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The film Donnie Darko was all but a complete flop when released in theatres in the fall of 2001. Similar to films like Fight Club, Evil Dead, and variety of others, Donnie Darko reached a cult like following after its DVD release. What is it about the film Donnie Darko which was able to capture the attention of the general public? If one looks at the culture of the film; the blogs, wesbites, extra DVD features, it is all but too easy to see that the mystery and underlying meanings of the film is what keeps the viewer coming back for more and simply asking…what?
One of the most interesting aspects in analyzing Donnie Darko is in looking at its representations of good and evil. Throughout the film, many characters can be seen as both good and evil, and many fall in between or are very ambiguous. Donnie, the main character is throughout the film shown in both a positive and negative sense, and at times floating in the middle of the two. Similarly to the line of “Love and Fear” which Ms. Farmer puts up on the board, which Donnie states does not take into account the entire spectrum of human emotion. Donnie is seen at times as the evil doer (flooding the school, setting fire to Jim Cunningham’s house, and eventually killing Frank) or possibly the anti hero. He is fighting “crime” and the system he is in, but doesn’t come off as completely evil. He is the tainted hero. He falls somewhere on the line of “Love and Fear”, but does not completely meet the structuralist view of good or evil.
Another main character who also falls into this post-structuralist setting is the character Frank. Frank is represented throughout the film in two main forms. He is shown as the deceased Frank who is “helping” Donnie save the world. In other ways, Frank is also shown as a selfish character who is trying to save himself. Much like how Donnie is able to travel through time and carry-on in the tangent universe, Frank is able to carry on and attempt to alter the future and the past. Is this for his own survival? Is this for the sake of the real universe which will cease to exist if Donnie’s life is not ended? Does he want Donnie to continue to live so that Frank will always hold his powers of time travel and eternal life? Through these questions we can see Frank as both protagonist, antagonist, as well as somewhere in between.
Several other characters teeter between structuralism and post-structuralism within the film. The pedophile phony self help guru played by Patrick Swayze, Donnie’s psychologist, the female teacher played by Drew Barrymore, the male teacher played by Noah Wyle, Mrs. Farmer, and Donnie’s parents. This in addition to several events within the film which are contrasted against one another. This includes the flooding of the school by Donnie (a reference to the book The Destructors which is being read within the plot of the film) which results in him meeting Gretchen. The burning of Jim Cunningham’s house, eventually resulting in his Cunningham’s arrest for his involvement in child pornography is another contrasted set of events, and another prime example of Donnie as the pos-structuralist hero. (Donnie as the anti-hero/hero) Donnie Darko is a great example of a postmodern film while it leaves questions unanswered and provokes the viewer into making their own meanings from the film.
Semiotics and symbols also play a large role in the film, its multiple meanings, and fan interest and obsession. Attempting to decode this film is as mind boggling as putting together a several thousand piece puzzle. It is riddled with outside references to visual culture as well as literary and biblical innuendos. Throughout the film, Donnie is seen as an individual who is striving to decode his own future. Being guided by Frank, he understands certain elements of his future, and begins to decode and learn about the idea of time travel. While time travel within this film may be fairly straightforward as a concept, it is Donnie’s ability to decide upon his route of travel which links this film to biblical thought. Later in the film Donnie makes a decision to travel back in time and allow the non-tangent universe to continue. He learns that if he does not die, only Frank and himself will remain, and all others will cease to exist. Donnie chooses to die and allow others to remain alive; Donnie acts as a savior. Much like the Matrix films, Donnie Darko utilizes this biblical reference as it compares Donnie himself to Jesus dying for the sins of others. An additional reference which is seen in the film The Matrix is that of a rabbit. The Matrix utilizes the “white rabbit” as a guide for Neo within this film. In Donnie Darko, a not so white rabbit is also utilized to go “deeper into the rabbit hole” as Frank acts as Donnie’s guide. Furthermore, the battle between Mrs. Pomerory (Drew Barrymore) and the school board for freedom to read The Destructors is a clear representation of good and evil, with evil eventually triumphing with the firing of Ms. Pomeroy. Other characters and events which hold symbolic meaning include Cherita Chen (an angel through representation and in the school play), Mrs. Sparrow/Grandma Death and Donnie’s psychologist as his spiritual guides. The flooding of the school as a potential cleansing or awakening similar to baptism.
The film offers dense symbols and ideas which can and have been read in many ways. Through a simple search of the internet, one can find a great deal of both revere and criticism for the film. A great deal of the film focuses on the idea of time travel, while it isn’t explained in great detail, it does offer up another realm of interest and criticism from the public. Some have developed their own theories and ideas from the film, while other insist the film is not about time travel at all, but a puzzle of symbols and hidden meanings. Even the director, Richard Kelly, who states his intention and idea of the film in the directors extended commentary reveals that the film is open to interpretation and that there is no one meaning. This idea is what has kept fans and critics drawn to the film Donnie Darko, and what continues to drive it cult fandom and interpretation.