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Assessing Donnie Darko
It is director Richard Kelly’s masterpiece Donnie Darko ventures into the incredible yet disturbing 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 certain hallucination that takes the form of a 6-foot-tall rabbit named Frank. After these hallucinations distract him from what could have been fatal, Donnie becomes fixated on Frank’s orders for him and develops an unhealthy obsession with carrying out Frank’s demands. Donnie’s descent into madness, however, is only part of the exciting plot. The presence of these hallucinations is synonymous with the impending collapse of reality, a notion Frank had warned Donnie about during their first meeting. Although Donnie meets regularly with his psychiatrist, Dr. Thurman’s combination of trying to understand the theoretical psychic nature of time travel and dealing with the paranoia associated with schizophrenia is incredibly overwhelming for the teenager and ultimately ends in his symbolic and metaphorical death. Although this cult classic loosely touches on mental health issues, Kelly and Gyllenhaal use the character incredibly well to emanate the serious difficulties of psychotic disorder.
Throughout the film, Donnie displays various schizophrenic tendencies as well as extreme paranoia, an incredibly common trait of most schizophrenics (Halgin, R., & Whitbourne, S., 2014). This irrational belief that puzzles Donnie is present throughout the film; as his dire but imaginative need to save the reality he knows and follow Frank’s orders evolves into a horrific and controlling delusion. While there isn’t a single explicit scene that fully demonstrates this trait, it’s arguably the film’s most powerful yet overlooked underpinning. Donnie’s motivation behind performing various actions is only terror and desperation, which confirms his extreme paranoia. Against the more hidden elements of Donnie’s psychologically disturbed mind, his vivid hallucinations and delusions are arguably the most clearly expressed and obvious symptom. The plot revolves around his unhealthy relationship with Franko, a figment of his own imagination for a while. An increased reliance on the rabbit manifests itself in Donnie’s conscious stream of thought and causes him to completely lose sight of rationality. Contributing to this separation is his persistent delusion that the world is coming to an end and that only time travel will harmonize the different universes. dr. Thurman attributes this idea to the hypothesis that “Donnie’s aggressive behavior appears to stem from his increased detachment from reality, his inability to deal with forces in the world that he perceives as threatening” (Kelly, 2003). Assessment of dr. Thurman is undoubtedly unquestionable because of the relationship dynamic she and Donnie share. Donnie’s lack of interest in family or friends is a negative symptom of schizophrenia, however, his attachment to the psychiatrist may add to the validity of her statement. A fifth but almost imperceptible characteristic that Donnie acquires is experiencing inappropriate feelings or emotions in a given situation. The most noticeable case of this phenomenon is during a hypnotic therapy session with Dr. Thurman. She starts questioning Donnie about family logistics, and he continuously gives answers that have to do with sex with various classmates. Donnie also has a similar episode as he persistently questions a guest speaker at school and ends up calling the man the antichrist, a potential sign of professional dysfunction. Although comical in the film, these two instances represent another negative symptom of his condition and cannot go unnoticed.
Although the plot and the character that is Donnie Darko is purely fiction, one can still assess how accurately it shows the symptoms of schizophrenia and look for possible deviations. The above-mentioned qualities are very consistently matched with genuine cases of this disorder; however, judging Donnie in the context of the film proved quite difficult. The sci-fi aspects that infiltrate the story clearly influence Donnie’s thoughts and actions in a way that a paranoid schizophrenic or anyone would have to deal with. The notion of time travel and multiple realities clouds accurate judgment only because of the additional circumstances it presents. However, looking at cases that occur in everyday settings that don’t deal with theoretical physics, Donnie embodies a functional schizophrenic. His various symptoms meet the criteria outlined by the DSM-5 to constitute an accurate diagnosis, and it can be assumed that these features have been present for more than a month due to his established relationship with a counselor and frequent mention of medication (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Donnie Darko, although Richard Kelly’s first completed film, is notable for its inability to conclude with a concrete resolution or understanding. The multifaceted nature of the film is incredibly captivating and well-received by various populations. In an interview with Kelly, he briefly discussed his fascination with Donnie’s mental illness and how “Donnie Darko” was inspired by a classmate who was unfortunately addicted to cocaine. He discussed the close relationship between dr. Thurman and Donnie and how this aspect of the film served to continuously provide the main form of Donnie’s treatment: “[Dr. Thurman] he doesn’t think Donnie is crazy. She’s trying to get to the root of his problems through psychology, not drugs, to get him to expose things under the assumption that drugs are making him better when he’s actually getting better, naturally, without drugs” (Kelly, 2003. The film itself depicts teenage struggles with with a deeper twist that will forever leave the audience guessing as to what Kelly’s play really represents.
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. and Whitbourne, S. (2014). The spectrum of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. In Abnormal Psychology: Clinical Perspectives on Psychological Disorders (7th ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: McGraw-Hill.
Kelly, R., & Gyllenhaal, J. (2003). Donnie Darko’s book. London, Queen Square: Faber and Faber.
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