Donnie Darko
Franks Eye

Alternative Explanations

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.


Dr ThurmanIt 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.


Frank in the cloudsThe 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?

Donnie Is Shown the Future

The Ghost Of Christmas FutureThis 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.

The Looping Tangent Universe

Carpathian Ridgehere 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 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.

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Laura Ess
May 23rd 2017 | 3:30:56

A "self correcting alternate timeline". Much like certain Trek episodes where the RESET BUTTON seems to be pressed and no one who survives is aware of what just didn't happen.

I think these alternate explanations are influenced by such episodes. It's all very convenient.

Austin Crawford
May 16th 2017 | 18:50:17

I think that the tangent universe becomes its own primary universe. The primary universe refers to the universe you came from. So the primary and the tangent universe continue on if Donnie is successful in correcting the "glitch" in the universe, and returning the copy of the jet engine.

Tangent universes are the result of choices. There are millions of universes because different choices are made. Sometimes, however, the universe makes a mistake, a "glitch," that must be corrected. The tangent universe and the "primary universe," the universe that the tangent branched off from, must have this glitch corrected or come to an end. However, there are still many other universes don't end.

The primary universe can be a tangent universe of another primary universe. Basically, the definition of a primary universe is "the universe that a tangent universe branched away from."

I think that Grandma Death in our primary universe, is a Grandma Death from her tangent universe, where she succeeded in returning the artifact. The Grandma Death in her primary universe also continued living, resulting in a branch off (the butterfly effect)

The return of the jet engine to earlier in time in the primary universe causes the two worlds to "touch" and people in the primary universe get a sense of what happens.

This is all I have for now.

May 11th 2017 | 22:59:23

I love this movie and sensed most of its meaning first viewing. But I have a problem with so much of the explanation based on things not in the movie. The PoTT book is obviously important and Grandma death in a loop waiting for Donnie's letter is obviously important. But since the contents of the book aren't in the movie I don't see that the explanation can rely on what is in the book.

The most interesting moment to me is the science teacher saying he cannot continue in this conversation after Donnie mentions God's path. It means the events are more than they appear and that some characters are aware of this.

May 4th 2017 | 11:53:36

I wanted to explain my conflict with this movie to a buddy, but my comments were removed. Not cool yo; just because im not a fan doesnt discredit my point of view.

Basically I don't like the requirements laid out in the POTT because they rely on earth dwelling humans living in a metal-era with modern ethics and other words, fantastically convenient circumstances for a disorderly, random occurance. If the Time-Loop ever occured in the 4Billion years of Earth prior to around 5,000bce, it would be impossible to create the artifact - let alone successfully close the rift. That's just one of the many gripes. In the end, I dont like this movie because it attempts to be intelligent, but just comes off as Philistine. It's the Slam Poetry of "thinking movies"

April 18th 2017 | 16:29:21

I find all explanations here fully coherent. I have just one question. If October 1st is outside the time period that is "duplicated" in the TU, then Donnie would not yet be having visions of Frank, so it could not be Frank who lured him to the mountain during the night, which is how all other strange night walks of Donnie are explained. So what made him go up the mountain and wake up in the middle of the road in the PU, before the PU paused and the TU takes place?

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Karen Pomeroy - Manipulated Living
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