“They Made Me Do It”: The effect of environment on decision-making in Donnie Darko
By Megan Hess
Donnie Darko is a story about many things. Topics covered in the film include mental illness, suburban adolescence, young love, and giant rabbits. However, before anything else, it is a story about choices. The decisions required of Donnie Darko, the film’s eponymous protagonist, are not the simple ones of his peers like which breakfast cereal to have in the morning, or even which college to attend (which is certainly bigger than breakfast cereal, but not quite as monumental as those in the film). Even when Donnie does need to pick between two minor things, the outcome has major effects. His choices are more on par with those of another science-fiction film protagonist: Neo, from The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999). In fact, if Donnie were in the world of the Matrix, with Morpheus offering up two life-changing polar opposites, his decision would align with Neo’s choice. He’d choose the red pill. Donnie’s reason for picking red over blue goes beyond his being a ‘rebellious’ teenager. His history of juvenile delinquency combined with his mental illness causes him to have a different outlook on life – one more suited to adventure and risk-taking.
However, not all of Donnie’s fellow Middlesex residents would make this choice. Some, like Kitty Farmer and Jim Cunningham, would prefer to keep things as they are - as they have always been - and to not make waves. These folks would take the blue pill. While these discrepancies could certainly be attributed to personality, or individual preference, my argument in this paper is that they are a result of the film’s suburban landscape.
Before the sci-fi elements of Donnie Darko are revealed - after at least ten minutes of expository footage - it familiarizes viewers with its small-town setting. Kelly had several reasons for choosing this environment for his first film. Besides drawing from his own upbringing in Richmond, Virginia, suburbia has been present in popular culture ever since its postwar construction, particularly in the horror and science fiction genres, where notable examples include Santa Mira, California (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956) , Stepford, Connecticut (The Stepford Wives, 1975) and Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine (‘Salem’s Lot, 1979, 2004).Donnie Darko is much like these fictional villages and its other contemporaries in small-scale suburban sci-fi, except for the Middlesex community which seems impervious to the totalized perfection usually seen in prior media depictions of similar neighborhoods. In almost any other fictional development, Donnie, along with his entire family, would be ostracized due to his criminal record and paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis. However, when not with Gretchen, Donnie is often accompanied by his two buddies, Sean and Ronald. His younger sister Samantha is a part of the esteemed dance team “Sparkle Motion” where Kitty Farmer has even made her head dancer, despite her skepticism over Rose’s “commitment” (Kelly 81). Finally, when the older Darko children decide to throw a celebratory party (the occasion being Elizabeth’s acceptance to Harvard) while their parents are out of town, their peers are happy to show up, unconcerned about reputational ruination. There is no explanation given for why the town chooses to accept the Darko family, and not view them as outcasts. Puzzling enough on its own, it becomes even more confounding when considering the way that, at times, Middlesex still retains the typical suburban groupthink mentality. The biggest example of this is the general brainwashing at the hands of Jim Cunningham.
At the film’s beginning, Frank seems like the antagonist with his demonic lapin visage and eerie prophecy of apocalypse: “28 days, six hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. That is when the world will end.” (King 45). Then a much more physically appealing villain arrives on the scene. Jim Cunningham and Dr. Fisher, the father of Donnie’s friend Ronald, discover Donnie on the golf course after his somnambulistic encounter with Frank (Kelly 11). First-time viewers may not connect this semi-insignificant moment with Cunningham’s subsequent appearances, first in the “Controlling Fear” VHS played by Mrs. Farmer (his ultimate convert) during health class, and later as the featured presenter at a schoolwide assembly. Cunningham does not even recognize Donnie when he stands up to challenge his advice to the students (Kelly 63). Much of the town is enamored with Cunningham and manipulated by his good looks and charismatic demeanor - therefore prevented from making their own decisions about him. Just as Ike Mazzard’s celebrity status blocks any suspicion Joanna Eberhart may have about him choosing to draw her in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Cunningham’s role as a local celebrity and the profession which brought on his notoriety protect him from any doubts about his character. Unlike so many of his neighbors, Donnie refuses to be fooled. In doing so, he chooses to look past his admirable surface qualities and sees the evil beneath. He turns out to have been correct about Cunningham’s true nature all along; after Frank appears at a screening of Evil Dead, shows him Cunningham’s home, and orders that Donnie “burn it to the ground” (Kelly 70), Cunningham’s stockpile of child pornography is discovered by the firefighters who arrived to put out the inferno. Despite this shocking revelation, Kitty Farmer’s devotion to Jim stays steady through the media firestorm. She chooses to ignore the truth and call it lies, even going as far as to forego accompanying Sparkle Motion on their trip to California, sending Mrs. Darko in her place. While Donnie’s reversal of past events erases the fire and Cunningham’s outing as a child pornography manufacturer, it is to be assumed that Mrs. Farmer will be loyal to Cunningham until he is taken from the community and put behind bars, both of them upholding a long-standing suburban tradition of keeping secrets hidden.
Despite being more immersed in the Middlesex Ridge school environment than her peers due to her teaching position there, Kitty Farmer seems surprisingly out-of-touch with the real problems at the school. During a PTA meeting designed to discuss the efforts of the criminal investigation, Kitty monopolizes the event with hysterical allegations about the supposed danger of the text being read in Ms. Pomeroy’s English class: Graham Greene’s The Destructors. While her concerns could be construed as relevant considering that the story’s fictional children broke through a water main to destroy a house, just as someone smashed through the water main at the Middlesex Ridge school. Kitty is therefore assuming that the culprit got his or her inspiration for the crime from this work of literature. However, the actions of one student should not be a reason to trash a segment of an already-established curriculum. As Rose points out, this is not even the true purpose of the PTA. Kitty is just using her considerable influence to distract from the real issue at hand, since she cannot cover it up.
I believe that Middlesex Ridge School has more problems that need to be dealt with than just apprehending the individual behind the flooding of the school. Gretchen, Donnie, and Cherita all experience regular bullying. Gretchen is even sexually harassed by Seth Devlin and his pal Ricky. While some of these instances happen off of school grounds, there are just as many that happen in the building, and the only teacher who speaks out is Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff. Does Kitty want to pretend all of this bullying never occurred because of who the victims were, or because they taint the pristine picture she holds of her workplace? Or is it both?
Another reason for the differing choices between these different camps of characters could be their own political affiliation. The majority of the denizens of Middlesex will be casting Republican ballots at the upcoming election, including Donnie’s own parents. Love of tradition, censorship, and cover-ups are traits often associated with the GOP, especially in the Far Right. I would definitely say that Kitty Farmer could be considered a radical Republican (or just a general radical). Conversely, while the political leanings of characters like Dr. Lilian Thurman, Karen Pomeroy, and Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff - people outside of the Middlesex bubble - are never explicitly revealed, it is assumed that they are more liberal based on their beliefs and actions. Kelly is deliberate about pitting the liberals and conservatives against each other, and equally much so about showing Middlesex as a sheltered breeding ground for conservatism, while the outside world is less so. In Donnie Darko, he continues the tradition of rural and suburban areas to be more conservative in their politics, while urban areas often have higher percentages of Democrats in their residences.
The physical location and political party a person was raised in impacts their upbringing to a degree. However, just because someone was raised as a Republican in Kansas - or a Democrat in Seattle – does not mean they have to stay in that place, or keep that political affiliation. Elizabeth Darko breaks away from both with her declaration promising her vote to Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis and subsequent acceptance to Harvard. Donnie is not old enough to vote or leave home at the time of his death, but, if he had lived, I believe he would have followed the same path, escaping Middlesex’s stagnant suburbanism and going on to a place more suited to him.
Kelly, Richard. The Donnie Darko Book. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2003. Print.
King, Geoff. Donnie Darko.London:Wallflower Press, 2007. Print.