Donnie Darko has a great score, some biting one-liners, and deals heavily with concepts of time travel that fascinate me. To this day, I still have conversations about what exactly happened with other people, in part because I find the sacrifice to be beautiful. It also holds some excellent commentary on the truths that people don’t want to face, which is another topic I love to examine. This film has a lot to offer in the honesty department, but it has a conflicted message about the bearer of truth. In acknowledging searing honesty in the world around him, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) simply can’t be allowed to live past the finale because he represents the truth, something that many perceive to be too dangerous to suffer to live.
|Some people can’t handle truth.
It’s clear from the offset that Donnie operates on a level of feeling and honesty that others simply cannot comprehend. When we first meet him, he’s asleep in the middle of the road. From there, we find out quickly that he’s been labeled mentally ill and has stopped taking medication; as such, he’s prone to biting, sarcastic comments, which makes him likable to the audience because we can identify with the smart ass stuck in with the rest of the characters, who lead fairly cushy lives from a socioeconomic perspective. Thing is, Donnie’s illness isn’t all that terrible: it gives him license to present an honesty and clarity that many in the film lack, and not all of it is bad. He tells Gretchen (Jena Malone),”I’m really glad school was flooded today… Because you and I would never have had this conversation.” He can appreciate that moment in time with her in a way that others couldn’t articulate, and that makes the bumbling comment more romantic; it’s something that most of us won’t get to hear from another person, but the gesture and thought behind it is something deeply touching. This lack of filter therefore puts beauty into the world in his instance. Likewise, Donnie isn’t one to tolerate a dumb conversation: he sets his sex-obsessed friends straight in the great debate on whether or not Smurfette is a sex slave to the other Smurfs, causing the young men to drop the bullshit of relating everything to sex in light of greater evidence to the contrary. There he really shines is the confrontation with Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze, in what I consider his best role) by calling out the delusional nature of his self-help spiel, referring to him as “the fucking antichrist” in the process. We’re all thinking it watching the videos, but Donnie is the one actually saying it, voicing dissent when everyone else would rather tune out. He won’t even take it easy on spirituality, as evidenced when he gets to stare into the nature of life, death, and the sense of being alone in the world with Dr. Thurman (Katharine Ross):
Dr. Thurman: “The search for god is absurd?”
Donnie: “It is if everyone dies alone.”
This is a truth with which many will struggle throughout life, yet a teenage boy is tackling it in a therapist’s office. It spills over into his interactions with Mrs. Farmer (Beth Grant, who killed it in this role) during the Lifeline exercises. When asked to categorize situations into either Fear or Love, she’s asking him to select an either/or answer to define all of human emotion and reaction. Donnie doesn’t see things in black and white, though, and presents an argument for the various shades of gray: “Life isn’t that simple… There are other things that need to be taken into account here, like the whole spectrum of human emotion. You can’t just lump everything into these two categories and deny everything else.” He presents truths that leave the rest of the film’s characters uncomfortable or applauding, and he does so from a view point that leaves them uneasy regardless of if it’s agreed with or not. No one wants to think that the guy who is supposedly crazy is the one that makes the most sense, yet Donnie has the clearest picture because he stares unflinching into that which terrifies everyone else.
|Because it comes down to two emotions. Just two.
The other characters have reason to be afraid and resistant to his questioning and presentations: they do not have good lives in the timeline of the film, in part because they don’t want to admit out loud that things are really that messy. Cunningham is found to have a child pornography collection. Rose (Mary cDonnell) doubts herself as a mother, and receives slam after slam from Mrs. Farmer regarding her parenting, yet does not defend herself. Gretchen, whose mother is missing toward the end, is killed by Frank (James Duval), who is then shot to death by Donnie. Cherita (Jolene Purdy) has an unrequited crush on Donnie, and is on the constant receiving end of verbal abuse from classmates. Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) loses her job after a colleague that doesn’t like her accuses her of poor teaching. These are all people that present a different face to society: the put-together self-help guru, the fabulous suburban mother, the hardened new girl, the studious immigrant, the free-thinking teacher. Deep down, they are all afraid, but don’t want to admit it to those around them; the most we get is Karen’s primal scream and Gretchen’s tears. Really, these are not easy existences: the hell each experiences, from a sexual attraction to children to an isolated adolescence as an immigrant to a parent of a child that’s not like the others, is painful and crushing. Everyone’s got demons in this town, but Donnie is the one that is voicing his dissent the loudest while everyone remains silent in the hopes that acceptance will make it easier. It’s this insistence of clinging to the face presented to the society that marks the rest of the characters as grossly inauthentic: for them, it’s safer to pretend that everything is fine and accept that as truth rather than take steps to correct that truly ails them.
It makes sense, then, that Donnie dies – he needs to in order for life to go on for everyone else in a few different manners of speaking. His actions and words strip away the facade for a lot of characters, leaving a vulnerability that many find uncomfortable and psychologically unacceptable. His actions leave Cunningham exposed, and it’s Donnie that is the one that stands up to Mrs. Farmer and challenges her pathetic exercises when no one else wants to. And it is Donnie that forces his mother to finally admit that her child is mentally ill when he asks her, “How does it feel to have a whacko for a son?” Donnie isn’t content to just see people for who they are – he wants everyone in that room naked right along with him, and that type of social and spiritual nudity is something for which the others aren’t prepared. Despite that he’s “sick,” Donnie has the best outlook and the most authentic life. It makes sense that in his sacrifice – his refusal to get out of bed and start a time loop – is required to prevent the world from ending, because he is the only one that can see the world around him for what it is. In doing so, he erases the events of the film, which means that everyone gets to carry on in the carefully-constructed lives that hide the pieces they don’t want anyone else to see. By being Donnie, he ultimately allows everyone else to save face and continue denying what they truly are.
|Despite that it’s hell, it’s familiar hell.
Donnie promises Cherita at one point of the film, “I promise that one day, everything’s going to be better for you.” Donnie follows through on this, making life possible for everyone by dying. Jim gets to carry on his double life in secret; Rose doesn’t have to deal with her imperfect child and the questioning of her parenting skills; Karen gets to keep her job for the foreseeable future; Gretchen and Frank are alive. Before you can say it though, note that I didn’t say a damn thing about anyone being happy, which is enough to make you wonder: can honesty really make someone happy? Does denying the darker aspects of life make you happy? Will holding up a mirror really change anything? Is that truly the gauge of a better life?