*Disclaimer: This film analysis of Donnie Darko contains film spoilers
Donnie Darko opens on a wide shot of a mountainous region. The color scheme, despite it being sunrise, provides an ominous backdrop, creating the sense that something is wrong. The camera then shifts to the connecting road, which is when the viewer is given a first glimpse of the film’s protagonist, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal). His body is sprawled on the ground next to his bike. For a brief moment, we the audience, suspect he is dead, but as the camera pans forward he begins to move. He stands up and stares into this vast mountainous region and immediately begins to laugh to himself as he walks off-frame. Once the title card emerges on the screen, the viewer has to recognize with the unconventional nature of the film’s opening that Donnie Darko is an outlier, someone outside of the parameters of normal. Even with the immediate blaring of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” playing with the visual of Donnie riding his bike, we have already categorized and labeled Donnie as different, which is integral when viewing Donnie Darko. However, we do not view his blatant difference as a negative. By being introduced to him in such a manner, a sort of affinity has already been established between protagonist and viewer, to which the viewer finds themselves connected with the film’s principle character. This connection is integral in the context of social commentary because we, too, are now outliers observing the action within this movie.
Donnie is an outsider. This is established without ever a word having to be spoken in the film’s opening. Yet, what is he an outsider of precisely? The answer comes in the form of conformity. We get quick glimpses of the community he lives within; it is a standard suburban town to which it is clear unspoken rules have been set on how to live within this town. It appears quaint and welcoming, but the film occurring on the backdrop of the Halloween season speaks otherwise. Halloween is the sole holiday that encourages a deviation from conformity, to be an outsider. Yet even with this backdrop of Halloween, there is hardly anything that indicates people are willing to step outside the parameters of being conventional. In fact, the community appears untainted by the holiday.
This further extends into the eventual introduction of Donnie’s school, to which many of the principle characters are introduced all at once. To the music of “Head Over Heels” by Tears For Fears, the viewer is given a vantage of a school that appears normative, standard, idealistic, yet there is an indicator that contradicts this before the film truly challenges the convention of society. We are introduced to the school in a skewed vantage. The camera is angled sideways at the back of a bus before the back door of this bus opens, Donnie jumps out with his friends, and the camera self-corrects itself as we follow Donnie into the school. This camera vantage gives the viewer a clear indication that they are supposed to follow Donnie in this movie and identify like him; a willful outsider. The camera is angled sideways because the outside world is skewed, tainted, and it’s through Donnie that our vantage is corrected. It is important to note that it’s through Donnie, during this sequence, that the audience is introduced to the characters who exert authority, yet they are introduced in a distant manner, heavily hinting we are to not identify or trust them fully.
This asks, are those in charge hypocrites? Donnie Darko directly challenges the question of society by indirectly asking who is dictating the norms that all must follow. This question of who dictates these rules is particularly established through two characters: Kitty Farmer and Jim Cunningham. Of course, it would be an injustice to not briefly mention Principal Cole in this context as well. His very introduction in the film speaks volumes to his character in that he exhibits gross negligence of his profession. In the school introduction, when we first follow Donnie, the audience is given a brief glimpse of Donnie’s antagonist blatantly snorting cocaine in the middle of the crowded hallway. In this very instance, Principal Cole walks past with his head angled in the very direction of this occurrence, but he continues walking. It isn’t an instance of passivity, but rather a blatant negligence of his profession. This places the insinuation that his efforts are not in providing the best for the student body because he is absorbed in his own sense of authority, which blinds him from the very reality that the students are tainted. It is not until the school is structurally damaged later on (by Donnie), to which he has no choice but to awaken from this false perception and is confronted with a situation he must solve. This is more of a financial reason than a ‘best interest for the students’ sort of motivation. Even in solving this problem, Principal Cole doesn’t look for the source, but rather scapegoats Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), who I will discuss more thoroughly later in this feature.
So what does Principal Cole represent within Donnie Darko? He represents complacency and that is achieved by upholding the conformative conventions. His goal is to bring the school back to its former glory, but as we were introduced to his character, he wants to go back to blinding himself that all is well. As established in the “PTA Scene” where the vast majority of parents side with Principal Cole, it can be suggested they are all one in the same in the mentality of blinding themselves from reality.
What is also telling in this sort of utopia that is presented in the film is that they all are immersed with Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) and his “Fear and Love Life Line” Program. Before we go into the details about Jim Cunningham, there are two things that must immediately be acknowledged with this character. First, the casting of Patrick Swayze was absolutely deliberate. Swayze was always the classic “good guy” in movies with his trustworthy face and the common association of him standing up for Baby in Dirty Dancing (“Nobody puts Baby in the corner!”) or protecting his girlfriend despite being a ghost in Ghost (“Ditto.”). This created a conviction that Swayze’s character could be trusted, to which audiences instantly associated him as a savior, someone one could place their faith in within this film’s complicated narrative. That suggests, despite following Donnie, we are still susceptible to being manipulated. The indication that he shouldn’t be trusted is obviously apparent right from when the movie begins, right down to the character’s name: “Cunningham”…cunning. Yet we ignore it. Why do we ignore it? It is because it has been emphasized repeatedly that Jim Cunningham is an amazing individual, even though his program is clearly flawed. Until he is revealed to be a pedophile, we as the audience, merely see Jim Cunningham as an eccentric character who is showcasing his “Life Line” program.
Jim Cunningham is cunning because he knows how to manipulate a community that is desperate to hold onto the conventions of normalcy. He knows how to mask the fact that he is a pedophile in plain sight. How does he achieve this? By being an interloper. In truth, he is very much an outsider, himself, and knows he is not truly wanted, but he immerses himself within the community to create the appearance that he belongs. It is utter manipulation and the community buys into it without ever asking questions. An instance of this occurs when Rose Darko (Donnie’s mother) is told by her friend, “You’ve got to meet this Jim Cunningham. I can’t believe he’s single!” This instance points out two things: One, nobody is actually asking questions about WHO Jim Cunningham is. Second, the community has willingly placed Jim Cunningham on a pedestal that makes him seemingly superior to everyone.
Why does the entire community embrace Jim Cunningham in such a manner? It’s because his “Fear and Love Life Line” is nothing more than rhetoric. His program offers nothing more than generalities, which allows the community to interpret what he is saying any way they want to. The majority of individuals are supposedly “challenging fear” and “embracing love,” but neither of these “deepest emotions” are actually talked about. Instead, such terminology is thrown around without any regard as its meaning or subtext. To a degree, it suggests that society doesn’t want to think and should be, instead, reactionary to their emotions. The “Life Line” program actually minimizes life and relegates society to being obedient versus being radical, which is essentially code for conformity versus being an outsider. The “Life Line” program discourages individuality, citing it as a “product of fear.”
In this regard, it is only Donnie who directly challenges this premise. In a scene where Donnie directly contradicts everything Jim Cunningham says, Jim merely stands on his podium and stares at Donnie. Why? Because Jim cannot defend himself with factual evidence. All he has is rhetoric and that isn’t something that can support any of his claims. This is evidence within the film that the “Life Line” program Jim Cunningham has been perpetuating is nothing less than a mirage to benefit himself. Yet the most telling moment in this exchange is when Donnie says to Jim, “I think you’re the fucking antichrist,” which triggers gasps and mortification from those in the audience. Yet, this claim Donnie makes isn’t inaccurate, especially after Jim’s pedophilia is uncovered. What makes this “antichrist” claim accurate is that it has a historical basis. When looking at the vast list of dictators or cult leaders who have come to power, how did they do it? By manipulating a very complacent and willing society by usage of rhetoric and generalities. That is precisely what Jim Cunningham has achieved.
Yet what is worse: The mastermind or the facilitator? Those who manage power cannot do it alone. They rely on someone to spread the word and be the mouthpiece to their supposed message. The person must be a radical follower, but also someone who explicitly believes in the quest to have everyone follow this individual they idolize. Within Donnie Darko, this is clearly Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant). In the context of this close film reading, we must look at Kitty Farmer as the mouthpiece for Jim Cunningham because it is her who pushes the program upon everyone within this film. Like Cunningham, Kitty’s name functions as a metaphor. Kitty Farmer…a farmer cultivates growth, which is precisely what this character is aiming to do throughout the film. Furthermore, the film makes it clear that the “Life Line” is all she is aware of inside-and-out. To a degree, she’s an extremist. She is someone who is trying to force conformity through the “Life Line” program, since we have indicated the “Life Line” is truly about societal obedience.
This actually makes her more dangerous than Jim Cunningham because any criticism directly affects her first, to which she easily lashes out against anyone, who in her eyes, defies her. She is officious by standing with the belief that she is entirely in the right and any deviation from her opinion is subject to ridicule. However, even when she is ultimately debunked, Kitty remains a loyal radical follower. “Is is obviously some kind of conspiracy to destroy an innocent man!” she declares to Rose Darko after Jim Cunningham is arrested for his pedophilia. This clearly indicates that even when truth is presented to Kitty in the form of physical evidence, she continues to be a radical follower. This is because she is fanatical and such individuals are forever lost.
What is further obvious about Kitty is that she is of the demographic who speaks louder the more they are challenged, hoping the sound of their voice will intimidate others into silence. We directly witness this during the “PTA Scene” when she openly declares, “Not only am I a teacher, but I am a parent of a Middlesex child. Therefore, I am the only person here who transcends the parent-teacher bridge.” In this instance, Kitty is directly exerting superiority over everyone, to which she has established herself as “more qualified” to have an opinion over anyone else. In that regard, nobody challenges her except Rose Darko. Yet this brief exchange between the two of them is exceedingly telling. During this “PTA Scene” Kitty is demanding the boycott of a Graham Greene short story, labeling it as “pornography.” When Rose Darko directly asks Kitty if she is even aware of how famous and prolific Graham Greene is to literature, Kitty coyly responds, “I like we’ve all seen Bonanza,” completely not realizing she is referring to the TV actor, Lorne Greene, who has zero relation to Graham Greene. While this answer is comedic, it is also utterly shocking. The implication in this moment is that Kitty hasn’t even read the short story, yet has placed an intense hatred towards the content of the text. It is willful ignorance and a genuine lack of understanding, yet nobody challenges her. In fact, the majority of people still side with her even though she has clearly revealed her own ignorance. But even more glaring in this instance is Kitty focusing her wrath at Karen Pomeroy, who she is clearly intimidated by. The intimidation is because Karen is educated and more resourceful than Kitty ever will be. To Kitty, Karen is a threat and she must be taken down.
This now leads into the question of what happens to those who have not conformed? As indicated by this analysis thus far, we have established a willful society who is willing to blind themselves, but what happens to those who are different? Donnie, himself, is an outlier since he is in control of his facilities and doesn’t let society directly affect him. Instead, for the purposes of this analysis, we need to focus on those within the film who aren’t given the voice that Donnie is able to have. To answer this, one must say it bluntly: Within Donnie Darko, you are punished for being an outsider. That doesn’t go to say there aren’t outsiders within the film, but it is those who willfully choose to be or are labeled as outsiders who are punished. Characters such as Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), who introduces Donnie to Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time Travel,” is undoubtedly an outsider, but he knows how to remain discreet about it. His tactic is stop talking when it veers into territory that may expose him. “I’m not going to be able to continue this conversation,” he tells Donnie. “I could lose my job.”
It is by no coincidence that Kenneth Monnitoff is dating Karen Pomeroy; another outsider. What differentiates herself from her boyfriend is that she openly embraces her individuality. She doesn’t care how unorthodox she comes off as, and by that rationale, she is essentially the voice of reason within Donnie Darko. This may seem inaccurate, but this argument can be made because she is the only character throughout the film who encourages individuality and for her students to actually think for themselves. In her first major scene where she is teaching Graham Greene to her students, she firstly reveals her individuality by directly calling a student a liar when the student poses as someone who has read the text. This firstly presents Karen as someone who isn’t passive (like Principal Cole) and also someone who will directly call out falsities within a person. Additionally in this scene is when the moviegoer is introduced to Gretchen, who is hesitant of where to sit in the class. When she asks where should she sit, Karen responds, “Sit next to the boy you think is the cutest.” Again, this is a scene that is deliberately presented in a quirky narrative style, but there is a purpose behind it: Karen wants her students to make their own decisions, to not be sheepishly led by those in authority. This why characters such as Kitty Farmer resent Karen, because individuality directly contradicts conformity.
Of course, by openly exhibiting her outsider-status, Karen makes herself a target for those who seek to silence her. That silencing comes in the form of her being firing for her “methods.” In this moment, Karen asks what precisely about her methods is inappropriate, to which she is rebuked with “I’m not going to get into it” by Principal Cole. To Karen, she immediately knows why: Because she didn’t conform to the normative conventions of the school and society. She is being fired for being different. This is when Karen provides the most profound insight in the film: “I don’t think you have a clue what it’s like to communicate to these kids. We are losing them to apathy, to this prescribed nonsense. They are slipping away.” This very insight places Karen in a morally and intellectually superior position to all other characters because she understands the ramifications of conformity. Without individuality, the forum of ideas withers away and intellect falls victim to rhetoric. In that regard, Karen is fired for taking a stand against conformity. She loses the battle in this movie, which is the ultimate tragedy within the narrative.
The tragic component of Karen’s firing is that the extreme pressure to conform will remain on the students and those who have already been labeled will continue to be ostracized. The specific character I’m referring to is Cherita Chen. She is an outsider not through any deliberate actions, but merely by her appearance and her thick accent. These are attributes she has no control over, but they have caused her to be classified. Cherita, as a result, wants to blend in and disappear within the masses of society. Whenever she attempts to say “shut up” to someone, it’s not to defend herself, but a plea to simply leave her alone. She realizes she has no ally or anyone to confide in, so barricading herself from being hurt is the only thing can do. This why she panics and flees from Donnie when he tells her, “I promise that one day everything is going to be better for you.” Even though Donnie is a blatant outsider to the moviegoer, the tragic irony is that Cherita isn’t aware. Her panic stems from the fear of being identified as an outsider when she is desperately trying to be invisible within the circle of conformity. For Cherita, to be ignored is to exist.
Yet it is very obvious Cherita wants to be heard, she wants to be noticed, and she takes a single chance during the film’s “Talent Show” sequence. It can be suspected that she takes this chance to be an individual because in a talent show environment, she would be allowed. In a small sequence that is utterly beautiful, Cherita, dressed all in white, performs an interpretative dance to backdrop of falling leaves and white satin curtains. While her dancing isn’t the best, it still represents the purity and innocence embodied within her. Does the audience watching her recognize this? No. Instead, she is met with stifled laughs from those watching and the more aggressive, “Get off the stage, Cherita!” directed at her. This is the sole instance outside of Donnie and Karen that someone openly displays their individuality, and like Karen, she is rejected for it.
Ironically, what does the audience embrace enthusiastically during this same talent show? “Sparkle Motion;” the five-girl dancing troupe that is run by Kitty Farmer. In a dance number to Duran Duran’s “Notorious,” the girls perform a routine that screams of clichés, sexualized undertones, and devoid of any individuality, yet the audience cherishes it. They get on their feet and clap their hands in enthusiasm, which is precisely the opposite reaction to Cherita, who is seated alone outside in defeat. It is especially in this moment within Donnie Darko that it is evident that conformity is preferred and rewarded while individuality is frowned upon and taunted.
The overall social message of Donnie Darko is that social conformity is dangerous, it is blinding of reality, and it ignores those who can truly provide something special to society. While Donnie Darko is a film that interjects various genres, especially in the context of science-fiction, it is also a movie that encourages a deviation from the normal. The entire foundation of the movie is the social reaction when Donnie changes the world just a little bit. As Donnie says to Karen at the beginning of the film regarding Graham Greene’s short story, “Destruction is a form of creation…they just want to see what happens when we tear the world apart. They want to change things.” In that regard, Donnie does. He changes society directly as a result of his actions and one can suspect he has indirectly changed his community after the film’s outcome. The inherent hope with this film’s conclusion is that society has learned something through Donnie and that change will occur as a result. Perhaps Donnie did, in fact, save the world.