Donnie Darko
Franks Eye

Movie Explanation

Firstly this explanation is written assuming that you've seen the film. There are spoilers throughout so it could ruin the enjoyable experience of watching it for the first time.

The film has been carefully made so that there are multiple explanations to what happens. With the release of the director's cut some of the ambiguity has been taken away and the director's true version of the story becomes clearer. The explanation heavily revolves around the book Donnie gets from his teacher, "The Philosophy of Time Travel" written by Roberta Sparrow (Grandma Death). The book is a fictional one but some of the pages were in the film's web site and included into the director's cut version of the movie. You can read those pages here.

PU = Primary Universe (The Universe we exist in now)
TU = Tangent Universe (The parallel Universe that most of the film is set in)
PoTT = Philosophy of Time Travel

Tangent Universe

The PoTT states that time is usually a stable construct but every now and then the fourth dimension gets corrupted. When this happens it creates a TU which is highly unstable and will only last a few weeks before it collapses in upon itself. There is a danger that when the TU collapses it could cause a black hole capable of destroying the PU as well.

This is what happens in the movie, there is a corruption in time and at midnight on October 2nd a TU is created. The next 28 days are now set in this alternate reality. Shortly after the TU starts Frank wakes Donnie up and lures him out of the house. A few minutes later a huge jet engine falls though the rip in time and lands in Donnie's bedroom.

It is important to remember that the TU is NOT created by the jet engine or Frank waking up Donnie. We are already within the TU when both those events occur. Unfortunately we never find out what caused the TU to begin, it's just an unexplained phenomenon.

The Artifact

The ArtifactAccording to the PoTT when a TU is created an Artifact will also spontaneously appear. The Artifact is the first sign of evidence that a TU has been created and are always made from metal. In this case the Artifact is a giant jet engine.

Where the Artifact originally comes from is never disclosed. It was most likely created as the TU was being formed. The TU is an exact copy of the PU with one of everything copied into it. During the copying process there was a glitch and two jet engines were formed. The second engine has nowhere to go as it already exists so it's just dumped where the TU began, over Donnie's house.

The Artifact makes the TU unstable; it can't handle having the anomaly of a duplicate object within it. In order for the TU to unravel without forming a black hole it must once again be an exact copy of the PU. By removing one of the duplicate jet engines it will balance out the Universe allowing the TU to collapse safely. The only way to remove the Artifact is to send it through a portal into the PU.

The Living Receiver

The Living ReceiverWhen a TU occurs with an Artifact then a Living Receiver is also chosen. This person is chosen seemingly at random and in this case Donnie is the chosen one. As Donnie was at the epicentre of the TU this is most likely why he was selected. The Living Receiver's mission is to guide the Artifact out of the TU.

This person is usually blessed with some supernatural powers during their time in the TU to help them with their quest. Some of these include increased strength, mind control, the ability to conjure fire and water and telekinesis.

  • He uses strength to bury the axe into the school water pipe and solid bronze mascot.
  • He uses fire to burn Jim Cunningham's house down
  • He floods the school and constructs a time portal from water.
  • He uses telekinesis to rip the jet engine off the plane to send it through the time portal.

Donnie is not aware of his responsibilities at first though and he doesn't even know he is within a TU. As his journey continues he slowly starts to realise what is going on and what he must do.

Manipulated Dead


Anyone connected to the Living Receiver who dies in the TU becomes Manipulated Dead. These people are very powerful and have the ability to move through time and talk to the Living Receiver through a Fourth Dimensional Construct. They also have some knowledge of the impending disaster and help guide the chosen one.

Frank is killed in the TU and therefore becomes one of the Manipulated Dead. He travels back in time and helps Donnie with his quest to return the Artifact. The first thing he must do is save Donnie by waking him up before he gets squashed by the jet engine. He is like a reverse ghost who appears before he was killed. Gretchen is also Manipulated Dead but she doesn't appear to Donnie in the same way as it might be to confusing for him.

Manipulated Living

Mrs Pomery and DonnieAll the people connected to the Living Receiver are the Manipulated Living and these people will subconsciously help guide the Living receiver. They will behave in the exact perfect way necessary to push Donnie toward his eventual destiny. Nearly every event in the film has a specific purpose designed to aid Donnie to save the Universe.

There is a driving force behind the Manipulated's behaviour... although we never find out what it is for sure. God is one of the most popular ideas mooted, the film does use religion at many points. The story uses lots of religious symbols and often points to the idea that you follow God's channel to decide your own fate. This guiding force is moving all the Manipulated characters around like pieces on a chessboard, making a sequence of events that will lead to Donnie's success. The Universe is in grave danger and this guiding force has stepped in to help save it.

The Ensurance Trap

Dead FrankThe PoTT states that all the Manipulated are trying to lure the Living Receiver into a trap so has no choice but to send the Artifact out of the TU into the PU. The PoTT calls this the Ensurance Trap (old English) . This is effectively the role all the Manipulated play, they are trying to save themselves by guiding Donnie to complete his mission. If Donnie fails they die as well.

Frank tells Donnie to flood the school which in turn leads to Donnie walking Gretchen home and him then asking her to be his girlfriend. This event is not just coincidence; it's specifically put in place as part of the trap.

Gretchen plays a crucial role in the trap, remember Donnie only meets and falls in love with her within the TU. He is given someone to love then she dies. He's so upset at Frank for killing Gretchen he shoots him dead. This has now created Manipulated Dead Frank, the person guiding him to do these things. He must create Manipulated Dead Frank in order to be saved himself in the beginning.

The manipulated have now successfully set the trap. Donnie was saved from death and is now in a desperate situation. His girlfriend is dead and he's a killer on the run. He knows what his purpose is now and only has one way out even though it will ultimately end his own life. Sending the engine through a portal will erase the last 28 days from history and time will return to October 2nd... back to when Gretchen was still alive.

The End of the Film


At the end of the film we see a vortex appear over Donnie's house. It's the beginning of the TU collapse and is centred over where it began. Donnie is aware of what he must do now so he drives up the mountain for a better vantage point. The plane with the same jet engine has been manipulated to fly overhead at this exact time. Donnie rips the engine off using telekinesis, constructs a time portal from water and guides the engine through it.

We now see parts of the last 28 days rewinding as the TU starts to unravel. The TU has collapsed safely and the PU that was on pause starts back up from when it stopped. We are now back in reality on October 2nd, the last 28 days never happened. Donnie wakes up in his bed laughing after dreaming some of the events within the TU. He then goes back to sleep seemingly content with life now. The experience has seemingly brought him closer to God and he is no longer afraid to die. The jet engine Donnie sent through the time portal now falls into his bedroom killing him.


Gretchen WavingEven though the last 28 days never actually happened some of the Manipulated will be haunted in their dreams by their experiences within the TU.

There are bits of evidence to prove this. Frank touching his eye in the final montage and Gretchen waving to Donnie's mum proves that some of the characters have some knowledge of what happened within the lost world.

We see Jim Cunningham crying in the montage as he wakes up... clearly disgusted with himself. Ten days later he clears out his child pornography dungeon and shoots himself on the 14th hole of the golf course... his dirty secret is never revealed.

Final Remarks

Many people assume Donnie has to die otherwise the TU would start over again. From a scientific point of view Donnie's death is not relevant at all , the corruption is already fixed before he dies and if he got up and avoided death then nothing would change. The PoTT tells us of previous Receiver's who died after the Artifact was returned but we only hear about them because their death defies logic. Any Receiver's who escaped death would go completely unnoticed.

It's almost certain Roberta Sparrow was a Living Receiver in a previous TU and that is how she came to write the PoTT. She survived her experience proving that the Receiver doesn't always have to die.

This film does blend science and religion together so his death may emphasise him as a saviour and his belief in God. In death Donnie's role as the Living Receiver seems even greater than before.

Other common questions concern the Artifact Donnie sends through the portal at the end of the movie. Many people ask why the PU is not in danger now it has a duplicate object with it. It seems to be the case that the issue of duplicate objects is only a concern once the Universe they're within starts going through the collapsing process. The PU is a stable linear time-line that never goes through a collapsing process so is therefore never in any danger from duplicate objects.

As stated above the Arrtifact is not the cause of the TU, it's just a by-product of it. This is why there is no danger of another TU starting up once Donnie sends his Artifact through the portal at the end of the movie.

  • You can read more about some of the contentious parts of the movie by clicking here
  • You can compare with some of the alternative explanations by clicking here

larry 64
February 27th 2014 | 20:22:42

Needs to be watched more than once to find some clarity. I like it because of so many interpretations as to what is really happening.

February 26th 2014 | 20:02:38

Best explanation ever!!
I think Gretchen remember her memories.

February 25th 2014 | 14:01:04

Are we all forgetting that through the film during the sessions with his shrink he is scared of dying alone yet in his bed right at the end just before he knows that he is about to die he is laughing hysterically. He has realised his death will actually mean something and that dying alone isn't such a bad concept.

February 24th 2014 | 14:19:54


She waved to woman who was grieving and just lost her son. A boy she went to school with and would have known who he was, even if she never met him. Further, there is no evidence that Gretchen ever meets his mother at all in the movie. They share no screen time together until the end with the wave. I don't' even recall Donnie talking to his mother about her but he may have. Lots of people would have waved to her or even spoke to her to say how sorry they were for her and her family. The waving proves nothing.

Again, my point isn't that I am right, just that this movie is open to debate over what really happened. The author of the article dismisses other theories because he sees the movie through his own eyes. There are valid other explanation to the movie.

February 24th 2014 | 11:16:23

People can go back and forth arguing the "meaning behind everything". Some things are more clearly defined than others. That is why some stories have it open to interpretations. Whether or not there really was an alternate universe or hallucinations while dying, why could either be too far of a stretch? I honestly have watched this movie move than 20 times. It is one of my favorites. I feel like the more you watch it, the more you unravel or new questions you impose. Since movies are where dreams happen, I think anyone who says something as ignorant as "There is no way this movie couldn't have been about alternate universes". Just enjoy the fact that this movie is such a cult classic that many enjoy that captivates us to question it even today.

February 24th 2014 | 4:03:35

I couldn't help but notice that all this happened in the month of October also Donny sees a bunny. Chinese zodiac sign for October is a bunny. also when Donny dies it seemed that he somhow brought ballence to the people he know which libras are known for doing. Libra is also the month of October September 24 - October 23.... Great movie!!!!!!!

February 23rd 2014 | 18:01:42

I love tihs movie and ı miss it.

February 23rd 2014 | 8:14:53


How do you explain all of the people at the end waking up remember what happens in Donnie's death vision. At the end when Gretchen waves at Donnie's mother having never even met Donnie and his family in the first place.

February 23rd 2014 | 2:55:37

February 23rd 2014 | 2:54:48

oh hai
February 23rd 2014 | 2:53:21

February 22nd 2014 | 20:00:00

Just watched it for the first time and loved it. 28:06:42:12 is the flight #, gate # and time his mom is leaving. Its also the plane that he must send the jet engine back through to the PU. This site is the best explanation I've found so far

February 22nd 2014 | 17:26:15


Maybe or maybe he is chaning events and facts to suit his delusion and his dying. The movie never shows him reading the book either just talking about it.

February 22nd 2014 | 7:18:29

Darthlaw he didn't get the book "The Philosophy of Time Travel" until after the engine crashes into his room in the Tangent Universe. So he wouldn't have read it before he died!

February 22nd 2014 | 6:16:30

This is one of the best movies ive ever seen and this explination makes a lot of sence looking back, but i dont understand how the mother remembers what went on in the tangent univers and how is she the only one to know? I thought it might be because she was on the plane, but donnies younger sister was also on the plane

February 22nd 2014 | 1:13:19

Why did Frank even save Donnie? If he didn't then the engine would have killed him which is essentially Donnie's entire goal throughout the film. If he left him die wouldn't everything be the same as the end of the movie where he died? Idk maybe I'm missing something.

February 21st 2014 | 19:39:46

Everyone arguing about the films meaning- Richard Kelley has made it very clear what happens in the film. There is little room for debate. He made it.

It is a sci-fi time-travel film, end of story. Not a dream, not a hallucination, etc. I think the explanation posted here is excellent.

February 21st 2014 | 19:19:19

You knock all of the other theories because you believe in yours alone. You believe yours to be true so you find flaws with the others. It could all be a dying hallucination. Donnie has had a troubled life. We know he has committed crimes in his past and has been treated for mental issues. We know too that he is being treated currently for emotional problems. Perhaps, Donnie is trying to give his life meaning at the end of it. There is really no evidence that he dies instantly. The engine doesn't hit him and it doesn't explode. He could have been fatally wounded and dying. While he is dying he is struggling to find meaning in his life and to come to grips with God. He read the book Philosophy of Time Travel and it is fiction. In his dying state that is what he uses to give meaning to his life. There are hints that this could be true too. He sees the bunny which would go along with your theory of POTT but it also may suggest that he has made this up in his head to give him meaning for his life. He populates his dying hallucination with people in his real life. The bullies in his school and the girl he has a crush on. Further, because he has read the fictitious book, and he is struggling to find meaning, he constructs this world to bring closure to himself. He is very smart, the principal even suggest genus level smart, and this was his way to deal with his on death and his faith.
There are lots of things in the movie that would lead to the him dying theory. He sees Frank the day of his death in the red Trans Am. There are lots of rabbits around before the engine falls on him, including Donnie in a rabbit costume for Halloween. Further, he imagines the life he could have had with the girl of his dreams if he would have done those things. Donnie also has a fascination with the number 8 or 88. The numbers till the end of the world add up to 88. He tells his sister she can't have a baby until 8th grade. He talks about the movie Back to the Future which had an 88 mph speed this further suggest he is fascinated with the idea of time travel and this is fiction all made up in his head. It is the year 1988 too. The fire at the house was put out at 8:00 p.m. The red eye plane that crashes is flit 2806, boarding at gate 42 at 12 a.m., which is 88.
In fact the dyeing hallucination is more plausible than the alternate universe theory. The book POTT is a work of fiction and at no time does the movie suggest that it is not a work of fiction. The alternate universe theory further has to make you suspend the belief that this could have really happened. Everything in the movie suggest this is the real world and not just an alternate universe. The rewinding of time further suggests that Donnie made this entire thing up in his head and not the two worlds coming together. Why rewind time if the TU has just ended? Why wouldn't Donnie just go back to the time before the rift? It doesn't make since for this to rewind. Further the simplest explanation is often the best explanation. It makes sense that he made all of it up in his head to give him meaning to his life and death. A disturbed kid dying and wanting answers and meaning to a death he didn't understand. There are holes in all of the theories and not one is right are wrong. It just depends on how you see the movie. I like to believe Donnie was searching for a meaning to his death and struggling with God.

Collin P
February 21st 2014 | 5:29:59

I don't fully understand the whole "tangent universe" thing. What makes it tangent and what make the other universe primary? Whose to say which universe is the "primary" universe? Otherwise, this is a great movie, although some of the science/physics is very questionable.

February 21st 2014 | 2:01:29

When the fuck did Donnie get telekenisis

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