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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 ...

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