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Analysis of The Film Donnie Darko Referring to Postmodern Theories

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To define postmodernism in a distinctive cinematic style is difficult because of the stigma of postmodernism having a lack of style. Fredric Jameson quintessentially defines it as the economic and social structure we live in becoming progressively more decentralised, rejecting the social norms and modernism. Made up of mixing different filmic styles and genres, postmodernism is about, especially in cinematic instances, the refusal to subvert to the modernist theories and narrative structure that has been the approach of most mainstream films. I will be exploring the different characteristics of postmodernism in this essay such as pastiche, intertextuality, parody and nostalgia through appropriate film examples that will help explain the postmodern theories that supports the definition of a “Postmodern style”.

Pastiche is the homage to past styles of film and can be the mixture of several different genres to create an exclusive unique genre and narrative which if used correctly will create a postmodernist quality to the film. Donnie Darko is a great example of using pastiche as a defining factor for a postmodern style of cinema. Set in 1980s America, the film presents a great amount of intertextual references. Jameson believes that reconstructing the past using stereotypes and pop culture of the time period is a way of using nostalgia in film. Although the high school location is easily familiar to the period, the usage of the 80s pop soundtrack is what effectively triggers the audiences memory and nostalgia to that specific time-period, furthermore also being a teenager and experiencing a similar location. The characters themselves also regularly mention pop culture of the 80s, talking about films such as Halloween, Evil Dead and Back to the Future. There is some intertextual references in Donnie Darko one being Graham Greene’s book The Destructors (1954), the book is used in Donnie’s English class. The book features the main character burning down a house, as does Donnie does, displaying that the book was not an influence to Donnie in the film, but also influenced the director Richard Kelly when he was writing the script. There is also the relation Donnie Darko has to Alice In Wonderland which is the idea that ‘Frank’ Donnie’s twisted psyche is associated with the white rabbit that leads Alice down a rabbit hole, similar to how Frank is leading Donnie down a dark hole.

Moreover, hybridity is seen greatly in Donnie Darko as it shows the characteristics of multiple genre and themes. The use of mixing multiple genre is used so that the audience doesn’t have an idea to what is going to happen, they can’t read the film – like a modernist Hollywood film where it would be easy. The film has a mixture of horror, sci-fi and thriller, merging the dark shadows and eerie locations along with time warping and special effects wormholes it confuses the viewer on what they expect to see, which emphasises the ‘postmodern style’ in the theory that mixing different filmic styles and genres helps make a film postmodern. This combination of diverse genre ideology inspires the audience to become more active in watching, handing them with unpredictable and non-traditional visuals and themes they get confused as to what’s real and what’s fake. “Simulation threatens the difference between true and false, between real and imaginary. Since the simulator produces true symptoms, is he ill or not?”.

Donnie Darko can be classed as a postmodern film, as it implements many postmodern narrative and stylistic techniques. One of these is its rejection of metanarratives. Metanarratives are large, traditional concepts which are enforced on society and shape people’s beliefs. Within the film, Donnie’s town is one which is greatly influenced by law and religion – it ‘represses freedom through its institutions of work, school and family’ with the gym teacher Mrs. Farmer being a devout follower of these ideologies. These concepts and characters who enforce them are portrayed negatively, and Donnie rebels against them for the good of his community. For example, when life coach Jim Cunningham talks to the students about his reductionist beliefs on life, Donnie argues against him and these concepts which are shaped by metanarratives. Later, when Jim’s house is burnt down, it is revealed he has a collection of child pornography, which sheds a negative light upon him and his religious beliefs. Furthermore, Donnie actively looks to science and time travel for answers about life, rather than religion which is enforced upon him by his school and therapist. This rebellion against traditional beliefs shows the films postmodern rejection of metanarratives.

Another postmodern trait included in Donnie Darko is the use of a non-linear narrative. Traditionally, films follow a chronological, linear narrative to present a story, however non-linear or fragmented narratives encourage the audience to be active in their viewing in order to understand the story fully. This is reflected in Donnie Darko through its theme of time travel. The film begins on the 2nd October 1988, and then the story is told over 28 days as it counts down to ‘the end of the world’. At the beginning of the film, an aeroplane engine falls into Donnie’s room, which triggers the series of events that occur throughout. Nearing the end of the film this event reoccurs, however this time Donnie is killed and the countdown resets to the 2nd October 1988. When this happens, the audience must relate all the events that have occurred to the outcome in order to fully understand the film. Initially, the narrative seems linear, however this unexpected ending forces the audience to reconsider their understanding of the film.

Furthermore, Jean Baudrillard postmodern concept of simulations and simulacra is applicable to Donnie Darko. Baudrillard suggests that, whilst simulations are an artificial representation of reality, the simulacrum is a whole new reality of something which has never previously existed; a ‘parallel universe’ as such. This concept can be explained through the use of narrative within Donnie Darko. Initially, the town in the film is presented as a typical American suburb. However, we quickly begin to question reality when surreal occurrences such as wormholes and vortexes begin to happen. Whilst this could suggest a dream state, it may also indicate that the world is a simulation. By the end of the film however, the narrative is seen to reset itself, returning to the date at which the film began. This implies that all the events that unfolded did not actually take place, suggesting that the world and its story existed within a simulacrum.

Postmodern ideas of characterisation, such as multiple or fractured identities, are utilised in Donnie Darko. This concept is most clearly applied to Donnie himself, linking back to the psychoanalytic theory of the ego, superego and id. Donnie can be seen as having multiple identities, because of the inclusion of his ‘imaginary friend’, Frank. When a character has multiple, fragmented identities, they can often feel lost or lack in self-confidence, however they can also find hope for other issues they face. This is apparent in Donnie, as he struggles with his mental health, is rebellious at school and is frequently harassed by the school bullies. He rejects help from his therapist and does not take his medication, suggesting a lack of hope and motivation to improve his mental health or school grades. Frank, however, encourages Donnie to be more rebellious and gives his life a purpose – to expose the corruption within his community and save the lives of his loved ones. He gives him the confidence to talk back to authoritarian figures and find answers in different places such as science and philosophy.

Additionally, the film blurs notions of good and bad. Donnie can be seen as an anti-hero – he argues with authority figures and commits crimes, whilst protecting characters such as Gretchen and Cherita from the school bullies. We the audience struggle to sympathise with Donnie, especially at the beginning of the film. He is portrayed as an angsty teenager, arguing with his family and calling his mother a ‘bitch’. However, as the film goes on, we begin to justify Donnie’s rebellious actions. Characters of authority such as Mrs Farmer and the headmaster, people who are usually seen as enforcers of good, are portrayed as mean and dominating, inflicting their strict views upon the students. Likewise, Jim Cunningham, the life coach hired to give the students a motivational speech, is depicted as ironic and embarrassing, especially as Donnie humiliates him by arguing against his beliefs. Though referring to him as the ‘antichrist’ may come across as unnecessarily offensive, when it is later revealed that Jim is a paedophile, Donnie’s words are justified. The portrayal of particular characters and the events which occur throughout the story portray religion and authority negatively, going against all the traditional beliefs of what is good and what is evil.

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Analysis Of The Film Donnie Darko Referring To Postmodern Theories. (2020, October 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from
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