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.
I agree with Benoit, but my interpretation is that sleep/dreamspace is the gateway to the 4th dimension. The reason people are so purposeful - the manipulated living - are because Donnie's mind is using them as puppets/characters in his dream movie. The clever thing about this movie is that Donnie had such a beautiful/powerful dream in which he got to be a superhero, psycho killer, get the girl, set all kinds of things right.
That's why he's smiling when he wakes up, and in that moment between waking up and dying he is the happiest he has ever been.
I believe also that the creator of the movie got to pour a lot of his life, nostalgia, missed opportunities, unfulfilled fantasies into the film. This is why it is so emotionally resonant and much of the conversational stuff rings so true. The arc of the story is almost a meta-level examination of a guy getting to make his first movie, living vicariously through execution of the project and when it's done being so happy he could die immediately and be content knowing he made it all happen.
This may also be why his movies after have never come close to this one.
It's similar to how a band pours their whole life into a debut album, and then have 10 days to make the second one and it flops.
I think Rachel has got it exactly right, and I'll add one more piece that seems to fit under this context - Donnie's choice to stay in bed and die.
If Frank has experienced the collapse before (also, interested parties should look up Wave function collapse and many worlds theory, concepts in quantum mechanics) with catastrophic consequences, he would understandably want to prevent it from happening again - even at the cost of his own life. By killing Gretchen, he is ultimately guiding Donnie to kill him and to return the Artifact back to the PU. I think of it as a crucial and defining moment in Donnie's life where he has to understand the surreal reality of having committed murder - if he was ever hesitant about his "hallucinations" before and acting on them, with Gretchen dead and him a soon-to-be pursued murder, he now doesn't really have any reason to deny his ultimate destiny.
And Donnie, consistently meta-cognisant throughout the movie, understanding Frank's motives and self-sacrifice for the greater good, feels compelled to follow suit. As Frank sacrificed himself, so will Donnie.
For anyone here reading this after only a watching or two, please go back and watch it a few more times before coming back and reading the explanations. Aspects of these explanations start to seem intuitively true after enough watchings. It is an incredibly complex intertwining of a plot. As viewers, given how seemingly abstruse and difficult to penetrate as the plot is, imagine what kind of a mind-fuck it must have been to write.
Wait... It says that the entire Universe would be in great danger... of course, it is possible the theory of the multiple-looping, the TU is in danger, not the PU... if the whole world just explodes or if is eaten by the Black Hole in the TU, there would be reset point in the TU where it collapses and goes back to the PU... And, YES, for me that's the main idea, just watched, still speachless...
You stated in The Looping Tangent Universe theory above that I had no inside knowledge about the events. If I had never experienced a tangent universe myself then why did I write the book? Why did I stop being a nun and choose to teach science overnight? How would I have gathered all this inside knowledge about the creation of a tangent universe and how to stop it? In Donnie's experience I am technically a living receiver, but my book is guide to helping him understand how to define what is happening to him.
And the final song, Mad World:
Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow,
No tomorrow, no tomorrow.
And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad,
The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had
I really don't think the 'it was all a dream' theory should be dismissed off-hand simply because such explanations are typically cop-outs for bad tv.
Allow, instead, that it is more than just a dream - but an out-of body experience at the time of death. Many people, when awake and aware of impending death, experience a phenomenon where their life flashes before their eyes. For Donnie, however, he dies in his sleep at the very beginning of the film. He is not necessarily killed by the plane engine - that could be real, or it could be that even the very beginning and final minutes are part of his dream. That is to say, his body knows it is dying, but being asleep, might not know the cause. Remember that in dreams time is distorted - you can imagine a month's worth of events and only 5 minutes may pass in real life.
So why does Donnie not simply have his life flash before his eyes? As a high school loner, he does not feel like he has accomplished anything in his short time on this earth. The entire film is his yearning that he had done more with his life. Its begins simply enough - his attitude towards his parents and teachers turns to the way he has always wished he had acted towards them. He gets to lash out in a way that he would not in real life. He manages to get a girlfriend for the first time in his life (remember, he is a loner high-schooler, not a fully formed adult. What he considers 'life accomplishments' will be simple). Finally, he lashes out further, turning to super-human powers and destruction of the school and authority figures he so loathes.
So what goes wrong? Mephistopheles. The angel of death takes the form of frank and comes to lead him out of his dream and ultimately to his demise. Up until the vortex scene, he is in denial of this. At first his logical mind tries to explain away his visitor as well as the odd things (which happen in dreams) by self-diagnosing as schizophrenic. When that is no a sufficient explanation for how badly his world is falling apart around him, he invents the time travel/parallel universe theory, and through it manages to rest easy that he is the chosen one, the 'living receiver,' who will be able to defeat death. And like so many of his, he convinces hisself that he can. Throughout the dream he imagines violence to frank, and in the end succeeds, or so he thinks. But the angel of death is not done with him, and takes away his imagined girlfriend to show Donnie the fallacy of his beliefs.
After this imaged victory, Donnie sits before the vortex, truly looking Death in the face for the first time. He realizes that life is but a joke, and returns laughing to his bed, where no time has passed, and dies.
In the end, he sits and sees the vortex,
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It still doesn't make sense of how frank dies at the end of the PU but is present in ghost form at the beginning. Which means that the events of the PU have happened before and frank simply traveled back to help Donnie do what he had already done (kill frank). So it tells us that frank and Gretchen had already died but they only died because of what frank tells Donnie. So frank already knew Gretchen was gonna be there, why did he run her over again and guarantee that he dies again? What's more, it implies that Donnie needs frank to save the world but Donnie had already done all those things or else frank never would have died and been able to go back in time in the first place. So what happens in the first version of the PU? Does Donnie fail to transport the artifact even after Gretchen and frank die?
There is an alternative trial for people with long term psychosis and that is a placebo.