Original Essay | Donnie Darko, Jesus Christ, and Religion in the 80s

Context: This is an essay I wrote for a film analysis class, as such, tone is very formal.  Movies are much more fun than they sound in an academic essay. None the less, Donnie Darko is a neat film, and it was great to combine my interests of cinema and religious studies.

The cinematic experience is inherently dreamlike. How many times have you walked out of a movie theater in a daze? Or memories of a film twist and distort with memories of a dream? The basis of dream is routed in a concrete physical reality, yet what makes dreams memorable are their deviations from it. In Donnie Darko, the physical reality of high school in the late 80s is a concrete visual and cultural stage rich for deviation. Love struck teachers fawn over the dashing motivational speaker Jim Cunningham, students pull knives out in bathrooms, on the first day of class, the teacher says “Sit next to the boy you think is the cutest” as if she is echoing the thoughts running through everyone’s mind. Donnie’s mind however is fraught with hesitations about what he sees. At night, when he should be dreaming, he sleep walks out of his house and experiences the first of many encounters with a haunting, six foot tall bunny rabbit named Frank.

Following the voice of Frank, whispering “Wake up. I’m watching you”, Donnie walks past his sleeping/dreaming family out into his typical upper middle class suburban neighborhood. As Donnie walks closer to Frank’s voice, he walks into focus, and hears Franks foreboding words about the end of the world.  No one else but Donnie hears, and he’s the only character aware of the end of the world throughout the film. With this in mind, the scene as he moves through the house, and the visions he has in the bathroom are symbolic Donnie’s awakened state of mind, even though he still can be classified as a schizophrenic.

The new, enlightened Donnie, joking with Gretchen about his alliterative name, says: “[superhero], who says I’m not?], unintentionally alluding to his awakened perspective. While attending one of many sessions with his psychiatrist, Donnie projects his fears about dying alone, and the existence of God (or rather, the lack thereof) expressing what is perhaps the crux of the film. Furthermore, many of the film’s adult characters, including Mrs. Farmer and Jim Cunningham use religious language. Donnie’s family however is never shown going to church. With all of Donnie’s existential musings, the lack of any church scenes is surprising. During the 80s, the height of the Evangelical movement, and the Christian right, it would not be strange to see a suburban neighborhood with empty garages on Sunday morning, especially due to Richard Kelly’s attention to 1980s detail (the film could be considered a period piece). When Donnie goes to visit his science teacher, the conversation ends when it steers towards theological territory. “I could lose my job,” the teacher claims.

Donnie’s fears about dying alone, and living in a world without God, are manifested through his visions of Frank, and the world-ending event he attempts to reverse. For if someone can actually die for someone else, maybe there is a God, and maybe he won’t die alone. This is where, as Siegfried Kracauer puts it, the “realistic tendency” and physical reality of 1980’s suburbia dances with the “formative tendency” of Donnie’s psyche. Donnie’s trip “down the rabbit hole,” so to speak, is an existential journey to find the answer to Donnie’s, and American Suburbia’s deepest questions about the universe,. On one of Jim Cunningham’s motivational video tapes, Jim advises that the viewer look beyond themselves and into the mirror, figurative advice which Donnie takes literally when he he takes a knife and attempts to stab through the bathroom mirror into the 4th dimensional hallucinogenic (or not so) reality – into himself. As Donnie’s quest to save the world continues, he becomes more and more a sacrifice, similar to the theology surrounding Jesus Christ. Christ sweat blood in Gethsemane, as the path before him was achingly revealed, and he accepted his mantle and assumed the sins of the world – in order to save it – by willingly sacrificing himself (Following a Reformed theological train of thought). Donnie, by carrying out his mission to save the world, proves to himself that someone really can die for someone else, that the world maybe isn’t so lonely, and that it’s maybe not so empty after all.

If you’re interested in reading about Kracauer a little bit more, here’s a short post about some of his basic concepts:

Siegfried Kracauer Basic Concepts

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