There is little doubt that this movie is very much open to interpretation. There are several possible explanations and in most cases plenty of viewers will love it even though they have no idea what happened. To be honest there can't be many people who completely understood the movie the first time they watched it unless they had some inside knowledge.
The real explanation follows "The Philosophy of Time Travel" and you can read it here. When you follow this explanation there doesn't seem to be any holes in the plot. Every scene makes sense, the story is consistent and the whole movie comes together.
Here are some of the alternative theories.
It is implied in the film that Donnie is a schizophrenic and therefore the film is him going through an episode of his illness. This theory is plausible because every single event could be put down to this. Hallucinations and hearing voices is a schizophrenic trait and could easily explain Frank’s appearance. There is a scene with Donnie’s therapist at the end of the film where she admits to giving Donnie placebo’s as medication for his illness. This would suggest that he in fact never was a schizophrenic. For me Richard Kelly put the idea of Donnie being schizophrenic into the movie deliberately as a red herring. It's an easier alternative theory that allows first time viewers to still enjoy the movie.
The whole movie was a dream theory is of course possible but ultimately pointless. When he goes to sleep on October 2nd at the beginning of the movie he dreams this mystical adventure just before he gets smooshed by jet engine.
The obvious hole in this theory is why do the first few minutes of October 2nd happen twice? An easy theory to enjoy maybe for the first watch but why would the director create this amazing magical alternative Universe theory and then just make it all out to be a dream?
This is quite a popular theory. It portrays Frank as a kind of Ghost of Christmas Future character who saves Donnie and then either shows him or allows him to live the next 28 days of his life. At the end Donnie returns back to October 2nd and now has the opportunity to choose his own fate.
So many bad things happened in those 28 days including his girlfriend getting killed and Donnie becoming a killer himself that he decides to stay in bed at the end of the film to sacrifice himself for the good of others. By dying he saves Frank, Gretchen and his mother and sister from a plane crash.
Unfortunately this theory asks more questions than it answers:
- Why is Frank giving Donnie this choice?
- Why does he tell Donnie to Flood the school and burn down Jim Cunningham’s house?
- Why does Frank appear as a dead version and an alive version?
- Why does “The Philosophy Of Time Travel” appear in the story?
- How does the unexplained jet engine figure in the story?
The biggest weakness in this theory is the fact that Donnie is shown or lives out a completely different future from what would normally have happened. Most of the events only happen because we are within a Tangent Universe.
- Frank gets Donnie to flood the school which means Donnie walks Gretchen home.
- Frank gets Donnie to burn down Cunningham's house which leads to the party
- Donnie rips the engine off the plane his mother and sister are on
None of these things would happen in the real world. What's the point in Donnie being shown an alternate future and then given the choice to live or die based on events that wont happen?
There are just too many plot flaws with this theory. It just doesn't work and there are virtually no scenes in the movie to back it up.
here is a theory out there that follows The Philosophy of Time Travel but with one major change. The idea is that every 28 days the Tangent Universe collapses, then loops back round to October 2nd and starts over again. Basically the Tangent Universe is a repeating time-loop that will continue until Donnie is successful in returning the jet engine into the Primary Universe. The film is Donnie's first successful attempt at returning the jet engine and there have been several failed attempts before.
This explanation can be read at www.themoviegoer.com/donnie_darko. One of the reasons this theory is so popular is it usually comes up on the first page of google if search for a Donnie Darko explanation.
I don't think this idea follows The Philosophy Of Time Travel accurately enough. The Tangent Universe only lasts for several weeks before it collapses and destroys the whole Universe. If it looped back round every time then the Universe wouldn't be in danger.
This theory seems to hinge on only a few pieces of the movie. The main basis of this theory is that Donnie wakes up on the mountain laughing at the beginning of the film. He's laughing as if he remembers something from the previous Tangent Universe loop.
Now the major flaw there is Donnie wakes up on the mountain on October 1st yet the Tangent Universe doesn't start until midnight on October 2nd. Why would time loop round to before the start of the Tangent Universe? Another thing is wouldn't you find it a little amusing if you woke up half way up a mountain. Surely that is a better explanation for him laughing.
Another huge flaw in this theory is if it was true the Universe would never be in any danger. Everytime Donnie failed the 28 days would just restart. This goes completely gainst the PoTT and makes the whole thing quite pointless.
Another point in this theory is the characters like Mrs Pomeroy, Grandma Death, Dr. Thurman all seem to have some kind of inside knowledge and a sense of what's going, like they have done this before. Well yes they do but not because they have done this several times before, it's because they are the Manipulated Living. There behaviour may be irrational or bizarre as they are trying to guide the Living Receiver to return the Artifact. They subconsciously behave in the necessary way in order for Donnie to succeed.
Really? I personally prefer his teacher, Kenneth. He's such a hottie
thx u 2, does anyone think the actor who played Jim Cunningham would message me? he's soooooo attractive
OMG Calum you are soooooo cool!!!
I love the film so much !!
No other theory explains why he wakes up in the forest and in the golf course. And also why the first encounter with Frank is not a paradox.
But mine does:
Donnie wakes up in the forest because he has a sleep walking disorder. Why? Because even if we consider that he had schizophrenia, that alone cannot describe that behavior and the fact that he was taking pills and consulting the psychiatrist even before the TU took place. Now, what I think caused the initiation of the TU itself was the sleepwalking phenomena. Now let's think for a second and consider the fact that the jet engine was gonna land in his bedroom form the very beginning, but that alone is not enough to satisfy the fact that it created the TU. What if it was supposed to happen in the first place? If he didn't have the sleepwalking problem, he would have died and the TU wouldn't even have been initiated. And, because of his sleep walking disorder, he went out of the room and since he went out of his room i.e he no longer can die, the TU is created. If we consider the fact that each person and object obeys God's predefined ways, and Donnie didn't cause of his sleepwalking, then that alone caused the TU. Cause he didn't die when he was supposed to. When he stepped out of the room, all the stuff i.e assignment of the relic, living receiver, manipulated living and manipulated dead were created at the instant he walked out of that room. After which, Frank lured him out and then everyone pointed him in the direction of reverting back to the PU. Also, the bunny rabbit costume that he saw was because he killed that guy in the future of the TU that was initiated. But, if he had not chosen to die, the TU simply would have taken place again. SO he actually needed to die. This theory conforms to the PoTT literature and also to the powers theory. The only remaining fact that we don't know is why the jet engine fell in the first place? We can then assume that it might have been some rip in the space time fabric of the universe to be able to spontaneously spawn a freaking jet engine out of thin air. OR (this is a bit far-fetched. but then again, in this movie, what isn't?) another theory could be that another living receiver (in an entirely different TU or parallel universe) or even Donnie Darko himself used his powers to rip off the engine and send it to the PU.
I believe that there is a tangent loop not only because he wakes up on the mountain top in the beginning, but because Frank says something like "It is the name of my father… and his father before me.". MD Frank had to have been around through another tangent universe because Donnie kills him, but he wouldn't of killed him if frank didn't save his life in the beginning. I believe that there is at least two different Franks one in the beginning to wake him up and then the other he kills.
I think they got themselves into a big contradiction regarding time travel, which the physics teacher actually touched upon.
Donnie at the end of the movie makes the Engine or the Artifact go back in time killing himself, thus closing the Tangent Universe. But I think Donnie would have to go back in time as well to continue the whole process, ie a quantum state or multiverse. Donnie is effectively both alive and dead at the same time, like Schrodinger Cat, creating a new universe where he is in fact dead. And another universe where he is alive, ie he travels back in time or decides to avoid the engine.
The single universe doesn't make sense because it would create a paradox. How could Donnie be dead and alive at the same exact time in order to fulfill his obligation? If Donnie was in a single universe he would effectively meet himself, and arguably become a Manipulated Dead, since he dies within the Tangent Universe. Which is sort of the whole paradox of destiny, etc. wouldn't Donnie know everything that would happen?
Did Gretchen wave to Donnie's mother twice? one, when he died, the other when he lived. This was the following day, after the jet engine fell into Donnie's bedroom. Hence, she had a deja vu, perhaps? the other person in the family, who acknowledged his girlfriend, was Donnie's sister at the Halloween party. It seems no one in the family, except the sister later on, knew he had a girlfriend.
Wait a minute... so Donnie wasn't schizophrenic?
@stephenli I think the when donnie tells the theacher she's not taking every thing into account he means the circumstances are not given. What if ling ling( or who ever found the wallet) was pour and had no money, there for they would have to steel to live that wouldn't be an act of fear it would be an act of desperation. Or if ling ling picked up the wallet to find out where the owner lived to burn their house down( like donnie ) I think this scene is put in to show how smart donnie is and that he doesn't like things dumbed down . It shows his intelligence wich might make the theory of him understanding tangent universes more plausible . also I have a question , when donnie floods the school he writes on the ground : they made me do it . Who's they he because frank is a he .