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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
Jean Baudrillard has written,
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.
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,
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?
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:
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.
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.