As Meredith and I discussed in Episode 13 of The Whorer podcast, Donnie Darko (2001)* is very similar to Jacob’s Ladder and arguably better. It’s fair to say that Donnie Darko is more articulate than its predecessor, but does it really succeed in challenging Reaganite values (particularly, if we think about Jacob’s Ladder as reinforcing them)? And because I believe there’s a connection, what’s it ultimately saying about the scientific method and atheism? Let’s explore!
True, as Meredith asserts in our discussion of Jacob’s Ladder, the ideology is not hidden in Donnie Darko. ’80s values are challenged straight on and Donnie believes that life is not as black and white as some people in his community make it out to be. This is why he becomes frustrated with the lifeline card exercise and why he speaks out at the assembly, but doesn’t he ultimately choose between the very two foundations he criticizes – fear and love? He argues that there’s an entire range of human emotions that need to be taken into consideration when making decisions and that they can’t be boiled down into two categories, but in the end it’s the love for his dead girlfriend and his family that drive him to go back in time and overcome his own fear – death (a fear of death explains why he sleepwalks – to avoid it and the impending airplane engine crash). Jacob, too must choose between fear and love. He is afraid to die and this is what’s preventing him from crossing over. Similarly, it is his acceptance of his pending death and his love for his dead son, Gabe, which help him complete his journey.
And what implications does Donnie’s choice to go back in time have (if we believe it is a choice)? At first, it’s easy to view his choice to die as the “correct” course of action. His girlfriend, mom, and younger sister are now theoretically safe from their impending doom since he’s not around to interfere with the course of their lives, but what about everyone else? In what we might consider a plus, Donnie’s English teacher does not lose her job, however, the motivational speaker, Jim Cunningham (a.k.a Mr. Fear and Love himself), is never exposed as a pedophile. Is this ending really subversive? Doesn’t patriarchy win? Without Donnie, these things aren’t questioned. The other students in his English class clearly do not absorb Ms. Pomeroy’s lessons and so with Donnie out of the picture, nothing is in the way to threaten the patriarchal order. This of course also means that Jim Cunningham’s followers aren’t exposed to his hypocrisy and thus never question his motives and teachings.
SO! Even though Donnie initially questions the status quo, in my opinion the character of Frank is clearly there to convince him otherwise (and as Donnie’s [potential] victim, he obviously elicits some sympathy). If he must choose between challenging “the system” and the safety of his loved ones, isn’t that just a way to manipulate him much like Jacob’s dead son is perhaps used by the chiropractor to manipulate him into dying and going to heaven? After all, if Jacob were to live through this psychedelic-drug-experiment-gone-bad, he’s a threat to military power and patriarchy.
Religion More Specifically
As I suggested earlier, Donnie fears death and his sleepwalking is evidence of this. As you continue to watch the movie and learn more about his mental condition or state, I think it’s fair to conclude he’s having a crisis of faith. He’s extremely depressed and things start to seem to make more sense to him after his psychiatrist almost reassuringly points out that he is not an atheist, but an agnostic (presumably because of his encounters with Frank, the giant bunny rabbit). She says, “An Atheist is someone who denies all together the existence of God. You’re an agnostic. An agnostic is someone who believes there can be no proof of the existence of God, but does not deny a possibility that God exists.” Now, ironically, she also diagnoses him as a paranoid schizophrenic, but I think there are other definite religious parallels between the two films.
In our podcast, Meredith proposed that Jacob’s chiropractor can be viewed as an angel and I believe Frank can be viewed as the same, albeit “darker” and with less Judeo-Christian overtones. Both characters are there to help the protagonists navigate through the worlds they’re in. We can also compare the drug researcher in Jacob’s Ladder with Donnie’s psychiatrist. Both help the two characters come to peace with themselves, and arguably their “destinies”.
Donnie Darko also has as much religious influence as Jacob’s Ladder if we take into account that the book Donnie’s reading, The Philosophy of Time Travel, is written by a former nun. At one point, Donnie has a discussion with his science teacher, Professor Monnitoff, about time travel and specifically asks about traveling through “God’s channel”. This is the point that the prof tells Donnie he can no longer continue the conversation. Considering the school is a private school with a likely religious foundation and background, I think the implication is that the teacher is an atheist and fears getting into a religious debate that could cost him his job. For this reason, I feel the film is drawing parallels between the scientific method and atheism, suggesting that the two are synonymous, and I think this is problematic. It also leads me to the conclusion that even though it is not clearly valuing one specific religion over others, it is however still valuing the concept of religion (or maybe more plainly, faith). Belief is what ultimately guides Donnie, and so while I agree with Meredith that this film does confront the subject of atheism in our society, I also feel it discounts it. Notice how the science teacher fails to provide Donnie with the answers he seeks, but Grandma Death, the author of the time travel book, succeeds.
Other Lingering Thoughts
So philosophically debating time travel, alternate realities, altered consciousnesses, and psychedelic drug use is fun, but when comparing the two films I also feel it’s important to point out that there is no drug use involved in Donnie’s experience. We are kind of tricked into thinking that there is since he’s taking pills prescribed by his psychiatrist and hallucinating a giant bunny rabbit, but by the end of the film we are told that his pills are actually placebos. Because of this, I can’t help but draw crazy radical conclusions about the potential medical treatment of Donnie’s so-called mental illness as a way to suppress consciousness and critical reflection. For example, if he wasn’t going to take his pills (which he usually didn’t) then he’d have to be eliminated. And so, as a last resort, religion is used as a tool to do just that…and it works.
Like I mentioned in the podcast rating, Jacob’s Ladder didn’t really impress me even though the concept definitely interests me. I find Donnie Darko so much better both on a formal and ideological level. I really enjoy the way it’s cut, especially with the music that was chosen. Was the mood of the movie not so brilliantly enhanced by the pairings of certain music with certain scenes, I don’t think it would have had quite the same (positive) effect on me. It’s also creepy as fuck and as a horror fan, I of course enjoy that. From an ideological standpoint, I feel it has a lot of potential, but I am somewhat neutral to the ending. I just don’t find it that subversive, but I do appreciate the questions the film raises and explores in regard to the superficiality of the white middle-class / family values kind of American Dream life that dominates our society.
* NOTE: I am working from the director’s cut.