I know that the interpretation of Donnie Darko has been beaten into the ground by now, but for some reason I felt compelled to write my own after watching the movie again this week. Let me preface this post by saying two things: First, I assume you have seen the movie (if not you can buy it here) so I am not going to write a synopsis of it, and consider this your spoiler alert. Second, I do not feel that the movie should be viewed as what it has become, which is the cult “emo” movie. If you really pay attention to it (most notably the directors cut version), it is really pretty much a pure science fiction movie, more than a psychological thriller. I suppose you could put a different interpretation around it which would focus on insanity/madness/mental illness, but I believe the director has made it quite clear in the directors cut version of the film, as well as the commentary, that it is not a case of insanity. It is not the typical “easy out” method of plot delivery where the protagonist is insane, or awakens from a bad dream at the end.
So allow me to center my interpretation around the “book” which is heavily referenced in the movie (especially the directors cut), The Philosophy of Time Travel. If you take a few minutes to read this, the movie, and my interpretation, will make a lot more sense as the entire plot of the movie can be explained by it. I will segment my interpretation, chapter by chapter, to directly correlate to the above “book”. All quoted items through this article are quotations from The Philosophy of Time Travel. Again, I highly encourage you to take a few minutes to read it before reading my analysis.
The Tangent Universe
… Incidents when the fabric of the Fourth Dimension becomes corrupted are incredibly rare.
If a Tangent Universe occurs, it will be highly unstable, sustaining itself no longer than several weeks.
Eventually it will collapse upon itself, forming a black hole within the Primary Universe capable of destroying all existence…
Shortly after the start of the film Donnie is awoken by a voice, the voice of the giant rabbit Frank. From this point forward Donnie is living in the Tangent Universe. The Primary Universe is the normal world. The Tangent universe is the highly unlikely occurrence mentioned in the above quote. During his first encounter with Frank he is told that the world will end in approximately 28 days. This is the length of time the Tangent Universe will exist for.
So this sets the stage for the rest of the movie.
The Artifact and the Living
When a Tangent Universe occurs, those living nearest the Vortex will find themselves at the epicenter of a dangerous new world.
Artifacts provide the first sign that a Tangent Universe has occurred.
If an Artifact occurs, the Living will retrieve it with great interest and curiosity. Artifacts are formed from metal…
The Artifact, in this case, is the jet engine which crashes into Donnie’s house during his meeting with Frank. The next morning when he wakes up and returns home, he sees that his house has been destroyed by this jet engine. More importantly, it landed directly in his bedroom, and he should have been killed. It is eluded to several times that the FAA has no idea where the jet engine came from. Meaning that no plane crashed, nor landed, missing an engine. This makes the item an item of great curiosity, as well as solidifying the existence of a Tangent Universe.
The Living Receiver
The Living Receiver is chosen to guide the Artifact into position for its journey back to the Primary Universe.
… The Living Receiver is often blessed with Fourth Dimensional Powers. These include increased strength, telekinesis, mind control, and the ability to conjure fire and water.
The Living Receiver is often tormented by terrifying dreams, visions and auditory hallucinations during his time within the Tangent Universe…
Donnie is the Living Receiver, meaning he was chosen to “guide the Artifact into position”. This basically means that he is responsible for making sure the jet engine crashes into his house after 28 days and kills him. Though he does not realize this fact for most of the movie. If he does not fulfill this task, the Tangent Universe will consume the Primary Universe. Basically, the Living Receiver has to save the world, but no one will ever know he did.
He is tormented by dreams/auditory hallucinations, seeing/hearing Frank, and he exhibits some of the other prescribed traits. He somehow managed to lodge an ax into a solid bronze statue, and he “conjured” fire and water when he flooded the school and burned down Cunningham’s house. Although I think they could have done a better job with the “conjuring” since you don’t need special powers to use gasoline to light a fire.
The watery tubes he can sometimes see coming out of peoples chests are his way of seeing into the future. These are what the book claims the the Fourth Dimensional (time) construct is made of.
He uses his powers of telekinesis to guide the artifact back into position at the end of the movie by using his mind to rip the engine off the aircraft.
The Manipulated Dead
The Manipulated Dead are more powerful than the Living Receiver. If a person dies within the Tangent Universe, they are able to contact the Living Receiver through the Fourth Dimensional Construct.
The Fourth Dimensional Construct is made of Water.
The Manipulated Dead will manipulate the Living Receiver using the Fourth Dimensional Construct.
The Manipulated Dead will often set an Ensurance Trap for the Living Receiver to ensure that the Artifact is returned safely to the Primary Universe…
The Manipulated Dead in the movie are Gretchen (Donnie’s “girlfriend”) and Frank. This is because at some point within the confines of the Tangent Universe, they die. This is how and why Frank can contact Donnie, independent of time. Gretchen also plays what seems to be a more subconscious role in setting the Ensurance Trap.
The Ensurance Trap is basically the Manipulated Dead’s way of making sure the Living Receiver does what he needs to do, and is essentially given no other choice. In Donnie’s case, this is the series of coincidences which occur leading up to Gretchen dying, and him shooting Frank. After those events occur he either understands his purpose in the Tangent Universe, or he simply has no other reason to live, so he sacrifices himself to guide the artifact into its position in the Primary Universe. That position of course, is in his bedroom, while he is still in it.
The Ensurance Trap is the sole purpose of the Manipulated Dead, and is the only reason those two characters are in the plot. Every interaction Donnie has with them leads up to the ending.
- Frank tells Donnie world will end.
- Frank convinces Donnie to flood the school
- Donnie meets Gretchen, due to this.
- Consequently, his teacher is fired due to the book “The Destructors” she had them read.
- When she is fired she writes “Cellar Door” on the chalkboard.
- Frank shows Donnie the watery plumes from peoples chests, leading him to find his fathers gun.
- Donnie finds wallet, which leads to him burning down Cunningham’s house.
- Kitty stays home to defend Cunningham, forcing Donnie’s mom to travel with the dance team.
- Due to Frank, Donnie becomes curious about time travel. His science teacher gives him the book The Philosophy of Time Travel.
- Donnie writes letter to “Grandma Death”
- Donnie’s mom leaves, enabling him and his sister to throw a party.
- Gretchen’s mom runs off, leading Gretchen to Donnie’s house.
- Gretchen and Donnie further solidify their relationship via sex.
- Frank is driving to the party with Beer.
- During Halloween party Donnie realizes how much time he has left.
- Suddenly something clicks in his mind, and he goes to Grandma Death’s house, notably into the “Cellar Door”.
- A quarrel happens between Donnie and some thugs.
- Frank drives down the road. Due to the quarrel, Gretchen is standing in the street.
- Frank has to swerve to miss Grandma Death who is also standing in the street. She is only there to read the letter Donnie sent.
- As a result of swerving to miss Grandma Death, Frank hits Gretchen with his car and kills her.
- Due to Frank killing Gretchen, Donnie kills Frank.
- Donnie realizes what is going on and fully understands the book now. He goes home and sets everything right by allowing the aircraft engine to kill him.
The Manipulated Living
The Manipulated Living are often the close friends and neighbors of the Living Receiver.
They are prone to irrational, bazaar, and often violent behavior. This is the unfortunate result of their task, which is to assist the Living Receiver in returning the Artifact to the Primary Universe…
The Manipulated Living are everyone else in the movie, other than Gretchen, Frank, and Donnie. They play a seemingly unconscious role in the Ensurance trap, whereby they act “bizarre” because they are somehow alert of the fact that the world is ending. They are acting irrationally in order to save it, even though they are not conscious of any of this.
There are not really a wealth of examples of the “bizarre/violent” behavior without stretching, but here goes. Kitty, the health teacher, is obsessed with two things, one, the cult-like “fear/love” system by Cunningham, which ultimately results in her leading his defense team when he is found out as a child pornographer. This, in turn, leads to Donnie’s mom having to leave. Also, she is obsessed with the dance team, Sparkle Motion, winning the talent contest. Because if they don’t, the artifact cannot find it’s place back.
Other small things include how his parents act, his father being glad Donnie got suspended, and his mother asking for a divorce which never happens. Donnie’s shrink giving him a placebo pill instead of actual medication (which further argues that he is not insane). Teacher writing “Cellar Door” on the chalkboard, teacher making Gretchen pick a seat “next to the cutest boy”, teacher making them read/watch very questionable material in class.
A lot of people just act a little “strange” throughout the film.
When the Manipulated awaken from their Journey into the Tangent Universe, they are often haunted by the experience in their dreams.
Many of them will not remember.
Those who do remember the journey are often overcome with profound remorse for the regretful actions buried within their dreams, the only physical evidence buried within the artifact itself; all that remains from the lost world…
The movie ends, with the key cast members all waking up from what appears to be a dream, or in some cases, a nightmare. The teachers wake up happy, they still have their jobs, and feel somehow content with their role in setting things right in their dream. Cherita wakes up happy having remembered when Donnie promised her everything would be better.
Kitty wakes up remorseful after realizing that she devoted herself to a pedophile. Cunningham wakes up horrified, remorseful of being a fraud and a pedophile (whom, according to the cryptic Donnie Darko website later commits suicide).
Frank wakes up rubbing his eye.
Others, such as Gretchen and Donnie’s mom, seem ignorant to the occurrences other than having a strange familiarity with one another at the end of the movie, even though they never actually met. The therapist also wakes up in the middle of the night but I am really unsure as to why.
Summary and Conclusion
To summarize the above: A rift happens at the beginning of the movie splitting the universe into a tangent. The movie takes place entirely within the tangent; where everyone in the movie is, consciously or unconsciously, working toward closing the rift to ensure the real world doesn’t end. Donnie is the unfortunate individual stuck in the middle. In order to make things right, he needs to make sure the jet engine kills him before the rift sucks the real world into oblivion. The entire movie is centered around setting up/making sure, Donnie does just that. By the end, he understands fully what is going on, and fulfills his destiny. He dies, and the world goes on as it was supposed to.
I believe that the writer/director have made it quite clear at this point that The Philosophy of Time Travel should be taken as canon. As such, the movie is a pure sci-fi tale of time travel and parallel universes. While I think other interpretations are interesting to read, I do not believe that is how the movie was meant to be received. Especially with respect to the “emo” crowd.
I do not believe it was a tale of a troubled young man, who saw the future. Saw the future and saw himself causing all sorts of damage to the world, due to paranoid schizophrenia. Later killing himself to save the world from his dastardly deeds. I believe the addition of the scene where his doctor talks of giving him placebo pills further solidifies the fact that even she did not believe him to be ill. So please, emo kids, pick a different movie to love so I don’t feel gay when I watch Donnie Darko.
Also published on Medium.