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Donnie Darko's Most Confusing Moments Explained

"Donnie Darko" doesn't make a ton of sense the first time you watch it. Its confusing nature is part of why it bombed at the box office when it came out, but also why it became a cult classic nearly instantly. Director Richard Kelly invented a new and unique theory of time travel, mysterious artifacts, and pocket universes that can be teased out with multiple viewings, but only if you sift through multiple layers of meaning related to psychology, religion, existentialism, mortality, and the pain of adolescence. The end result is a fascinating puzzle-box of a film that feels like it makes a lot more sense than its storyline suggests. "Donnie Darko" is as cathartic as a therapy session, while functioning as an indecipherable two-hour music video.

Let's see if we can think our way through the strangest and densest parts of the movie. As a disclaimer, this article isn't just about explaining the ending of "Donnie Darko" in a straightforward sense. As Kelly himself made much more explicit in his 2004 director's cut, almost everything in the movie can be explained in terms of the fictional theory of time travel that exists within it: his version is one of the rare director's cuts widely regarded as worse than the original. Instead, let's engage with the more ambiguous theatrical cut, and find the moments when the various plot threads, themes, and meanings collide and mix with one another. These are the most confusing moments in "Donnie Darko," explained.

The Philosophy of Time Travel

Although it has a lot to offer beyond just rational explanations, it's impossible to comprehend "Donnie Darko" without a basic understanding of the science fiction elements. Fortunately, Roberta "Grandma Death" Sparrow (Patience Cleveland) herself wrote a book on the subject, "The Philosophy of Time Travel." At various points, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his teacher, Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), paraphrase excerpts for us. In short, the appearance of the paradoxical jet engine at the beginning of the movie creates a "Tangent Universe," and as the nearest person to "The Artifact," Donnie becomes charged with the mission to ensure the plane enters the vortex at the end of the film and "returns" the engine to where it came from.

In other words, "Donnie Darko" is set in a parallel universe where everyone in Donnie's life is unconsciously working to resolve this jet engine quandary. Everything from Donnie's troubled dreams, his increased strength that enables him to put an axe into a statue's head, his visions of a dead Frank (James Duval) in the rabbit costume — they're all part of the mythology laid out in the book. The presence of the engine — the "Artifact" — will eventually cause a black hole in the "Primary Universe" (i.e. the regular timeline), so Frank isn't lying when he gives Donnie the precise time that the world will end. The curious can find excerpts from "The Philosophy of Time Travel" here and there online, and see how thoroughly it accounts for each little bit of "Donnie Darko." 

The origin of Frank the rabbit

As explained in Sparrow's philosophy, Frank's role as a member of "The Manipulated Dead" (because he dies during the alternate timeline) is to be Donnie's guide through his adventure with the jet engine. He wakes him up and serves as the unsettling Virgil to Donnie's teenage Dante. But if you view the movie through the lens of Donnie's potential paranoid schizophrenia, there are a few clues that the messenger might live solely in his mind. Donnie's younger sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase) can't see Frank in the scene in the bathroom, and we eventually learn that Frank is the boyfriend of older sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal). So Donnie is perhaps drawing from reality.

Midway through the movie, we see that Donnie has also put a drawing of Frank in the rabbit costume over his wall calendar. It's not clear if Donnie drew this himself, and in fact we learn at the end of the movie that Frank is an artist when we see his early sketches of the rabbit mask design— did he draw Donnie's picture as well? Interpretations range from Frank being a product of Donnie's psychosis to the entire story being something that Frank himself is remembering as a dream when we see him touch his eye near the movie's end.

Destruction is a form of creation

Graham Greene's short story "The Destructors" is arguably just as important to understanding "Donnie Darko" as the time travel manual. As we come to learn, Donnie has lived a life that parallels that of the boys in the story, who destroy an old man's home; he's currently in therapy and can't drive until he's 21 after "accidentally" burning down an abandoned house himself. Generally morose and inarticulate about his problems, he immediately understands the motivations of the kids in the story: "Destruction is a form of creation ... they just wanted to see what happens when they tear the world apart."

This makes Donnie a perfect vessel for Frank, who directs him to flood the school and burn down Jim Cunningham's (Patrick Swayze) house. But all of his destructive actions in the movie ultimately serve to create the world anew, and restore order by closing the loop with the jet engine. In a broad and operatic sense, "Donnie Darko" is an allegory for "the pain of puberty," as Graham Greene puts it. When you become a teenager, you enter a phase of nihilistic destruction, whether it's a goth-punk phase or more aimless rebellion against the status quo, as though the plan has been with you all of your life. In destroying your view of the world you find an entirely new one, which you've created for yourself in the throes of early maturation.

Fear and love

A big part of "coming of age" is the acceptance of complexity: There's no real good and evil, and the world isn't as simple as childhood often makes it seem. This is why Donnie sees so thoroughly and immediately through Jim Cunningham's self-help schtick, which involves reducing every scenario in life to either "fear" or "love." Without boiling its message down, "Donnie Darko" states its purpose with the story of Ling Ling and the wallet, in which a woman — acting out of neither "fear" nor "love" — returns a lost wallet but not the money inside it. Not everything can be categorized or reduced to a simple explanation.

Donnie is outraged by the dumb fear-love spectrum for the same reasons he is drawn to Gretchen's (Jena Malone) emotional honesty about her messed-up family life: he is realizing that the "entire spectrum of human emotion" is available to him. If you spend your life looking for clarity, you'll end up a cardboard cut-out of a person like Cunningham or the dreadful Mrs. Farmer (comedic MVP Beth Grant). 

Every living creature on this Earth dies alone

Despite having seemingly unlocked the secrets of the universe, Roberta Sparrow lives up to her "Grandma Death" nickname when she encounters Donnie and points out that we all die alone. You could argue that, being one of the "Manipulated Living" in the Tangent Universe according to her own theory, she says that so that Donnie comes to accept the sacrifice he ultimately has to make. As we learn in Donnie's therapy sessions, the idea that everyone dies alone is something he's tired of debating internally, and makes "the search for god," or meaning, fundamentally absurd.

As we age into adults, we struggle to truly reckon with the idea of mortality, and Donnie especially so as he begins to realize he has to die to stop the world from ending. But as opposed to his childhood dog Tally, he doesn't crawl off to be alone but returns to his family home, dying to save his mother, sister, Gretchen, and everyone else he cares about the most. The existential despair at the idea of dying alone is only troubling insofar as human connection gives life meaning. Even in her madness and decades of fear, driven by glimpses of the true nature of time and the universe, Roberta Sparrow still checks her mail every day, hoping for someone to reach out.

A vector in spacetime, like a spear

The "spears" or vectors emanating from people's chests that Donnie begins to see are a way for "Donnie Darko" to address an inevitable paradox that any time travel movie runs into: free will. If you can see your future, it stands to reason that you would have the option or choice to change it. Donnie follows his own spear to the gun hidden in his parents closet, but it's not until much later that we learn he chooses to take it with him.

Later, looking into Gretchen's spear, he seems to get a whole dose of her future in a flash and he rushes to get to Roberta Sparrow's house. Donnie seems content to operate "within God's channel," as he puts it to Dr. Monnitoff, and follow his glimpses of the future wherever they inexorably lead. He does seem surprised when the journey to Roberta Sparrow's cellar inadvertently leads to Gretchen's death, because he shoots Frank in retaliation with his parents' gun. His motivations are as unclear as the paradox of free will in the abstract: are we the architects of our own fate, or just following a path that we can't see? 

Cellar door and deus ex machina

Donnie's English teacher, Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), plays a small but key role in the climactic events of the movie, as the phrase "cellar door" leads Donnie and Gretchen to their fateful encounter with the school bullies. Somewhat arbitrarily, she randomly writes the phrase on her chalkboard, inspired by a "famous linguist" who claimed it was the most beautiful phrase in the English language: that "famous linguist" was in fact "The Lord of the Rings" author J.R.R. Tolkien.

It's a relatively absurd connection, and the artificiality of it is driven home explicitly when Donnie mumbles the phrase "deus ex machina" while fighting. It refers to a random and unlikely act occurring in a story, usually to save the protagonist from certain peril. Donnie seems at least subconsciously aware that the entire last month of his life, indeed pretty much everything we see in "Donnie Darko," is one endless "deus ex machina." All manner of unlikely events are conspiring to achieve a certain world-saving result.

Sparkle Motion on Star Search

The reason Frank has Donnie burn down Jim Cunningham's house is one of the more difficult things to parse in "Donnie Darko." According to Roberta Sparrow, Frank is setting an "Ensurance Trap" to make sure that Donnie goes through with his self-sacrifice. Since Mrs. Farmer ends up spearheading Cunningham's defense efforts, she can't accompany the dance team Sparkle Motion when they get on "Star Search" in Los Angeles, and Donnie's mother Rose (Mary McDonnell) goes instead. 

As an indirect result of all this switching, the team takes a red-eye flight back instead of waiting until the next day, so this ensures that Donnie's mother and younger sister will be on the very plane that loses an engine. In addition to preventing Gretchen's death, Donnie must also reset the timeline to save his mother and sister as well. This hits a little harder, since he only met Gretchen as a result of Frank's instruction to flood the school to begin with.

Donnie's letter to Roberta Sparrow

Shortly before the dramatic events of Halloween night, Donnie writes Roberta Sparrow a long-awaited letter. Even though he marks the envelope "URGENT," the letter doesn't really seem all that time-sensitive. He says cryptically that he has lots of questions for her that he's afraid to know the answers to, and ends with the poignant "I hope that when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to." 

This indicates that he's emotionally come to accept his death and is perhaps aware that it saves the world in a way, but it's also a deep message about teenage angst and existentialism. In the painful and confusing throes of late adolescence, every problem seems to have intolerable life-and-death stakes. Once you admit to yourself that the things you fear won't end the world, you can live freely and be yourself in a world that makes no sense. In dying to save the world, Donnie is facing the unknown just as much as every child grows up and has to define the world for themselves. In its macabre meditation on fate and death, "Donnie Darko" arrives at a hopeful place: every day is the first day of the rest of your life.

Donnie on the hillside

It's not particularly clear why Donnie drives up to the mountains with Gretchen's body near the very end of the movie, although it brings the story kind of full circle. It's possible that what we've seen in "Donnie Darko" is just one iteration of a time loop: the jet engine creates the unstable pocket universe, and everyone within it repeats the same span of time until they successfully transport the engine back to where it arrived.

This would explain why Donnie is already waking up after "sleepwalking" at night when we first see him: he's at the beginning of another attempt. When it finally ends, he watches the plane enter the vortex with a bemused look: it's possible he's actually causing the plane to get caught in the breach via telekinesis. Another explanation would be that he needs to reach that height to travel back through the wormhole himself, to return to his bedroom on October 2.

Laughing in the face of the absurd

In a profound moment, having rewound the timeline and saved the lives of not only his friends and family but humanity at large, Donnie laughs at the sheer absurdity of it all while lying in bed. After struggling with death, with his own sanity, and with the nature of time itself, it's the happiest we see him look in all of "Donnie Darko." In the face of death, he feels unburdened and nearly hysterical in relief.

Having accepted his death but conquered his fear of dying alone, Donnie laughs at the sheer incomprehensibility of life in a way that would make philosophers like Sartre or Camus proud. This is also a parallel to the end of Graham Greene's "The Destructors," when a truck driver is unable to stop laughing at the destruction of an old man's house: "There's nothing personal, but you got to admit it's funny." 

Trouble sleeping and a sad wave

With the timeline restored, "Donnie Darko" shows us that all of the major characters that Donnie encountered throughout the story are unable to sleep on October 2, clearly haunted by "memories" of an alternate timeline that will now never unfold. Knowing that our hero has just died, we reflect on how many people his life actually touched even though he was generally so self-possessed with his own issues: his favorite teachers, a secret admirer, his therapist. In the end, in the truest sense, we all exist in the memories of others and never truly die alone.

Haunted by these glimpses, Gretchen and Donnie's mother Rose share a strange wave at the very end of the film: a mother whose world has just been shattered, waving to a young woman from a broken home just beginning to put her own world back together as a young adult. "Donnie Darko" is about the terrifying, complex, and hopeful intersection between fear and love. It's hard to decide if it's scarier to consider the world ending, or to think about it carrying on without us when we're gone.