Re-Reading Donnie Darko: A Myth of Student Deconstruction

Raph here.

As I was reading Appleman’s chapter on Deconstruction, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a film I’m sure some of us are familiar with, Donnie Darko. For those of you who may not know the film, it’s centers on the titular character who is a very astute highschool student at what can be presumed to be a catholic school in the 1980’s. Now, here’s where I will lose most of you: Donnie (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled teen who experiences strange hallucinations of a man-sized rabbit named Frank. One night, Frank calls to Donnie and sleepwalks to meet him at a golf course. Frank reveals that the world will end in 20-some-odd-days and that Donnie is the only person who can prevent this from happening. When Donnie returns to his house in the morning, he finds that a jet engine from an airplane crash landed on his bed in the night, much to the shock of the family and everyone in the town since there was no plane crash. The rest of the film deals with Donnie challenging the constructs around him (social and psychological), trying to figure out where the engine came from and what purpose it has in his life.

So, for the most part, that is the main plot. As for the story’s connection to Appleman’s take on deconstruction and it’s connotations, well, here it goes: Appleman states early in chapter six that “deconstruction invites us to unravel the constructs that surround us and to re-examine the relationship between appearance and reality” (p 100). She states that many people misunderstand it and often relate it to destruction. In one scene, Donnie is in English class discussing a short story by Graham Greene with his classmates and teacher (played by an always terrible Drew Barrymore) and he states that, “Destruction is a form of creation.” This goes hand in hand with what Appleman says. Deconstructing can “reveal how a text unravels” (p 101). The act of putting it back together “will yield multiple meanings” (p 102).

As Donnie begins to realize that he should be dead (from being crushed by a jet engine), he questions why Frank saved him and wonders if he really can save the world. Frank then begins to appear more frequently, pointing out to Donnie things about the world around him that he should analyze, or deconstruct in a sense (the social constructs of his school, the words of a false prophet played expertly by Patrick Swayze, believe it or not). Essentially, the jet engine is an artifact, a text, that Donnie must place under close scrutiny. It forces him to ask questions similar to those that Appleman asks in her chapter; Who made this? in context to what?

Ultimately, by deconstructing these things, Donnie becomes open to what Appleman calls “new dimensions of meaning” and he is offered “a way of resisting the authority” of institutions that Frank points out as catalysts for the end of the world . I don’t want to ruin the ending for any of you who might not have seen Donnie Darko, so I won’t go into where the jet engine comes from and what powers Donnie possesses, but I will say that the community around him is aware of how important his role is in saving them all from the end of the world, and he takes from them what they offer. He is the epitome of a multi-literate youth who reads the world and multiple discourses around him (through his teachers, family, friends, etc.) and finds his own meaning. He is exactly what Appleman and many of us would hope for in a student, one who will change things.

So there’s my little rant on how Appleman’s chapter on deconstruction made me see a favorite film of mine under a whole new light. It’s really cool because I would have never approached Donnie Darko this way when I first saw it 6 years ago. The film has a whole new meaning to me now. For those of you who have seen it, let me know what you think. And for those of you who haven’t I highly recommend it. It’s bizarre, but it is ripe for discussion on multiple levels. I would also ask if you think it would be a good film to show highschool students.




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2 responses to “Re-Reading Donnie Darko: A Myth of Student Deconstruction

  1. sunyprof

    Raph, your analysis shows how flexible theory can be in helping us read texts in new ways. For those of you who may not know DONNIE DARKO (and who could that be?) watch the YouTube trailer. KES

    P.S. But I find it disturbing that you don’t think D. Barrymore turns in one of her finer performances!

  2. rayhedrick

    I really like your analysis, Raph. I found this to be very helpful in general, as I am not usually fond of Deconstruction. Now, although, I see a way that this can help us read “texts” in new ways.

    I, too, really enjoyed Donnie Darko.

    Thanks for the helpful post.

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