4/8/12 – Image of the Skull in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko 2001
Yesterday I decided to watch Donnie Darko for the first time, which is quite a thought-provoking film. Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001) features outstanding visual and audio effects, which engages with the audience from the very beginning of the film right to the end.
The image of the skull often appears throughout the duration of the film, which may have been used to symbolise death or ‘mortality’. According to Charles Derry Donnie Darko is a “horror – science fiction film”, which features a confused or a troubled teenage boy who begins to converse with a dark, grotesque rabbit. (Derry, 2009 p.314)
Darko’s delusional and compulsive behaviour is reinforced by the rabbit, which results in random acts of violence. The film reinvigorate moments in time and space through the use of slow motion, which intensifies the visual sound effects. Darko’s investigation into time travelling also delivers a very unexpected twist towards the end of the film, which finally reveals the actual meaning in the narrative.
There are images or drawings, which refer to the image of the skull although their actual significance within the film is unspecified. A well rendered image of the eye for instance, which appears towards the end of the film may imply one’s ability to predict or apprehend their own death. Perhaps the pupil of the eye symbolises mortality, which may encourage the viewer to question the meaning of life and death. According to Charles Derry the drawing is rendered by an artist also known as MC Escher, although the skull may emphasise the connection or the relationship between Donnie Darko and the rabbit. (Derry 2009 p.134)
Mikhail Epstein, Aleksandr Genis & Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover explain that M.C Escher’s Eye, which was produced in 1946. Escher’s Eye symbolises death through the image of the skull, which may provoke an uneasy response from the viewer who begin to gaze into the pupil. (Epstein, Genis & Glover 1997 p.65) Throughout the entire film, the image of the skull may symbolise Darko’s own interpretations of death, which begin to change towards the final sequence of the film.
The rabbit also features similarities to the image of the skull through the shape of the eye sockets or the jaw line, which is intensified through the lighting, the angle of the camera and the monochromatic undertones. The rabbit also creates a dark and an unsettling atmosphere, which intensifies the dialogue between Donnie Darko and his recent acquaintance.
Towards the final sequence the Darko household decides to throw a Halloween party, although the camera angle does highlight small plastic skulls that are used for decorations. Donnie also wears a skeletal costume during the party, which almost appears similar to an x-ray scan that also distorts the character’s physique. The film may feature a reference to Popular culture through the costumes and the props within the film, which may emphasise materiality or the importance of consumer goods.
Charles Derry quotes “Donnie Darko is also filled with postmodern references to other films or works of horror: to Stephan King, to Halloween, to Frightmare, to the Evil Dead, to Pretty Poison to Jimmy Stewart comedy Harvey, and to the Last Temptation of Christ” (Derry 2009 p.314)
There is another part within the film, which refers to death through the interaction between Roberta Swallow and Donnie Darko. Roberta Swallow is an old lady who regularly walks to and from the letter box everyday, although she whispers to Darko “Every living creature dies alone”. (Donnie Darko, 2001)
Darko is perturbed by the woman’s comment and he begins to recall a personal experience from the past, which Darko begins to discuss with his therapist. One could argue that the lady’s comment is very subjective and it’s quite difficult to determine whether living beings do die alone. The film features a very strong reference to death, which is evident throughout the entire narrative. Kelly’s Donnie Darko is a highly influential film, which questions the relationship between time and memory, life and death.
Richard Kelly. “Donnie Darko.” 113 Minutes. California: Santa Clarita, 2001
Derry, Charles. Dark Dreams 2.0: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film from The North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., Publishers, 2009 p.313 – 314
Epstein, Mikhail, Genis, Aleksandr & Glove, Slobodanka.V, Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives of Post Soviet Culture (USA, Berghahn Books, 1999) p.65