Radio Times

More than 20 years have passed since Donnie Darko was released – and flopped – in cinemas, but the fan theories, possible explanations and interest in the film have only increased since then.

The very definition of a cult classic, Donnie Darko is continuing to attract – and puzzle – new audiences to this day. With even stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Seth Rogen reportedly unsure as to what the film is actually about when it was released, it’s not surprising that an explainer may be needed given all the time travel, alternate universes and that giant rabbit.

It’s certainly not the easiest film to explain – and the film’s intentional ambiguity means there are several valid explanations and theories floating around – but we’re going to fully unpack the mind-bending film below.

Beware of spoilers of course, as Donnie Darko is very much a film best watched knowing as little as possible!

Donnie Darko ending explained

Donnie Darko ends with the troubled titular protagonist taking Gretchen and his friends to see Roberta Sparrow before the prophesied end of the world, only to be attacked by bullies Seth and Ricky. During the struggle Sparrow returns home, and a car swerves to avoid her only to hit and kill Gretchen instead. It is revealed that Elizabeth’s boyfriend Frank is driving the car, while wearing the rabbit costume from Donnie’s visions. Distraught, Donnie shoots Frank in the eye with his father’s gun, giving Frank the wound we saw earlier in the film.

Donnie then carries Gretchen’s body to his house, where a vortex has opened, and drives to a nearby ridge in one of his parents’ cars. He watches as the plane carrying his mother and sister gets caught in the vortex, ripping off an engine and sending it back in time. Events then rewind as Donnie travels back in time to October 2nd, where Donnie laughs and allows himself to be hit by the falling jet engine. All around town, those whose lives would have been affected by Donnie wake up from troubled dreams, and Gretchen learns of Donnie’s death and gives his grieving mother a knowing wave.

While there are certainly plenty of clues throughout the film as to what the ending means – or could mean – events are intentionally left ambiguous which allows for multiple explanations. However, in 2004, a director’s cut was released which contained an extra 20 minutes of footage, which was far more thorough in its explanation of events and gives us a (mostly) clear idea of what happens in the film.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Drew Barrymore in Donnie Darko
Newmarket Films

Donnie Darko director’s cut

Alongside scenes such as Donnie learning his drugs are placebos and the English teacher explaining Watership Down to the class, the biggest change in the director’s cut is superimposed pages from The Philosophy of Time Travel, Roberta Sparrow’s book that Donnie is given by his science teacher in the film. The text was available on the film’s website on release and is still viewable at donniedarko.org, and turns the film far more into a science fiction movie and provides a far clearer overview of events.

According to the text from The Philosophy of Time Travel, most of the film takes place in an alternate Tangent Universe which is created on October 2nd. This universe is an exact replica of the main Primary Universe from which Donnie originates apart from the Artifact – a duplicate object usually made of metal, in this case a jet engine.

The Tangent Universe can’t handle the anomaly of having two duplicate jet engines within it, and thus becomes unstable and will only last 28 days before collapsing into a black hole that would destroy the Primary Universe also.

Donnie has been chosen as The Living Receiver whose mission is to return the Artifact back to the Primary Universe, which will allow the Tangent Universe to collapse safely without destroying the Primary Universe. He has also been given supernatural powers within the Tangent Universe, including foresight, strength (used to bury the axe in the school mascot) and telekinesis (used to send the jet engine through the wormhole) though at the cost of troubling visions and paranoia.

All the people connected to Donnie in the Tangent Universe are the Manipulated Living, who subconsciously guide the Living Receiver to send back the Artifact. However those who die in the Tangent Universe  – ie Frank and Gretchen – become the Manipulated Dead and gain special powers to move through time.

Together all of the Manipulated set up The Ensurance Trap, a domino-like chain of events that gives The Living Receiver no choice but to send the Artifact back. Frank tells Donnie to flood the school so that he can walk Gretchen back and become romantically involved with her. It is her death that leads Donnie to shoot Frank, which creates Manipulated Dead Frank who travels through time and manipulates Donnie’s actions throughout the film.

With Gretchen dead, the only way Donnie can save her – and all reality – is to sacrifice himself and close the Tangent Universe. As prophesied a vortex appears – which is actually the Tangent Universe collapsing – and Donnie uses telekinesis to send the same jet engine back to the Primary Universe. The Tangent Universe then unravels, and we return to the Primary Universe on October 2nd, where the last 28 days have never happened. Armed with the knowledge of the Tangent Universe and accepting his fate, Donnie voluntarily remains in bed as the jet engine hits, choosing to die so that Gretchen, his family and this universe can survive.

However, all of those who would have been connected to Donnie in the Tangent Universe suddenly wake up, suggesting that they may have experienced some of this alternate reality in their dreams. This is shown by Frank touching his eye and Gretchen waving to Donnie’s mum – suggesting they have some subconscious awareness of what happened.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone in Donnie Darko
Newmarket Films

Donnie Darko timeline

Given all the time-travelling, alternate universes and dead men walking around in bunny suits, you’d be forgiven for maybe wanting a clearer outline of events. So see below for a breakdown of the film’s timeline in both universes:

Saturday 1st October

The opening scenes of the film – where Donnie bikes home and argues with his sister and mother – take place in the Primary Universe. We remain in this timeline right up until the first scene with Frank.

Sunday 2nd October

The Tangent Universe is created where Donnie avoids the jet engine crash, and we remain in this universe until the end of the film. Donnie is told that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds, before waking up on a golf course. He comes home to discover a jet engine has mysteriously landed on his house, and the Darkos stay in a hotel.

Monday 3rd October

On what appears to be the next day, Donnie goes to school where Gretchen joins his English class. On the drive home his father narrowly avoids hitting “Grandma Death” and Donnie tells his psychotherapist, Dr. Thurman, about Frank.

Wednesday 5th October

Donnie floods the school on Frank’s orders.

Thursday 6th October

Donnie walks Gretchen home and asks her out. Dr. Thurman attempts to hypnotise Donnie for the first time.

Monday 10th October

Donnie receives The Philosophy of Time Travel from his science teacher and realises it was written by “Grandma Death” Roberta Sparrow.

Tuesday 18th October

Donnie attempts to kiss Gretchen. Dr. Thurman meets Donnie’s parents to discuss upping his medication while Donnie looks at Frank in the mirror.

Wednesday 26th October

English teacher Karen Pomerey tells Donnie about the significance of the words Cellar Door as she leaves the school. Donnie tells Cherita that everything will be OK and takes her earmuffs.

Saturday 29th October

Donnie and Elizabeth throw a party. Donnie and Gretchen make love.

Sunday 30th October

Donnie and Gretchen go to visit Roberta Sparrow, only to be attacked by bullies resulting in Gretchen being hit and killed by a car. Donnie shoots Frank, before sending the jet engine back in time to the Primary Universe. The Tangent Universe ends.

Sunday 2nd October

We now return to the Primary Universe on October 2nd, where none of the events of the last 28 days have taken place. Donnie wakes up and laughs, just before the jet engine crashes into his room. Everyone who was connected to Donnie in the Tangent Universe suddenly wakes up, and Gretchen waves to Donnie’s mother after learning of his death.

Donnie Darko theories and questions

While the director’s cut of Donnie Darko did seemingly give a definitive answer to many of the questions surrounding the movie, the cut has since been criticised for removing much of the ambiguity from the theatrical cut, and thus robbing the film of some of its mystique.

The film’s director Richard Kelly has himself since said that the text from The Philosophy of Time Travel was simply an exercise in interpretation and therefore not necessarily canon, and the internet of course has since been flooded with countless fan theories and explanations.

See below for some of the movie’s biggest burning questions, and the many alternative interpretations available.

Is Donnie Darko about schizophrenia?

The director’s cut explains most of Donnie’s visions as a result of him being chosen as The Living Receiver, and it is even revealed that Donnie’s drugs are placebos suggesting that he is not really schizophrenic at all.

However, a long-running fan theory suggests that there were no alternate universes or time travelling at all and that the events of the film are in fact a result of Donnie losing his mind. Donnie is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia following his sessions with his psychotherapist, and exhibits several symptoms such as feelings of isolation, visions of the future, and fantasies – namely of saving the universe – that make logical sense to him but are a stretch to others. Donnie even tells Gretchen that he’s had emotional problems for a while, suggesting it was prior to the creation of any alternate universe.

Schizophrenia could indeed explain almost every single scene in the film through hallucinations, and is certainly planted in the film as a possible explanation.

The director has made it clear that he doesn’t view the film’s events as a result of schizophrenia – but it has still become a prevailing fan theory that has sparked conversations about the portrayal of mental illness ever since.

Is Donnie Darko just a dream?

Similarly, many have interpreted the events of the film as a dream, or simply happening inside Donnie’s head at the moment of his death on 2nd October. This has been used to explain why Donnie was laughing even though he supposedly knew he was going to die, as well as any inconsistencies, visions and other dream-like elements that occur during the film.

Many have argued back that the other characters all simultaneously waking up after his death and seemingly having some memory of the events suggest that it was not all in Donnie’s head, though the debate rages on.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone in Donnie Darko
Newmarket Films

Is Donnie Darko a time loop?

Another popular theory – and one easy to come to after a first viewing – is that Donnie was caught in a time loop. Many of these theories incorporate the Tangent Universe theory, but argue that the Tangent Universe simply reset every 28 days rather than collapsing. Donnie was supposed to die in the jet engine crash, and the only way to break the cycle was to let the accident kill him.

Theorists point to several parts of the movie as evidence – the film starting with Donnie waking up on the mountain he visits at the end of the loop, Donnie’s visions and apparent knowledge of future events, and characters such as “Grandma Death” seeming to have some inside knowledge like they’ve done this before.

It’s certainly one of the more convincing theories – even if it lowers the stakes just a little without the universe at risk.

Who is Frank the Rabbit in Donnie Darko?

Frank has gone down in pop culture history as the Donnie Darko rabbit, the 6-foot tall monstrous rabbit who has even appeared in the likes of Call of Duty. But who exactly is Frank the Rabbit?

The director’s cut suggests that the Rabbit is indeed the same Frank who Donnie shoots at the film’s end, who then travels back through time to manipulate Donnie into returning the Artifact and closing the Tangent Universe. You can even see that Frank’s handwriting on the fridge whiteboard is the same as the writing on the school grounds following the flood, suggesting that they are indeed the same person.

However, another interpretation is that the rabbit is some sort of alter-ego of Donnie – possibly representing his guilt for shooting Frank – and is subconsciously influencing him throughout the film. This theory largely relies on a shot where Frank’s face is superimposed over Donnie’s in a scene where Donnie’s mental health is being discussed. Either way, we’re never looking at rabbits the same way again…

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