunctional family during the presidential election of 1988. Verbally sparring with and swearing at, his sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal), he is a loner, an anti-social kid with paranoid schizophrenic tendencies. One of his delusions is his recurrent visions of Frank, a demonic-looking giant rabbit.
When Donnie sleepwalks out to the local golf course and meets Frank at the beginning of the film, Frank tells him, "28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. That is when the world will end." Donnie wakes with these numbers written on his arms, a form of tattoo. This is the mystery that propels Donnie to strive to save the world.
One of the tag-lines for Donnie Darko was "what would you do if you knew the future?" This is somewhat akin to the recent supernatural mystery Knowing, where astrophysicist John Koestler deciphers numbers predicting upcoming natural disasters. However, Donnie doesn't really know what is happening. The world may end but how? And how big is the scope of this disaster? In both films the protagonists seek to solve the mysteries to allow them to make conscious choices about this future. Without knowing, apart from facts, it is difficult to make rational decisions.
Rational and supernatural are distinct. When Donnie returns home from his somnambulistic adventure, he finds his home and his room damaged. A jet airplane engine had fallen from the sky straight into his bedroom. The schizophrenic or supernatural episode that led him to the links saved his life.
Professor Barry Taylor, in his recent book "Entertainment Theology," comments:
The film is a critique of 1980s American culture with its committment to overmedication and therapy as a means of shutting out anxiety about the future. But Darko would rather not be medicated, or undergo therapy, or listen to his high-school motivational speaker, who spews litanies of trite, neatly packaged self-empowerment messages to a largely uninterested and blank-faced audience of teens.Donnie stops taking his medicine and begins to be caught up in the bizarre visions of Frank and the messages he receives. In contrast to the masses around him, including his family, he alone is anxious about the future; he alone knows something is cataclysmically amiss.
In addition to his dysfunctional middle-class family, Kelley throws in class bullies, a new girlfriend (Gretchen), the therapist (Dr. Lilian Thurman), a smarmy health teacher, a child pornographer, and a senile old woman (Grandma Death). Patrick Swayze steals several scenes as Jim Cunningham, the motivational speaker and town hero. Together, these various characters intersect to lead Donnie to the truth.
One of the paradoxes of Donnie Darko is its approach to faith. Craig Detweiler ("Into the Dark") sees the apocalyptic messages Donnie receives as instances of prophetic divine intervention. Is the voice he hears the voice of God, or some other prophet? Things are unclear; they are certainly not what they seem. Paradoxically, the demonic is godly, while the godly is evil and demonic. Detweiler states, "it is one of the most robust, poetic, and faith-affirming films of all time -- a dark but divine comedy." I would not go that far, but these paradoxes are worth considering in a thoughtful viewing of the film.
The therapy sessions that Donnie is forced to endure address faith directly. In one session, Donnie recounts a whispered message he received from Grandma Death, Roberta Sparrow: "She said, 'Every living creature on earth dies alone.' " This sparks an interchange between Donnie and Dr. Thurman, who questions: "The search for God is absurd?" and Donnie replies, "It is if everyone dies alone." Donnie is living his life alone, isolating himself from those around. He is comfortable with that. But dying alone is something else. It is frightening. It makes him question the very reality of God and of faith.
Dr Thurman goes on, "If this world were to end, there would only be you . . . and him . . . and no one else." Here is a biblical truism. Our individual worlds will one day end and we will all, without exception, come face to face with this one God: "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment." (Heb. 9:27) We are called to live in community but die alone. But this death, for Jesus-followers, is a gateway to life. It is not something to be truly feared, but something that can be embraced as a now necessary part of the journey into the future life beyond death.
When Donnie is given a book on time-travel written by Grandma Death, the scenes become visually twisted. But this gives Gretchen occasion to ask a key and pertinent question to Donnie: "What if you could go back in time, and take all those hours of pain and darkness and replace them with something better?" As Donnie reflects on this question, so can we. The simplistic answer is probably we would. But is there some purpose, some intentionality and value in pain and suffering? Many who have endured tremendous suffering say that it is in those darkest hours of suffering that they have grown the most. Given the chance to remove the suffering and its concomitant lessons, many who have endured this dark valley would reject the offer.
The Bible has much to say on suffering, but I will skim the surface. The apostle Peter addresses Christians who "have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." (1 Pet. 1:6-7) Here suffering strengthens our faith, if approached with the correct attitude. Paul, too, points out the value of some suffering as we can comfort others later in their own sufferings: "For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer." (2 Cor. 1:5-6)
Detweiler summarizes his analysis of the film: "Donnie Darko presents a dark, twisted, but redemptive version of the cost of discipleship." Donnie becomes a follower of Frank the 6-foot bunny. His discipleship is evident in his willingness to do what Frank says, even when it is questionable. His final act of discipleship is one of great sacrifice. As followers of Jesus, we are called to obedience regardless of the cost of this discipleship. Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross for us. We can do no less than be willing disciples, doing what Jesus commands even when it is confusing or questionable.
Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs