Donnie Darko: We still don’t really know what it’s about

Intro by Maria

Coming up, you’ll be listening to Brandon and me talk about the 2001 cult classic Donnie Darko. The movie takes place during a span of 28 days in the 1980s, and it focuses on teenager Donnie Darko, who’s learning advanced time travel theory. Who is teaching him this advanced time travel theory? I don’t know—aliens, probably. Just kidding—a man dressed up in a rabbit suit is teaching him, or at least guiding him, so that he can eventually go back in time and sacrifice himself to save the ones he loves. While this may be true, his family and his therapist all think that he is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, rather than actually being guided by some man in a rabbit suit.

A lot of other things take place during this movie: Donnie floods the school, burns down the token pedophile’s house, falls in love, and starts to really learn that a neighbor of his, who the kids lovingly call “Grandma Death,” wrote a book about time travel, and it’s around here that we start to think that Donnie’s psychotic episodes may be more about time travel rather than mental illness, but the movie never actually affirms either side, so we’re just left to wonder—Is this a story about a teenager suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, or is this a story about a teenager learning the true secret of time travel? I don’t know…well, I guess we know because everyone says it’s the latter, but do we really know?

All this plus a quick game of Who’s That Gyllenhaal in the next Peculiar Picture Show.

Quotes

M: The people who are thought of being good in the community—Jim Cunningham and maybe Kitty Farmer who is the gym teacher—are actually kind of the bad people. They have a little bit more of an evilness to them than I think that other people would realize, and we get to see that.

M: The people who are thought of as being good in the community—Jim Cunningham and Kitty Farmer—are actually kind of the bad people. They have more of an evilness to them than I think other people would realize, and we get to see that.

M: You can’t put everything as being all good or all bad; there’s a grey area. Nothing fits into buckets like that, but we always try to make things fit like that.

B: The dichotomy between fear and love is really a big thing in this, because both the characters—the motivational speaker and Kitty Farmer—they both talk about fear as something you should just run away from. Like, you should never embrace fear. And Donnie’s message back to them seems to be: “No, if there’s a reason to be afraid, we’re right to be afraid. We need to look at why we’re afraid.” And that’s something with mental illness: When you’re not medicated, you’re looking at something like, what if I’m not mentally ill? What if this is all correct? What if everything I’m thinking is true? What if the medication just dulls that and I am not longer able to perceive the truth?

M: How do you move on when your son, or your brother, or your family member, or whoever is [suffering from mental illness], and those feelings I thought made the film so real because we didn’t just get him being schizophrenic but we got how the parents are dealing with it, and I think that’s very telling. Because mental health affects everybody. It doesn’t just affect that one person, it affects everything, so being able to tell that story—I commend the director for doing that.

M: How do you move on when your family member is [suffering from mental illness]? Those feelings made the film so real because we didn’t just get him being schizophrenic, but we got how the parents are dealing with it, and I think that’s very telling. Because mental health affects everybody. It doesn’t just affect that one person, it affects everything, so being able to tell that story—I commend the director for doing that.

B: A lot of Gen X people are being diagnosed with mental disorders, and the Baby Boomer parents don’t really know how to do deal with that because their parents did not deal with that.

B: Baby Boomers were raised on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was probably the most damaging film for perceptions of mental illness. That’s just how they grew up. Admittedly in the 50s and 60s, the mental health system was pretty awful, and it deserved to be critiqued, but then there’s still a lot of lingering perceptions that any sort of treatment or diagnosis of mental illness is not to be trusted—that’s for other people, that’s for awful people, not for normal people.

B: If you ask someone who has never seen or known that they’ve ever seen mental illness, “what do you think a mentally ill person is like?” they would not describe someone like you or me; they would describe someone like the killer in Psycho. Because that’s a big part of the misconception. Mental illness is used so often in film and media—like look at the gun control debate. They say, it’s not a gun problem, it’s a mental health issue. They say the problem is that we have all these mentally ill people that are just shooting people. And this is not only in film but also in news and all over the place. If you look at the statistics—yes, instances of gun violence are higher amongst mentally ill people, but if you remove suicide from the equation, it’s actually lower. So mentally ill people are actually more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators of violence.

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