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 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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Deus ex Machina!
Read the PoTT and watch the movie attentively xD
"Eventually" implies inevitability in this context, not necessarily an unknown. All energy is entangled within the construct of time, none is ever lost or destroyed. The only certainty the PoTT states is destruction upon the Living Receiver's failure. "Time" is merely a categorical experience of what happens to the energy in our lives and has no element of "control" over our experience, it is merely the amalgamation of every single present moment. When dreaming for only several minutes one can experience several hours of dreams.
On an atomic scale there is no time, impulses and information can travel instantaneously between distances like charges between entangled electrons. Frank's consciousness upon his death in 28 days is no longer bound by the parameters of time and space. His understanding is different than Donnie's, everyone forgets Frank was alive and real up to the point Donnie kills him. Nobody dies until the "end" of the film when the living Frank runs over living Gretchen, Donnie shoots Frank, and Donnie retreats upon the hill to accept his own fate. Each character's experience of "time" and consequential death are all relative to the inconsistent world around them.
Frank was as alive as Gretchen and Donnie throughout the film, he had to be to show up at the party to go on a beer run and eventually run over Gretchen. Yet all the while Frank has been communicating with Donnie through visions and dreams, shared revelations of their inevitable actions.
His therapist references deus ex machina, or God from the Machine. This discussion is over a lot of peoples' heads ergo the complete lack of reference on this site. All of the Living Receivers are responsible for the deliverance of the universe, together. Each Living Receiver passes experience through consciousness and influence as Roberta did with Donnie, as someone had with Roberta, all the way back through the inception of our natural dimension :"time is usually a stable construct but every now and then the fourth dimension gets corrupted" so every now and then someone is chosen to make things right as the situation warrants. His reward is acceptance, restitution for thing wrongdoings, and salvation for those he cared for most.
All the people of Middlesex are living in illusion enslaved to the psychological ravings of a brainwashing pedophile. All their lives are consumed with artificial stimulation, sanitized, regulated, conditioned with obedience and mediocrity. "They are in great danger." If Donnie had not done what he had AND a black hole had never occurred Patrick Swayze would probably have raped all those little girls and everyone would keep worshipping him like a saint, all sorts of other things could happen from there not to mention other regretful actions and deaths.
It really is a combination of religion and science, which is the spectrum of human understanding. There is no line between the two for me, duality is the greatest illusion. God intervened in Donnie's life to allow him the opportunity to take back all the hours of darkness and pain to replace them with something good. The experience of it all is very scientific with supernatural powers and portals, time-altering consciousness that travel between life and death...I would like to go on but I need to gather my thoughts.
PS - also, this impelled movement through the 'script' of events found its visual representation in that tubey 'Abyss'-type thing that comes out of his chest, literally leading him to the crucial Chekhov item he needs to keep the events moving. Maybe here too he's beginning to doubt keeping the whole chain of events going (or maybe it can't be stopped so easily, only at that moment the rift is opened) and the wiggly tube is being insistent... I dunno... gotta watch this movie again now and tear my own theory apart.
Wow. I watched this movie the week it first came out and it became a mainstay of my and my friends' regular watch list for years and a really important part of our late teen years. This is, however, the very first time I've read anything about the meaning of the film and my understanding of it was quite different from most of these theories.
I had always assumed that Donnie Darko was a dark and sad version of Groundhog Day. That a space/time event had occured and altered the fabric of the universe and that Donnie was caught in a sort of time loop repeating the same month over again, but only subconsciously aware that he was reliving the experience through the influence of Frank's visitations (Frank as Donnie's subconscious). The rift is created when the jet plane loses its engine and the engine falls through a sort of worm-hole or space/time rift which opens up a month into the past and lands on Donnie's house.
I assumed that all of Donnie's mental problems came from him having relived these experiences so many times that he was emotionally scarred, but that the underlying problem was his fear of death and inability to stay in bed and accept his own tragic fate. Thus Donnie has lived these experiences so many times that Frank leads him through them like a script leading up to the same rift opening, the engine falling through it and re-initiating the loop. By running through all the days in the same way he ensures that the event will repeat, and Frank (his subconscious knowledge of this loop) keeps helping him do that in a manner of instinctual self-preservation, but that the toil of going through this so often is tearing him apart emotionally. This would mean that the first time he sleep-walked out of the house was only circumstancial, but the act becomes a crucial action later that, the replications of which ensures that the loop stays active.
Read in this manner the events of the film are the final time this loop occurs as Donnie gets closer to understanding the situation he is trapped in and coming to terms at the end of the movie that his only way out is to accept his fate and stay in bed.
To me this was such an evident reading of the film (although I knew there would be alternate readings, like him being schizophrenic), but coming on to this site has really shaken my understanding up with 'the standard theory'. Donnie is telepathically tearing the engine off the jet??? WTF? Everyone here seems like they've put a lot of thought into all of this so maybe they can tear my idea apart for it's flaws, but I still think that it reads much more smoothly than the official theory.
I believe that basically Frank the Bunny as Donnie sees him in the "tangent" universe is a Frank from another time. He's from a future where he caused the world to end, and caused the tangent universe to form by extension. The reason I think this is he seemingly knows the future and somewhat arbitrarily leads Donnie to go around doing things - why? I think because Frank knows certain events have to "sync" up to transport the jet engine. Meanwhile, Donnie goes about his world and makes the best of it. He gets a girlfriend while knowing the world is going to end, thus knowing this whole relationship is pointless. Donnie laughs at the start and end of the film because he's laughing at the deep futility of his own world, and at his meager role to simply save the "real" world.
In short, Frank the Bunny Rabbit is from the future and helps to lead the "copy" Donnie in order to save the "real" world and redeem himself for having killed Donnie's girlfriend in the main timeline and causing the tangent universe to form to begin with.
I haven't read the comments so I apologize to whomever said it first, but knowing what I do now about the film, the idea of Donnie being manipulated suggests (and I'm probably not saying this right but) that he really was schizophrenic but never accepted it. I can't imagine anyone with mental illness wants to really believe they are and especially don't want to believe they need their medicine to function. The psychiatrist admitting Donnie was only receiving placebos might have been exactly what Donnie had wanted to hear: that either he was never schizophrenic to begin with or that he was in control of himself the whole or whatever fantasy such a person might concoct. I don't know...
Earliest clue in film that your being taken along on Donnie's delusional dream look closely at the visablevend of the crane lifted plane engine, a few moments later you'll see that the image on the end of the end becomes a colorful swirl like one would see depicted in a barber shop pole or carnival saltwater taffy, adolescent imagery.