Donnie Darko: Donnie is happy here. Is that because he is dead?

Donnie Darko: The main character looks for answers in places that most of his friends and family miss. Here, a seemingly disturbed old woman may hold the key to all his questions.

Donnie Darko: Surreal imagery wanders in and out of Donnie’s existence.

Political temperature can sometime explain the mindfuck. Public cynicism growing out of the McCarthy era set the stage for The Manchurian Candidate while....

....similar public cynicism about Watergate led to The Parallax View.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol has explored the question of identity in stories set in the not-too-distant future, such as Gattaca ....

.... and The Truman Show. In this movie, the audience is let in on the secret of identity, but...

....but Truman Burbank, the hero, remains in the dark.

Another story set in the future, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, suggests that when real life is too horribly painful or....

....too crushingly monotonous, fantasy and madness are reasonable alternatives.

In the film Donnie Darko we do not learn how Donnie, the protagonist, reacts to his “truth.” Of all the films I discuss here, this mindfuck film by first-time director Richard Kelly is possibly the most disturbing—and not coincidentally, most postmodern—because it can have the most interpretations. Donnie Darko’s plot device is similar to that of The Sixth Sense. The teenage hero Donnie suffers a near miss with fatality early in the story. At the end of the story, the script suggests that perhaps he did die in the accident, as in The Sixth Sense.

However, we could also argue that Donnie has traveled back in time to change his “good” fortune at surviving—some sort of mind over matter suicide. Another interpretation is also suggested by the film’s final shots, which offer evidence that Donnie did in fact die in the first draft of time, and that the subsequent drama has been imagined by his mother, unable to cope with her part in her son’s tragedy. So many conflicting indications are suggested in Donnie Darko that the film virtually defies standard textual analysis of plot, character and theme.

Donnie differs from the other deluded heroes in two significant ways. First, the audiences learns early on that he is a schizophrenic, subject to a regime of both analysis and medication. At the story’s outset he has ceased taking his medicine, which information gives viewers a logical explanation for the hallucinations Donnie hears and sees. Donnie is also a child, the only hero in the films under discussion who has parents. None of the other protagonists had a mother who could dream up a fantasy for her child, and thus contribute that kind of plotline.

Also, our sympathy for Donnie is manipulated. Before the accident affects him, Donnie is not particularly sympathetic. He is rude to his family, and he calls his mother a “bitch.” He is not pleasant at the school bus stop. Our reaction to him at this point is apt to be mixed. We may not condemn him for such actions: teenagers in an audience may in fact admire his audacity and the parents of teenagers may see a sharply observed, realistic character. Donnie remains largely impotent and frightened.

That all changes after the accident. Donnie becomes far more sympathetic. He reveals his intelligence, bravery, and passion. He gets a friend in Frank and a girlfriend in Gretchen. He even seems to find that time travel may answer the questions of morality and free will which plague him. (This almost idealized version of Donnie’s post-accident life, combined with his parents’ ready acceptance of the virtue of those offering to help—the government which provides lodging after the accident, and the therapist who provides aid to Donnie—seem to support the interpretation of the plot that it is a mother’s fantasy for her son.) Even his death is shown as positive. “When the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief because there will be so much to look forward to.”

Donnie Darko contains discussions about time travel, God, free will, education, and mental illness, and it also makes clear thematic references to child abuse, ageism, body type, and cultism. The film nearly collapses under the weight of its numerous ideas. At its thematic core is an issue most appropriate for a movie about a teenager—hypocrisy. Donnie is living through the last days of relative freedom in which he can explore the social world with impunity. Karen Pomeroy, an adult, gets fired for challenging the school system while Donnie merely gets suspended from after-school activities. Donnie experiences freedom from compromise, not having to surrender or be a hypocrite.

In the most astonishing sequence in the film, Donnie commits a supposedly evil and destructive act—burning down an innocent, albeit pompous and disingenuous, man’s home. He commits this arson while his mother and father are with other school parents lavishing praise on Sparkle Motion, Donnie’s younger sister’s dance group. That grade school performance, with spandex and lipstick, comes as close to societally-accepted kiddie porn as we are going to see this side of Britney Spears. Later, the seemingly innocent man turns out to be an actual purveyor of child pornography, which plot development may strike some as too neat. In sum, Darko’s plot indicates there is often little distinction between what we perceive as good and what we perceive as evil.


Each of these movies may stimulate a range of emotional reactions from its audience, but the most typical audience reaction to any mindfuck movie is confusion. Given an audience’s tendency to empathize with the hero, viewers likely experience confusion tinged with helplessness. Why, then, would popular films of the turn of the century elicit confusion and helplessness as such dominant emotions? It is easier to trace the cause and effect relation of, say, Watergate and Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View, one of the great paranoid films in American cinema and a movie which even has an abstract short film within in it intended to serve as a diagnostic mindfuck. It is easier to draw a link between the McCarthy hearings and Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, filmed by John Frankenheimer in 1962.

But no such obvious social event explains the current fascination with mindfuck plotlines. Social critics on the right consistently point out the breakdown in traditional values and loss of religious faith; on the left, critics examine the soul-devouring effects of capitalism and big-business. But the decline in religious faith and the power of wealth in the United States are hardly new conditions. They may be contributory, but they cannot be primary.

Over the past several decades, philosophical debate over the nature of identity has taken on significant political and scientific dimensions. Questions about the moral implications of abortion, gene therapy, and cloning spotlight not only the question, “What is human life?” but also, “Who controls that life?” In this vein, Andrew Niccol has dramatized such questions in his film Gattaca (1997), as well as in his script for Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998).
In particular, The Truman Show develops a hero fundamentally deluded as to the very nature of his identity, a man who believes he is in control but is sadly mistaken. The fundamental difference between The Truman Show and the mindfuck films which have followed is that the former lets the audience in on the deception early on, making us identify more with the manipulators than the manipulated.

Jean Baudrillard has written,

The disappearance of the referential universe is a brand new phenomenon.4

In writing about the skyrocketing debt facing the United States, Baudrillard supposes that we have begun to invent “parallel universes”; such universes are merely virtual representations of reality. Baudrillard finds that “virtual reality” has been one of the defining technical achievements of the late 20th century and now is a narcotic coping mechanism.

It is simple enough to enter an exponential or virtual mode to become free of any responsibility, since there is no reference anymore, no referential world to serve as a measuring norm.5

This sense of artificiality and a virtual universe shaping a character’s life certainly seems to define the worlds that Tyler Durden, Malcolm Crowe, Diane Selwyn, Leonard Shelby, and Donnie Darko inhabit. Baudrillard’s conception of the simulacrum, the representation which has blurred ordinary “true” reality, finds astonishing voice in the worlds set up by these new Hollywood mindfucks. Fascinated by the escapism of U.S. theme parks, Baudrillard writes,

Disney, the precursor, the grand initiator of imaginary as virtual reality, is now in the process of capturing all the real world to integrate it into its synthetic universe…At Disney World in Orlando, they are even building an identical replica of the Los Angeles Dinseyland.6

In the age of 24 hour-a-day news coverage, in the age of computer animation, in the age of “plausibly live” Olympic coverage—in an age in which anyone with a computer and a modem can run an internet search on himself and find any number of unknown identities—is it any wonder we find ourselves confused as to what is real and what is imagined? We are under siege from images. In what experiences can we place our trust?

Deconstructionism is a useful theoretical prism through which to view these questions of identity for it blurs the lines between supposed opposites. Whereas traditional narratives make it tempting to think that one conclusive truth must exist—e.g., that Malcolm Crowe is either dead or alive —deconstructionism suggests the possibility that neither is true and both are true. We often believe that what is real occupies a superior position over what is imagined. To a certain degree, past films also explored this issue; for example, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, highly controversial in its time, appeared to suggest that fantasy was superior to reality.

What is remarkable about current mindfuck films is that they do not seem to assign primacy to either reality or illusion; thus, they take fledgling steps toward a possible postmodern template for identity. Both the real and the imagined exist as fundamental conditions of modern life in the United States. Donnie Darko explains the philosophy quite succinctly when discussing Graham Greene’s The Destructor:

Destruction is a form of creation.

In social terms, the late 20th century has witnessed more destruction and creation than any other historical period, and now, in contemporary narratives, fiction has captured this process on film, tape, and disk.

Film may be uniquely qualified to explore this anxiety about what is real since it is the medium which authenticates “truth” today: things are no longer true if we read them in a book or hear them from a friend—they are true if we see them on film or tape. In addition, excepting those working in a Brechtian way, scriptwriters often use the characters’ emotion states to create emotional reactions within audiences.

In this way, film provides a second generation for Jacques Lacan’s “mirror stage.” The French psychoanalyst identified a crucial step in an infant’s development occurring when the child first looks into a mirror and thinks, “That is me.” This confusion between the child’s identity and the mere representation of identity as seen in the mirror is similar to, and perhaps the basis of, later identification with a fictional protagonist. On some level, we are apt to respond, “That is me.”

This is the basis for catharsis. We enjoy any displeasure we have experienced in following the film plot because we survive what we have experienced on screen, so that on some level, we have survived it in our “true” identities. If the characters on screen are deluded as to their identities, the mindfuck movies provide us with an opportunity to work out our own similar fears about self- delusion.

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