Dr. Alex E. Blazer

Department of English

Georgia College & State University

Milledgeville, GA 31061




A Phenomenological Approach to Donnie Darko


Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko (2001), a coming-of-age tale about a psychotic boy who, after being told by a boy in a rabbit suit named Frank (who in reality is Donnie's sister's boyfriend) that the world will end, investigates time travel and sacrifices himself to save his girlfriend, his mother, the world, is a perplexing and paradoxical film with multiple interpretations and many aporias of meaning. In this examination, I first compare the standard different phenomenological ways to regard the film. Second, I pose a new and divergent reading of the filmic world. Third, I compare the feature film and the director's cut in terms of world and world view.

  1. The challenge of analysis derives from the film's unstable ontology: is the world of Donnie Darko (the film) a dream, an hallucination, reality, or merely one reality among multiple universes? Does Donnie Darko (the character) sleep, delude, wake, or imagine? Examining the film from a comparative phenomenological perspective allows us first and foremost to clarify the underlying relationship between Donnie and the world and in so doing illuminate the psycho-existential meaning of Donnie's death: if one reads the film as science fiction, then Donnie dies a singular hero confronting the world; if as psychosis, then a confused suicide who could not take the world anymore. The tension between these opposing frames gives the film its tragic meaning: Donnie becomes a character who encounters the cruel and overwhelming world and decides to sacrifice himself in order to save his loved ones from that world.
  2. However, there exists another way to read the filmic reality: as Frank's imaginative revery, his work of art that seeks to understand the seemingly meaningless suicide of his girlfriend Elizabeth's brother, Donnie Darko. The artist encounters death and his work of art exists as a means to comprehend and to explain, to find meaning in and to give purpose to death which may exist with or without meaning because death by its nature exists beyond the limits of our experiential knowledge.
  3. While the feature film affords multiple ontological foundations and, consequently, rich analytical opportunity, the director's cut sacrifices the delusional possibility for a divine, metaphysical mandate: Donnie is not psychotic; instead he is solely and singularly a hero who must save the world from collapsing parallel universes. Ambiguity gives way to certainty and certitude usurps doubt. Whereas the feature film allows us to view Donnie Darko as a tragic existential hero traversing the absurd world and tarrying with the limits of experience, the director's cut compels us to see him as a scifi messiah with a mandate to save the world with his resplendent sacrifice. The human being's, the character Donnie Darko's, existence is reduced to essence and the work of art, the film Donnie Darko, is devalued to ideological propaganda.

This abstract summarizes my presentation, "A Phenomenological Approach to Donnie Darko," South Central Modern Language Association Convention, Memphis, TN, November 3, 2007, subsequently revised and published in Film-Philosophy Journal 19 (2015): 208-20. Web. 22 Dec. 2015.