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Evaluating Donnie Darko

Director Richard Kelly’s masterpiece that is donnie darko ventures into the mind-bending but bewildering side of science fiction as his film depicts a teenager’s struggle with schizophrenia. Set in the late ’80s, the film follows 16-year-old Donald “Donnie” Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his unique relationship with a particular hallucination that comes in the form of a 6-foot-tall rabbit who goes by the name of Frank’s name. After these hallucinations lead him away from what could have been a fatal accident, Donnie becomes obsessed with Frank’s orders and develops an unhealthy obsession with carrying out Frank’s demands. Donnie’s descent into madness, however, is only part of the fascinating plot. The presence of these hallucinations is synonymous with the impending collapse of reality, a notion Frank warned Donnie of during their first meeting with him. Although Donnie meets regularly with his psychiatrist, Dr. Thurman, the combination of trying to understand the theoretical psychic of time travel and dealing with the paranoia associated with schizophrenia is incredibly overwhelming for the teenager and ultimately ends in his death. symbolic and metaphorical. Although this cult classic touches vaguely on mental health issues, Kelly and Gyllenhaal used this character incredibly well to emanate the serious difficulties of a psychotic disorder.

Throughout the film, Donnie displays a variety of schizophrenic tendencies, as well as extreme paranoia, an incredibly common attribute in most schizophrenics (Halgin, R. & Whitbourne, S., 2014). This irrational belief that guesses Donnie is present throughout the entire film; as his terrifying but imaginative need to save the reality he knows and follow Frank’s orders turns into a hideous, controlling illusion. Although there is no explicit scene that fully demonstrates this trait, it is arguably the most powerful yet overlooked background in the film. Donnie’s motivation for various actions is solely terror and despair, which verifies his extreme paranoia. As opposed to the more hidden elements of Donnie’s psychologically disturbed mind, his vivid hallucinations and delusions are possibly the clearest and most obvious symptom. The plot revolves around his unhealthy relationship with Frank, a figment of his own imagination for part of the time. The increased trust in the rabbit manifests itself in Donnie’s conscious thought stream and causes him to lose sight of rationality entirely. Contributing to this separation is his perpetual delusion that the world is coming to an end and that only time travel will align the various universes. Dr. Thurman attributes this notion to the hypothesis that “Donnie’s aggressive behavior seems to stem from his greater detachment from reality, his inability to cope with forces in the world that he perceives as threatening” (Kelly, 2003 ). Arguably, Dr. Thurman’s assessment is unquestionable due to the relationship dynamic she and Donnie share. Donnie’s lack of interest in family or friends represents a negative symptom of schizophrenia, however his attachment to the psychiatrist possibly increases the validity of his statement. A fifth, albeit almost imperceptible, characteristic that Donnie gains is experiencing inappropriate feelings or emotions in a given situation. The most detectable instance of this fact is during a hypnotic therapy session with Dr. Thurman. She begins to question Donnie about family logistics and he continually provides answers related to having sex with various classmates. Donnie also has a similar episode when he persistently questions a guest speaker at school and ultimately calls the man the antichrist, a potential sign of occupational dysfunction. Although humorous in the film, these two cases represent another negative symptom of her condition and cannot go unnoticed.

Although Donnie Darko’s plot and character are purely a work of fiction, one can still assess how accurately he exhibits symptoms of schizophrenia and look for possible discrepancies. The aforementioned qualities line up very consistently with actual cases of this disorder; however, evaluating Donnie in the context of the film is quite difficult. The sci-fi aspects that creep into the story clearly influence Donnie’s thoughts and actions in ways that a paranoid schizophrenic, or anyone, would ever have to deal with. The notion of time travel and multiple realities clouds accurate judgment simply because of the additional circumstances it presents. However, seeing cases occurring in everyday settings unrelated to theoretical physics, Donnie embodies a schizophrenic functioning. His various symptoms meet the criteria outlined by the DSM-5 to constitute an accurate diagnosis and it can be assumed that these traits have been occurring for more than a month due to his established relationship with a counselor and frequent mention of medications (American Association Psychiatric, 2013).

Donnie Darko, although it is Richard Kelly’s first full film, is known for his inability to conclude with a concrete solution or understanding. The multifaceted nature of the film is incredibly engaging and well received by a variety of populations. In an interview with Kelly, he briefly described his fascination with Donnie’s mental illness and how “Donnie Darko” was inspired by a classmate who was unfortunately addicted to cocaine. He spoke about the close relationship between Dr. Thurman and Donnie and how this aspect of the film served to continually provide the main form of treatment for Donnie: “[Dr. Thurman] He doesn’t think Donnie is crazy. She has been trying to get to the root of his problems through psychology, not medication, so that he exposes things under the assumption that the medication is making him better when in fact he is making himself better, naturally. No Drugs” (Kelly, 2003). The film itself depicts the struggles of the teenage years with a deeper twist that will forever leave audiences guessing what Kelly’s piece really represents.

Works Cited

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Barrymore, DB (Producer) and Kelly, JR (Director). 2002. Donnie Darko [Motion picture on DVD], (2002). United States: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Halgin, R. & Whitbourne, S. (2014). Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders. In Abnormal Psychology: Clinical Perspectives on Psychological Disorders (7th ed.). Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill.

Kelly, R. & Gyllenhaal, J. (2003). Donnie Darko’s book. London, Queen Square: Faber and Faber.

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