Understanding Donnie Darko

donnie darko movies
Donnie Darko, Gretchen, and Frank in 2001 science fiction film Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko is a 2001 science fiction film written and directed by Richard Kelly and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle, Jena Malone, and Mary McDonnell. The film was screened at selected theatres and grossed just over $7.6 million worldwide. Despite a poor reception at the box office, the film was well received by critics, developed a cult following, and had impressive DVD sales. In fact, Donnie Darko quite commonly appears on ‘best film’ lists and ‘films to see before you die’ lists.

What is both a strength and shortcoming of the film is that it is not easily understood. To really understand the film, with all its philosophical and science fiction content, it has to be watched more than once. For some viewers this may be frustrating, but for many the more times they watch this film the more they enjoy it. Every viewing experience is different and as you continue to pick up on new things, the story is slightly altered. The biggest mistake you can make is to not give the film a chance. It’s a rewarding experience when the role of characters and events become clearer. The best part about the film is that there are no clear–cut right or wrong answers and our different interpretations stimulate great discussion.

Below I will describe some key points upon which I based my interpretation of the film. If you want something to further your understanding of the film, or simply want to compare your own interpretation with mine then read ahead. But be warned, this next part will be full of spoilers.

Summary of Events

Donnie Darko is regarded as a troubled teenager who lives in Middlesex, Virginia. On the night of October 2, 1988, he is woken and lured outside by a giant rabbit called Frank. Frank tells Donnie the world will end in 28 days. Donnie wakes up on the golf course, and when he returns home he finds a mysterious jet engine has crashed into his bedroom.

Over the course of 28 days Donnie has sessions with his psychotherapist Dr. Thurman, begins dating the new girl Gretchen Ross – who has her own troubled past, floods the school and burns down motivational speaker Jim Cunningham’s house while under the influence of Frank, and questions his science teacher over the philosophy of time travel after discovering Roberta Sparrow, nicknamed Grandmother Death by Donnie and his friends, wrote a time travel book that describes his strange experiences. Dr. Thurman comes to the conclusion that Donnie is a paranoid schizophrenic who is experiencing daylight hallucinations.

When Donnie and his sister Elizabeth throw a Halloween party, Donnie realises only a few hours remain before the world will end and takes Gretchen and his friends to seek Roberta Sparrow. They are attacked by school bullies outside her house and when Gretchen is knocked down on the street, she is run over and accidently killed by Elizabeth’s boyfriend Frank – who happens to be wearing the bunny suit as his Halloween costume. Frank steps out of the car to apologise when Donnie shoots him with his father’s gun. A vortex forms in the sky, and in the early morning, as Donnie watches on in the hills, the engine from the airplane carrying his mother and sister detaches and falls into the vortex. Donnie then wakes up to find himself in bed in the early hours of October 2, when the engine crashes into his room and kills him.

The Primary and Tangent Universe

Corruption in the Primary Universe can cause a Tangent Universe to occur. The exact cause of the Tangent Universe in the film is unexplained, however, the first appearance of Frank signals that they have entered the Tangent Universe. Shortly after, the mysterious jet engine crashes into Donnie’s room – another indicator of the Tangent Universe. This alternate reality, created on October 2, is extremely unstable and will only last for 28 days before it collapses. If the Tangent Universe collapses before the Primary Universe can be restored then this may cause a black hole capable of destroying the Primary Universe, and hence ending the world.

Donnie Darko wakes up in the Tangent Universe
Donnie Darko wakes up in the Tangent Universe

The Artefact

The Artefact is a piece of evidence signalling that the Tangent Universe has been created. It is always made of metal and appears from nowhere, with no reason to exist. In Donnie Darko the Artefact is the jet engine. The Tangent Universe, which is usually an exact replica of the Primary Universe, has become unstable because the jet engine is an anomaly – it belongs in one Universe without belonging in the other. To restore the Primary Universe, the jet engine must be guided out of the Tangent Universe and into the Primary Universe through a time portal so that the Artefact has a reason to exist. The jet engine in the Tangent Universe is the engine of the plane that carries Donnie’s mother and sister. By Donnie sending the engine through the time portal created by the vortex, the engine has a reason to exist – it no longer has come out of nowhere.

Donnie Darko Watches Vortex Forming
Donnie Darko watches on as a vortex forms in the sky

The Living Receiver

A Living Receiver is given the role to guide the Artefact back into the Primary Universe. To fulfill this role, he or she is given supernatural powers while in the Tangent Universe which usually involve fire, water, strength and telekinesis. Donnie displays each of these powers when he buries the axe into the school’s solid bronze mascot and busts the water main, burns down Jim Cunningham’s house, constructs the time portal, and uses telekinesis to rip the jet engine from the plane sending it through the time portal. The Living Receiver can also suffer from terrifying hallucinations, nightmares and visions. Donnie suffers through all these things, which is what leads his psychotherapist to believe he is a paranoid schizophrenic. While Donnie dies at the end of the film having completed his quest, this is not necessarily always the fate of the Living Receiver. While there are others mentioned to have suffered a similar ‘doomed’ fate, Roberta Sparrow is an example of a Living Receiver who has survived and been able to transcribe her experiences into a book on time travel.

Donnie Darko leaves a note after trashing the school
Donnie Darko leaves a note after trashing the school

The Manipulated Living and The Manipulated Dead

The Manipulated Living, Donnie’s family, friends and neighbours, subconsciously guide Donnie towards fulfilling his task. Their behaviour and actions are crucial in making sure Donnie will succeed by creating a sequence of events that will ultimately lead to his success. This means that every word, every gesture, every event in the film is important and serves a purpose by leading to Frank killing Gretchen, Donnie killing Frank, and Donnie, now a murderer on the run, having no way out but to restore the Universe. The Manipulated Dead is anyone connected to the Living Receiver that dies in the Tangent Universe. Similarly to the Living Receiver, they are given special powers including time travel capabilities and the ability to communicate with the Living Receiver. Elizabeth’s boyfriend Frank is killed by Donnie in the Tangent Universe and takes on the role of the Manipulated Dead. He travels through time to help Donnie return the Artefact. By waking Donnie before the jet engine crashes into his room, he ensures that Donnie survives to fulfill his destiny and then guides him towards that destiny. Gretchen can also be classified as the Manipulated Dead by providing incentive for Donnie to restore the Universe.

Donnie Darko carrying the corpse of his girlfriend
Donnie Darko carrying the corpse of his girlfriend

What Happens at the End of the Film

Once Donnie sends the jet engine through the time portal, the last 28 days rewind as the Tangent Universe unravels. When Donnie wakes up in his bed laughing, he is back in the Primary Universe, and it’s as if he dreamt the events in the Tangent Universe. Having fulfilled his task, he falls back asleep content and no longer afraid to die alone. This may be because his experience has brought him closer to God. The jet engine sent by Donnie through the time portal arrives in the Primary Universe, falling into his bedroom and killing him.

Roberta Sparrow tells Donnie that everyone dies alone.
Roberta Sparrow tells Donnie that everyone dies alone.

In all, no matter how we view Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly provides us with a film that extends beyond the regular cinematic experience. Whether we believe Donnie is a hero or mentally unstable, whether his world is real or imaginary, and whether we can defend or condemn his actions, we are all prompted to reflect upon the same issues that override the film. Issues that are related to broad and extensive topics such as corruption, existence, and mental illness. It is when you delve into the subtext of the film that you will surprise yourself with what you discover.

If you have other interpretations of the film, your own theory, want to poke holes in my theory, or if you have picked up on things that I may have missed, feel free to share below!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Donnie Darko died of an overdose he got from the medicine pills, They were actually real.. You can split the movie in 2 parts.. 1 which he is constantly medicated by pills.. In which he dreams up a messed up story containing people he know IRL and a creature called ” Frank “.. The dream world is a hallucination in which he dreams a jet engine also hits his house… In the end you are believed by his hallucination he is a time traveler.

  2. Tiff Caage

    I personally think that the entire movie is either a dream or hallucination which ends when the jet engine crushes him, which would explain him laughing at the end. People believe what they want to though, this is just the possibility I believe.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      Lots of people tend to like the dream/hallucination idea. I guess that’s what makes Kelly such a genius is that there are so many plausible outcomes!

      • Nilson Thomas Carroll

        I feel like saying it’s a dream makes the film weaker. We watch fantasy and science fiction narratives all the time, but don’t really try to explain them away with plot devices. I think the film is nice because it’s so strange and dreamlike, but the world has to be real in the film for these qualities to shine, if that makes any sense ; )

        Imagine if we said that Spirited Away was just a hallucination.

  3. Cobby L.C.

    I’ve watched this movie like a thousand times and I think it’s just simply about a troubled guy and it’s all in his head… Idk I think when people watch this movie they take what they want from it.

  4. This made things a little easier to understand, thanks! I just don’t understand why donnie’s mother and younger sister had to be on the plane in the end. Could anyone explain the significance of their presence on the plane to me please?

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      I’m not entirely sure… I guess Gretchen is dead, Frank is dead, maybe Donnie realises the plane is caught in the vortex and the people on it aren’t going to survive so that’s two more of his loved ones pretty much dead. So it’s extra incentive for him to go and save the universe. But if this was so I’m not sure how he would know his mother and sister were on that particular plane, (maybe because of the phone call the night before about their flight?)

  5. DrewMccoy

    It’s a bit of a love story. He goes back to save Gretchen. He dies so she can live. That’s how I always interpreted it. However, that is the wonderful thing about this movie. I think it can mean different things do everyone. None of the other interpretations are wrong, it just hits everyone a bit differently.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      I do interpret it a bit that way too. I like to think of Donnie as the hero and making the sacrifice so that Gretchen and his family can live.

  6. Ray Eubanks

    This is the reason Donnie Darko is my favourite film. The author of this article expresses her beliefs in a thought provoking way and it makes sense when you think about it. HOWEVER there are many other explanations that have a different belief system as to the workings of this film and they also make perfect sense.

    I have never before watched a film that can be interpreted in so many ways, how it always leaves you thinking that something else could be going on that you have missed. I very much doubt that anyone will be able to explain what is 100% actually occurring in this film.

    I think that the director set out to make it with such an open ended storyline that it can play out in an endless amount of ways (like time itself). In my opinion this is what makes it such an amazing film.

  7. I think the magic of this film is it’s allowance for open interpretations. Kelly made it possible for viewers to see it as either the mental illness theory or the time travel theory- though I have friends who swear up and down somehow the answer to the whole film is aliens. Wether you believe either theory, there will always be a bit of doubt in the back of your head because you can see how the other could be possible too because of the magnificent job Kelly did on creating such a fantastically complex and thorough story line.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      I am yet to hear the alien theory! It always amazes me to think how someone could concoct such a story line that leads to so many different interpretations, and do it so well!

  8. Kendall

    I personally think those spiral things coming out of everyone’s chests’ was actually almost like the future, its confusing but it was a few metres in front of where the person was actually going, like it was pretty much saying that, that person is definitely going to the certain area. PLUS! the jet engine was travelling through one of those! One other thing I believe is that once Donnie returned to the Primary universe he knew he was going to die which is why he was laughing.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      Yeah I agree with the spirals being representative of the ‘future’. Donnie and Dr Monnitoff speak a lot about God’s channel, so it could be the future path that has been set for each character in that channel.

  9. I’ve watched this film numerous times and every time I become more and more confused.

  10. Yajaira

    What I don’t get is the whole therapist thing, I mean, why does he have to see her anyway? and that end part where he’s with her and see’s Frank and hugs that dog thing, what’s he going on about there?? 

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      My own thoughts there is that he sees the therapist because his own family and friends think he is ‘troubled’ or mentally ill. He talks about burning down a house or something when he was younger which foreshadows what he does to Jim Cunningham’s house so maybe that’s why he is seeing the therapist. But also from a director’s point of view the whole schizophrenia thing gives the film another avenue and another way of making sense of the film. The last therapist session is really interesting, and I don’t fully understand it but I get the sense that the therapist realises that something huge is about to go down with Donny talking about someone getting killed and so she urgently tries to contact Donny’s parents but of course they aren’t home. She knows Donny is in trouble, tries to save him from his fate but is too late.

  11. I just love this film and see so many different things each time I watch it. But thanx for your explanation. 

  12. Vincenzo Guerin

    Anytime a story involves time travel it leaves infinite possibilities, interpretations and opinions.

  13. Mitchell Haynes

    I think this is Frank’s dream. He woke up at the end and felt his eye.

  14. I saw Donnie Darko twice, and had not, as of yet, understood the plot at all. I appreciate your explaining it to me so concisely, and I think the next time I see the movie, which is beautiful without understanding, I will be enlightened.

  15. Alice Bishop

    This is one of my all time favourites, an absoloutely fascinating film. I studied it for my Film Studies A Level so I am quite familiar with the interpretations but this was still a great read 🙂

  16. Sparky Del Sol

    This is very well written. I must add that Roberta Sparrow’s book includes the canonical evidence that supports your theory. While other explanations for Donnie’s behavior are interesting (my favorite being that time is in a loop where, if he doesn’t complete the task, he lives the 30 days over again), they are impossible. For example, what medication would give Donnie telekinetic powers to manipulate elements such as water and metal? Most alternative theories are mediocre compared to the canonical explanation.

  17. I really love this movie but the writers should have worked more on some primary concepts . I mean what causes a TU or why does TU is unstable and collapses after a few weeks? or why donnie is able to have super powers in TU? is it an imaginary world? or does PU freeze when TU is created, and then is either resumed or collapsed with TU after TU itself is collapsed?

  18. After reading this, I still don’t understand “Donnie Darko.”

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