“Destruction is a form of creation”
Donnie Darko is a film that is rife with violent acts, either committed by the titular protagonist or enacted on him. Donnie is a teenager who wakes up in an alternative timeline (a Tangent Universe) with a prophecy that the world will end in 28 days when the Tangent Universe collapses. In struggling with the reality that he must sacrifice his life if he is to save humanity and restore our stable timeline, Donnie commits a series of violent crimes against conservative establishments.
In-universe, multiple references are also made to the short story The Destructors by Graham Greene, which also features the theme of violence: in it, a gang of children completely destroy a beautiful old manor that is the sole survivor of the Blitz Krieg bombing. General consensus concludes a clear theme of the duality of destruction and construction in the Destructors. Donnie himself even analyzes the short story in the film saying, “Destruction is a form of creation… [The children want] to change things”, interpreting the physical violence the children in the Destructors exhibit towards the house as symbolic of the violent tearing-down of pre-War class values by the bombs to establish class equality.
Donnie Darko seems to incorporate the Destructors deliberately, as watching the film through the context of the Destructors hints at some deeper thematic connection to the short story beyond narrative similarities, particularly its theme of the duality of destruction and creation. Interestingly, it seems that the Destructors also contains eschatological undertones if viewed through the lens of Donnie Darko, a film that practically begs it audience to view it eschatologically: the old materialistic world must be obliterated to create a New World Order.
This strong eschatological and thematic interaction remains unexplored in the film and the short story. By examining the depiction of violence by adolescents, the author posits that Donnie Darko and the Destructors both embed pre-millennial attitudes in its portrayal of destructive violence by the youth against establishments as the creation of a New World Order.
The Obsolete Old World
“I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”
The worlds in which each text takes place in are depicted as ones where traditional values are redundant, and adult-run establishments are portrayed as deeply flawed, bloated and superfluous.
In the Destructors, this establishment is the British upper class and its pre-War values. They are written as obsessed with material wealth to the point where it is ridiculous: Old Misery, the old man who owns the house which the gang destroy, is eager to keep his ostentatious property as a public display of his wealth and status but is “too mean to spend money” to fix even the basic plumbing. This stark contrast between the value upper class British in the Destructors attribute to their objects and traditions and their lack thereof in the post-War world is of importance. The dichotomy of pre-War Britain, when the upper class oppressed the lower class via wealth and status, and her drastically different post-War situation, when the bombs (and later the children) destroy their wealth and level the playing field for all classes, exposes the emptiness and backwards nature of traditional Britain.
Meanwhile, in Donnie Darko, the adults are depicted as parading not material façades on the basis of superiority, but moral ones. Like the Destructors, the values brandished by adults are also corrupt and obsolete, which in the film are conservative religious establishments (represented by Cunningham) and conservative white suburbia (represented by Mrs. Farmer).
Motivational speaker Jim Cunningham (a stand-in for conservative religious establishments) boasts that he has discovered the solution for all human failings with his oversimplified “lifeline” theory: that all human actions stem from either love or fear. After giving some of his trademarked feel-good advice in a school assembly, Donnie boldly confronts Cunningham for his superficial and impractical lessons, he alone being able to identify that this highly reductive philosophy “[ignores] the whole spectrum of human emotions”. Through Cunningham Donnie Darko points out the trappings of conservative religious America: the inclination of the adults to reduce everything to hard binaries, good and evil, right and wrong, is a naive and unrealistic way to view the world. Donnie’s accusing Cunningham of being “the fucking Anti-Christ” should ring apocalyptic alarm bells to viewers: his popular philosophy is little more than false teachings.
Mrs. Farmer, both a teacher at Donnie’s school and a concerned parent of a student, echoes this portrayal of Cunningham, but for a different target. After the flooding of the school she blames Donnie’s literature class book, the Destructors (the very same), as a direct instigator of the attack. She too is depicted as a caricature: a white middle class mother deriding subversive literature as “pornography” and declaring during a PTA meeting that the book be banned from study. She is more concerned with sheltering her children from the socially unacceptable than exposing them to new ideas. Donnie Darko hence presents a parody of white suburbia: threatened by the subtleties of the modern world and its new subversive movements. It admonishes conservative white suburbia for its irrational cognitive biases in its inability to accept anything outside the strictly orthodox, which it fallaciously associates with morality, and the radical, which it wrongly associated with immorality.
Reconciling both texts, the eschatological connection is that these worldly adult-run establishments are so decrepit that they are completely incompatible with the enlightened new age envisioned by our adolescent protagonists, and must be discarded.
Violence as a Means of Destroying the Old World
“And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet… these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone.”
In each of the texts, the destruction of the old world by the adolescents is necessary to bring about the birth of the new one, which must come about swiftly and violently.
In the Destructors, such violence comes about in two phases. At first, the Blitz destroys much of the British town in the short story. Such violence is indiscriminate and both rich and poor are affected, but especially affect the rich. This is symbolic of the violent and sudden destruction of pre-War values: the post-War Britain that emerges is violently shaken by the trauma of the war as the class divide in Britain has been broken by the Blitz.
The second phase manifests as the violence exhibited by the gang in tearing down Old Misery’s house, the last vestiges of the old Britain. The children smash and break everything in the house, until there is “nothing there, no staircase, no panels, nothing but just walls” before finally reducing the façade into a pile of rubble. The children’s extreme violent actions are motivated by higher ideals: the youths realize that the house is the final remnants of pre-War values in their town, and must therefore completely destroy it beyond repair. This implies that the pre-War values have been violently terminated, because the final physical vestiges of the British upper class have been thoroughly eliminated in their small town, with no hope of recovery.
Much like the Destructors, Donnie Darko also depicts violence as physical destruction of property by an adolescent protagonist to suggest that traditional conservative systems must be obliterated.
In one instance, Donnie burns Cunningham’s expensive mansion “to the ground”. Later, when the fire brigade investigates, they discover that Cunningham has been secretly been running a child porn ring, and expose his hypocrisy to the world, who is then shamed by society and subsequently tried for his crimes. We can see the symbol of fire both eschatologically and in Donnie Darko as a force of righteous anger. In Donnie Darko, fire is portrayed as poetic justice: Cunningham’s false image as a sanctimonious preacher and his unscrupulously earned wealth are destroyed in a purge of fire. Just like how the hypocritical Anti-Christ is exposed and then punished after he is tossed into the flames of hell for his sins, the hypocritical “Anti-Christ” Cunningham is exposed and subsequently left impoverished by the fire and judged for his transgressions. Donnie Darko is disillusioned towards the moral bankruptcy of conservative religious institutions, either towards their cynical greed or their moral deceit, and proposes that they are too steeped in corruption for modern society and must instead be destroyed.
In another instance, Donnie breaks a water pipe in the school, completely flooding it, and somehow plunges an axe into the head of the solid bronze school mascot. Donnie’s acts of violence can be interpreted as acts of political rebellion against the establishments run by adults. Evidence for what warrants such extreme rebellion can be see plainly from Donnie’s backwards school, where Cunningham’s teachings are taught as part of the curriculum, his physics teacher is not allowed to speak about God for fear of getting fired, and a controversial book is censored. When Donnie destroys the water pipe in the school, he is actually mimicking breaking in and destruction of a water pipe in the Destructors, hinting that Donnie is also acting out of a higher purpose. His supernatural axing of the school mascot is also suggestive of divine retribution: the miraculous destruction of the symbol of the school thus becomes not a random act of vandalism, but rather one guided by a righteous anger against the deeply flawed conservative educational system.
Throughout both texts, the adolescent protagonist commits serious acts of violence against adult-run establishments. Their extreme destruction of the traditional is depicted as a violent revolution against the injustices of the old world, motivated by transcendent ideals, which is related to the eschatological purge of the old world by fire and brimstone by God.
Creation of the New World
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth”, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away”
Each text extols the ideology that “destruction is a form of creation”. With the old world destroyed, the adolescents can ultimately shape a New World Order, one that is morally purer than the old world.
Initially, the reader believes the children in the Destructors are destroying the house out of Schadenfreude, but upon closer inspection, the children are driven by a passion akin to that of artists. Paradoxically, the house is described as being “carefully demolished”, the children work at their task “with the seriousness of creators”. This amusing juxtaposition is established by how unusually organized they work at breaking everything in the house, from gathering tools and methodically planning, to breaking briefly for lunch before working non-stop, as such, the reader cannot help but imagine them as construction workers. Through the association of the destruction by the children with that of creation, the Destructors is conveying the creation of class equality in post-War Britain via the destruction wrought by the War.
To save the Primary Universe, Donnie must be fatally crushed by a jet engine. The violent death of our protagonist, as well as the obliteration of the Tangent Universe, are depicted as necessary for the restoration of the stable Primary Universe. The reversal of time is not, however, merely a return to the status quo: the people who were touched by Donnie, including antagonists Cunningham and Mrs. Farmer, wake up with memories of the Tangent Universe and begin to weep. This jarring emotional reaction persuades the audience that they sincerely repent their actions in the Tangent Universe, and it is implied that they are redeemed and will cease to repeat their mistakes in the Primary Universe. This echoes the eschatological theme of destruction as a form of creation: the Tangent Universe, and Donnie, must be destroyed in order to reinstate the stable Primary Universe without the amorality of the antagonists and the respective institutions that they represent.
To summarize, both texts delineate a pre-millennial narrative, in which the old world must be destroyed to bring about the creation of a New World Order, with both depicting redundant traditional establishments violently demolished by adolescents who represent the new world that emerges from its ashes.
Feldmann, H. (1982). The idea of history in Graham Greene’s The Destructors. Studies in Short Fiction, 19(3): 241.
Greene, G. (1954). The destructors. Twenty-one Stories. London: Heinemann.
Kelly, R. (2001). Donnie Darko [Motion picture]. Los Angeles: Adam Fields Productions.
Trainer, A. (2004). They made me do it: The mad world of Donnie Darko. Screen Education (37), 138-142.