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Thomas Hibbs

Donnie and the Bunnyman

Why Donnie Darko is a favorite film on college campuses.

Originally released in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Donnie Darko sank like a stone. That was not a propitious moment for a movie in which a jet engine comes crashing through a suburban house. But DVD gave the film new life—so much so that it enjoyed a limited theatrical re-release in 2004 in a director's cut, now available on DVD as well. The film is particularly popular among college students. Like The Matrix trilogy, another campus favorite, Darko taps into the common adolescent experience of the falsity, the inauthenticity, of the external world. Unlike The Matrix, however, Darko maintains a certain ironic distance from its protagonist.

The film starts and culminates in Donnie's house with a jet engine dropping directly into his bedroom. But the result is not a standard flashback, ending exactly where it began. For example, Donnie's location is different in the two crash scenes. Donnie's fascination with time travel suggests an explanation for the altered ending. And the possibility of time travel turns out to be a clever way of posing the issue of divine determinism and human freedom.

It is a common-sense assumption that the past cannot be altered, that it cannot be other than what it now is. But common sense also supposes that it might have or could have been other than what it became. If time travel is possible, then perhaps the entire flow of time is radically contingent, open to human or divine intervention. The more seriously the movie takes its metaphysics—as it sadly does in the additional, explanatory footage inserted into the director's cut—the more it invites dismissal as philosophical and scientific gibberish. When it touches more lightly on these themes, as in the original release, fertile ethical and theological issues emerge.

Like many adolescent heroes, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a confused quester. He is on some sort of medication, has regular visits with a psychiatrist, sleepwalks, has dim memories of being involved in destructive acts, begins dating the new girl at school (Jena Malone as Gretchen Ross), and develops an interest in the physics and metaphysics of time travel. But in the midst of all this, he enjoys regular visits from a giant, ominous-looking bunny, who commands Donnie to perform acts of mayhem and repeatedly warns him about the end of the world. A dateline and clock appear at various intervals in the film to mark how much time is left before the apocalypse.

The most direct attempts by characters in the film to speak to Donnie's angst and confusion do not prove fruitful. A local self-help guru, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), encourages students to "face their ego reflection" and overcome fear with love. In an entertaining send-up of the self-esteem movement, Cunningham sees lack of self-love as the cause of every teen vice from drugs to premarital sex. And teen vices are often on display in Darko. During one of his hypnotic encounters with the Bunnyman, Donnie receives the command, "burn it to the ground." We then see footage of the charred remains of Cunningham's home and of Cunningham being arrested for what police call a "kiddie porn dungeon." This is a searing indictment of therapeutic moralism.

A potentially more fruitful adult source of wisdom is found in the teacher, Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle of ER fame), who introduces Donnie to the topic of time travel and provides him with a book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, written by a local oddball. But when questions about determinism and human freedom take an explicitly theological turn, the teacher states abruptly that he "can't continue the conversation" because he "could get fired."

As is typical of teen films, Donnie Darko depicts adults as mostly oppressive, myopic, and void of imagination or sympathy. What is unusual in the film is the way it depicts adult culture as an obstacle not principally to the hedonistic impulses of youth but rather to the pursuit of important questions about the purpose of human life. In this context, the film's use of Graham Greene's short story, "The Destructors," is interesting. Before she is removed for her supposedly subversive curriculum, Donnie's English teacher, Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), leads a discussion of Greene's story, which deals with a group of boys who decide on a whim to destroy the neighborhood house of a man called Old Misery. Pomeroy asks the students, "Why did the children break into Old Misery's house?" After one unprepared student suggests a conventional motive, theft, Pomeroy reminds the class that the boys in the story found Old Misery's money and burnt it. Opening a more promising line of interpretation, Donnie quotes the crucial line from the story, "destruction is a form of creation." He comments that the boys "wanted to see what happens when you tear the world apart." The suggestion here is that—bereft of direction or models of compelling beauty and sacrifice—aimless, adolescent longing will turn to destruction. One of the lessons of a film such as Darko is that facile self-help transcendence is as likely to breed reactionary nihilism in some children as it is to produce compliant souls in others.

In Greene's story, when one of the boys asks their leader whether he hates Old Misery, the leader responds, "There'd be no fun if I hated him." A jaded nihilist before his time, the leader concludes, "All this hate and love, it's soft, it's hooey. There's only things."

Are there only things? Or are hate and love real? These are the questions Donnie asks in a variety of ways, in word and deed. Interestingly Darko suggests that therapy need not of necessity degenerate into coddling self-help. Donnie's official therapy sessions, with an observant female doctor, turn repeatedly to fundamentals. "There is no God if everyone dies alone," Donnie says at one point; gradually, he learns to re-frame the question whether everyone dies alone in the form of another question, whether anyone can die for anyone else.

During her first conversation with Donnie, Gretchen, the new girl in town, asks, "What kind of a name is Donnie Darko anyway? It sounds like the name of a superhero." Donnie responds, "Who says I'm not?" Donnie is no Spider-Man, but he is a dark knight of sorts, engaged in a spiritual battle at the intersection of pop culture, pop physics, and pop theology. Donnie Darko will not take its fans very far in the direction of resolving, or even adequately formulating, the big questions (Greene's fiction would be a better place to begin), but its popularity is a sign that today's youth are hungry for something more than the superficially flattering portrait of sophisticated, jaded, and self-satisfied teens routinely provided by Hollywood.

Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. He is completing a book on American noir.

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