Director Richard Kelly’s masterpiece that is Donnie Darko ventures into the mind-bending yet unnerving side of science fiction as his film depicts a teenage boy’s struggle with schizophrenia. Set in the late 80’s, the movie follows 16-year old Donald “Donnie” Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his unique relationship with a particular hallucination that presents itself in the form of a 6-foot-tall rabbit that goes by the name of Frank. After these hallucinations pull him away from what could have been a fatal accident, Donnie becomes fixated upon Frank’s orders for him and develops an unhealthy obsession with executing Frank’s demands. Donnie’s descent into madness, however, is only a portion of the riveting plot. The presence of these hallucinations are synonymous with the oncoming collapse of reality, a notion Frank warned Donnie of during their first encounter. Although Donnie regularly meets with his psychiatrist, Dr. Thurman, the combination of attempting to understand the theoretical psychics of time travel and dealing with the paranoia associated with schizophrenia is incredibly overwhelming for the teen and ultimately ends in his symbolic and metaphoric death. Although this cult classic loosely touches on mental health issues, Kelly and Gyllenhaal utilized this character incredibly well to emanate the serious hardships of a psychotic disorder.
Throughout the film, Donnie displays a variety of schizophrenic tendencies as well as extreme paranoia, an incredibly common attribute of most schizophrenics (Halgin, R., & Whitbourne, S., 2014). This irrational belief that riddles Donnie is present throughout the entire movie; as his dire yet imaginative need to save the reality he knows and follow Frank’s orders evolves into a horrific and controlling delusion. Though there is not one explicit scene that demonstrates this trait altogether, it is arguably the most powerful yet overlooked undercurrent of the film. Donnie’s motivation behind carrying out various actions is terror and desperation alone, verifying his extreme paranoia. In opposition to the more hidden elements of Donnie’s psychologically disturbed mind, his vivid hallucinations and delusions are arguably the most clearly stated and obvious symptom. The plot revolves around his unhealthy relationship with Frank, a figment of his own imagination for a portion of time. The increased reliance on the rabbit manifests itself in Donnie’s conscious stream of thought 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 time travel alone will align the various universes. Dr. Thurman attributes this notion to the hypothesis that “Donnie’s aggressive behavior seems to stem from his increased detachment from reality, his inability to cope with the forces in the world that he perceives to be threatening” (Kelly, 2003). Dr. Thurman’s assessment is arguably unquestionable due to the relationship dynamics she and Donnie share. Donnie’s lack of interest in family or friends portrays a negative symptom of schizophrenia, however, his attachment to the psychiatrist possibly increases the validity of her statement. A fifth, yet almost unnoticeable characteristic Donnie obtains is experiencing inappropriate feelings or emotions in a given situation. The most detectable instance of this occurrence is during a hypnotic therapy session with Dr. Thurman. She begins to question Donnie about familial logistics and he continuously provides responses pertaining to having sex with various classmates. Donnie also has a similar episode as he persistently questions a guest speaker at school and ultimately calls the man the antichrist, a potential sign of occupational dysfunction. Though comical in the film, these two instances represent another negative symptom of his condition and cannot go unnoted.
Although the plot and character that is Donnie Darko is purely a work of fiction, one can still evaluate how accurately he exhibits the symptoms of schizophrenia and look for possible discrepancies. The aforementioned qualities very consistently align with true cases of this disorder; however, assessing Donnie in the context of the film proves to be quite difficult. The science fiction aspects that infiltrate the storyline clearly influence Donnie’s thoughts and actions in a way a paranoid schizophrenic, or anyone, would ever have to face. The notion of time travel and multiple realities clouds an accurate judgment simply because of the additional circumstances it presents. However, viewing the instances occurring in everyday settings not concerned with theoretical physics, Donnie embodies a functioning schizophrenic. His various symptoms meet the criteria outlined by the DSM-5 to be constituted as an accurate diagnosis and one can assume that these traits have been occurring for over a month long period due to his established relationship with a counselor and frequent mention of medication (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Donnie Darko, though Richard Kelly’s first completed film, is renown for its inability to conclude with a concrete solution or understanding. The multifaceted nature of the movie is incredibly captivating and well received by a variety of populations. In an interview with Kelly, he briefly outlined his fascination with Donnie’s mental illness and how “Donnie Darko” was inspired by a fellow classmate who was unfortunately addicted to cocaine. He discussed Dr. Thurman and Donnie’s close relationship and how this aspect of the movie served to continuously provide the main form of Donnie’s treatment: “[Dr. Thurman] does not think Donnie is crazy. She’s been trying to get to the root of his problems through psychology, not medication, to get him to expose things under the assumption that the medication is making him better when really he is making himself better, naturally, without drugs” (Kelly, 2003). The film itself depicts the struggles of teen years with a deeper twist that will forever leave the audience guessing about what Kelly’s piece truly stands for.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.
Barrymore, D. B. (Producer), & Kelly, J. R. (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, Massachusetts: McGraw-Hill.
Kelly, R., & Gyllenhaal, J. (2003). The Donnie Darko Book. London, Queen Square: Faber and Faber.