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Revisiting Patrick Swayze's eccentric performance in 'Donnie Darko'

Capturing the angst and jarring fear of technological evolution better than any other film of the early 21st century, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko is a generational classic, telling the story of adolescent angst amidst a science-fiction context. 

Set during Halloween in 1988, Kelly’s film follows a deeply troubled teenager named Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) who escapes a life-threatening accident thanks to Frank, a strange figure in a rabbit costume who warns Donnie that the world will imminently end. Setting out to write something personal about the peculiar decade of the 1980s which “pushed the envelope by combining science fiction with a coming-of-age tale,” according to Kelly’s interview with the LA Times. The filmmaker certainly succeeds, creating a surreal ode to the confusion of an American nation post-Vietnam. 

Deconstructing concepts of selflessness and sacrifice all whilst in the realm of sci-fi time travel, Kelly helped to cement the concept of the film with the influential director Francis Ford Coppola, meeting with the director on several occasions. Coppola helped to shape Kelly’s final film, drawing attention to one of the lines of Drew Barrymore’s character, Karen, in the film: “The kids have to figure it all out these days, because the parents, they don’t have a clue”. Richard Kelly recalls in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, “He slid the binder down the big table and very dramatically said: ‘That’s what your whole movie’s about right there'”.

The connotations of this line are well demonstrated in one particular scene in which a motivational speaker comes to Donnie’s school and condescendingly solves each and every one of their life problems. Smarmy and arrogant, this speaker is played perfectly by Patrick Swayze in a surprising role for the actor that is albeit perfect for his skill set. Frosting his hair specifically for the role, Swayze totally embraces his egotistical character of Jim Cunningham, appearing as if he’d walked straight off the set of a shopping channel, sporting multiple gold rings and a perfected appearance. 

Delivering empty, ineffectual advice in his speech titled ‘Attitudinal Beliefs’, Cunningham tells a boy searching for career guidance, “Look deep inside of yourself, look deep within your heart and find what it is in the world that makes you feel love, pure unconditional love and go to that”. Soon challenged on these values by the protagonist Donnie who enthusiastically approaches the microphone and asks: “How much did they pay you to be here?” – Cunningham gives a bitter response and makes an example of the boys innate fear. 

“This boy is scared to death of the truth. Son, it breaks my heart to say this, but I believe you’re a very troubled, confused young man, I believe you’re searching for the answers in all the wrong places,” Cunningham concludes. As we discover later in the film, however, these words are merely waffled in vain as Patrick Swayze’s character is later arrested for being in possession of child pornography, making much of his words of advice entirely redundant. 

As Francis Ford Coppola rightly observed, “The kids have to figure it all out these days, because the parents, they don’t have a clue”.