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.

June 27th 2015 | 5:10:22

Why did Donnie wake up on top of the mountain on October 1st knowing that the episode doesn't start until October 2nd? I mean I don't wake up every now and then on top of a mountain. So why does a normal teenager wake up on to of a mountain before Frank and the whole PoTT starts?

May 4th 2015 | 20:49:03

My theory was that Donnie was supposed to die on October 2. Over the 28 days, he played out things that never meant to happen. The fact that he was dead meant that he wasn't supposed to be here and that it changed the balance of the laws of nature. The fact that after the 28 days, none of the things that occurred should have occurred. Gretchen was a part of him that was good and kind. Frank was the evil part of himself. There are holes in this as well, but in some areas it does work. I watched it again this weekend and payed more attention to the movie. At the end of the movie it all resets and the laws of nature go back to the way it was meant to be with the characters none the wiser or some having some knowledge a feeling of what they experienced the last 28 days.

jim cunningham
April 23rd 2015 | 15:17:12

i like kids

April 7th 2015 | 20:48:30

my mind is just thinking about this story..
this is a very good website

March 25th 2015 | 11:49:28

Very nice website. It is well put together. I enjoy it.

March 17th 2015 | 16:40:37

I still pull for the repeating loop a bit. Frank says his name was the name of his father, and his father before him, which could allude to him having gone through the events of the film at least two times before. The collapse of a tangential universe would be the restart of the loop, and the primary universe would be in danger as it would not be able to continue past the events of the TU.

January 30th 2015 | 5:23:04

Not quite sure if this has been pointed out before, but there seems to be another flaw with the looping tangent theory:

It states that Frank has travelled in time from the previous TU to the current TU, but that would mean there would have been no Frank in the first TU, which kinda alters the entire storyline of the TU.

Of course, this does assume every TU features the same sequence of events with only minor differences leading to the failure of the Living Receiver, but it just feels like a flaw in the theory.

donnie malik cheatham
December 10th 2014 | 0:15:11

My name is donnie and I need your answers

November 11th 2014 | 19:17:17

Personally, I see Donnie as some sort of savior un-perverted by popular idealisms that he is subjected to even more than the average person by attending a private christian school. He is a vessel god uses to carry out his will. The line between god and frank is thin but can be established when Donnie refers to "his will" in his meetings with his therapist, but when she asks him if he is talking about frank or god or himself he reacts as if they're separate. The evidence that frank and god are separate is displayed again when Donnie chooses to read "THEY made me do it" instead of referring to the force in question as he/her/it or even frank. This is also evident when frank appears in the theatre and a voice can be heard without frank speaking, yet when addressing frank directly he speaks for himself. That is because the only thing that wasn't supposed to happen in their realit is Donnie flooding the school in order to grow closer to Gretchen. When seemingly "possessed" by Frank to commit the actions he does there is always some sort of outside reason for the greater good EXCEPT when Donnie floods the school. The only reason he does this without knowing it is to get closer to Gretchen, someone who like him is afraid she is doomed to die alone. This is the one thing that troubles Donnie and separates him from christ, unlike christ who was willing to ultimately dehumanize himself in order to save humanity, Donnie feels the all consuming human need for love. Knowing from experience that he is some how bound to a set path of constantly alienating himself in order to be some kind of local savior to those too enslaved by ideology to really understand that there are realms and powers that be that are just beyond our understanding, he feels that life has very little to offer him in the first place and that since he has excepted the fact he will die alone, as in his own eyes being bound to this stoic but lonely fate he is already dead. This is evident in one of his meetings with his therapist whom he confides in that his only true insecurity is he is afraid of dying alone, and that he refuses to try and contemplate the idea on his own anymore as he has yet to find any evidence suggesting otherwise. After meeting Gretchen he starts seeking out a way to be with her not just for the time they are physically together, but as one state of being. In a discussion with one of his teachers for instance they talk about not just time travel, but the complications in believing in a higher power that extends enough free will to the conscious minded that they may deviate from his/her plan. This is different for Donnie, who is usually confident enough when he knows something that he doesn't feel the need to challenge his own knowledge by subjecting it to outside opinions (ex his smurf rant), but when presented with the possibility of not dying alone this changes. in the end of the movie donnie excepts that in that moment he feels more whole than he ever will again, and he decides that by dying and saving himself he is in turn doing more to save humanity than giving them another idol to pervert. In this sense frank represents the distortion between what donnie is being taught as evil and humanity. the person who was so reckless with their ambition that they deserve death but yet they cling to life (ex he kills Gretchen as a result of his drunk driving, but yet he still points fingers "what were you doing in the middle of the road?!" and ultimately returning to the past through donnie psychic channel to present him with the option of choosing to die the rest of his life alone, or to live in death together with his love.) upon realizing this and seeing the portal opens donnie realizes that this is his only chance at happiness, choosing to be human and save himself rather than being a vessel of god and saving the world (this is why in donnie vision frank, or more appropriately god, tells him the world will end instead of saying in 28 days you will die). in the last scene we see donnie make a sincere expression of happiness. if you pay attention closely to jake gyllenhaals performance you realize that every other time he smiles in the film he has this very possessed and forced enthusiasm almost a kin to someone with a terminal disease smiling. thats not to say he is physically incapable of happiness, but subconsciously he feels empty the whole movie. is this moment if you really look beneath the surface you can feel that donnie genuinely feels complete. i enjoy reading the time travel theories and I'm sure there is a theory similar to mine if not exactly the same out but but i thought i would share my own interpretation as this is one of my most beloved watches i have ever experienced and i catch something new every time i go back and watch it. love the site!

Cat Poop
November 4th 2014 | 4:40:46

"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."

Where's the evidence to back this up? Why couldn't the TU have started on the 1st?

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Cherita Chan - Manipulated Living
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