Donnie Darko is a crazy film about Donnie, a young fellow who ends up being in the centre of a story full of bizarre happenings. A young Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie. His sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal, plays his sister in the film – Elizabeth Darko. The rest of the Darkos are pretty normal and have a regular life. Donnie, however, has emotional issues and needs to see a therapist regularly. He sleepwalks and finds himself in the middle of random places in the mornings. This is how the movie begins, with Donnie sleeping on a road someplace. It is a brilliant film which sends your mind wandering in the fourth dimension for many years after watching the film. Here’s the full plot and ending of Donnie Darko explained, spoilers ahead.
Setting The Context
The most critical character in this movie is not Donnie Darko, it is Roberta Sparrow. She is referred to as “Grandma Death”. So let’s start with the important question:
Donnie Darko: Who is Roberta Sparrow / Grandma Death?
The movie discloses this later but Roberta was a nun to start with. She suddenly started left the church and became a science teacher at the school. She writes a book called Philosophy of Time Travel. To understand the movie fully, we need to go through the chapters of the book, they are tiny chapters. Clearly, Roberta has experienced a time based phenomenon and the results of that is what she has documented in her book. Notice how it is not titled – Science of Time Travel but Philosophy of Time Travel. This is a hint that the universe has a way to work itself out of a time loop and people don’t control that.
CHAPTER : THE TANGENT UNIVERSE
The Primary Universe is fraught with great peril. War, plague, famine and natural disaster are common. Death comes to us all. The Fourth Dimension of Time is a stable construct, though it is not impenetrable. 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 for no longer than several weeks. Eventually it will collapse upon itself, forming a black hole within the Primary Universe capable of destroying all existence.
This tells us that Roberta has been part of an incident when the fabric of the Fourth Dimension became corrupted. She was part of a highly unstable Tangent Universe which lasted for a few weeks. In the film, however, we are not shown the events of the Tangent Universe that Roberta was in. We are witnessing the events of another Tangent Universe which revolves around Donnie. This sounds complex, stay with me, it gets clearer.
CHAPTER : THE ARTIFACT AND THE LIVING
When a Tangent Universe occurs, those living nearest to 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, such as an Arrowhead from an ancient Mayan civilization, or a Metal Sword from Medieval Europe. Artifacts returned to the Primary Universe are often linked in religious iconography, as their appearance on Earth seems to defy logical explanation. Divine Intervention is deemed to be the only logical conclusion for the appearance of the artifact.
This tells us about a random object (artifact) that will appear out of nowhere once the Tangent Universe has come into existence. This object has no real origin. It is a rift in a timeline that is causing an object to become part of the Tangent Universe. The artifact in the film is the jet engine. It appears in the sky, out of nowhere. The Living are all the people still alive in the Tangent Universe. Basically every real person we see in the film.
CHAPTER : THE LIVING RECEIVER
The Living Receiver is chosen to guide the Artifact into position for its journey back to the Primary Universe. No one knows how or why a receiver will be chosen. 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. Those surrounding the Living Receiver, known as the Manipulated, will fear him and try to destroy him.
This tells us that Roberta was the Living Receiver and was put through incredible trauma because of the experience. This experience has turned her into the paranoid old woman we see. In the film, Donnie is the Living Receiver. He is shown to have dreams right from the beginning of the film. He progressively gains the other powers mentioned. This also shows us that the whole film is inside the Tangent Universe which is centered around Donnie as the Receiver – this is important to know.
Donnie Darko: Plot Explained
These chapters are good enough to start with the understanding of the film. Let’s go back to the start. Donnie wakes up in the middle of a road. He has sleep walked there. Donnie is shown to have emotional problems and is attending therapy. Sometime before the events of the film, there has been a rift in the spacetime continuum. That rift has resulted in the creation of a Tangent Universe. The film is following the events inside the Tangent Universe.
Donnie’s lives with his mom, dad and two sisters. The family has their set of problems but are not dysfunctional. One night, Donnie sleep walks outside the house. For the first time we are introduced to Frank – a person in a bunny suit. For now just consider Frank to be a person from the future who is guiding Donnie. Frank says that the world is going to end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 min and 12 sec. A jet engine comes crashing through Donnie’s bedroom. Donnie is safe because he’s left home and after meeting Frank has slept in a golf course. The Jet Engine appears from nowhere. It is the Artifact. Donnie is the receiver. But now to the pressing question…
CHAPTER : 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. If the Ensurance Trap is successful, the Living Receiver is left with no choice but to use his Fourth Dimensional Power to send the Artifact back in time into the Primary Universe before the Black Hole collapses upon itself.
Donnie Darko: Who is Frank?
I mentioned that Frank was from the future. Frank is also dead. Doesn’t makes sense? Ok, Frank is a Manipulated Dead. Manipulated Dead is a person who has died in the Tangent Universe. This person, after death, has the ability to travel back in time and guide the Living Receiver to get the Artifact back to the Original Universe – the Primary Universe. At some point in the future (in the Tangent Universe), a character called Frank dies. We’ll get to who Frank is and how he dies later on. Frank is now a Manipulated Dead and travels back in time to meet Donnie. Frank begins guiding Donnie towards his mission. Donnie’s mission is transporting the Jet Engine to the Primary Universe before the Tangent Universe collapses. This mission will ensure the Primary Universe doesn’t collapse too. Dead Frank, along with the Living, constantly guide Donnie towards various actions. Each of these actions form a trail culminating at the goal. Does Donnie know what his mission is? No he doesn’t, he learns it through the course of the events. He is mostly playing along.
List of events guiding Donnie’s to his mission
- The first event is Donnie walking out of his bedroom and meeting Frank. This saves Donnie’s life. Donnie tells his therapist about his imaginary friend Frank and the end of the world.
- Later, Donnie and his dad nearly run over an old lady. This old lady is Grandma Death, Roberta Sparrow. She’s constantly looking for mail in her mailbox. She whispers in Donnie’s ear – “Every living creature on Earth dies alone”.
- Frank gets Donnie to bust the water line at school (Donnie doesn’t remember doing this however). This floods the school. The school is called off. This results in Donnie having his first conversation with Gretchen. Gretchen is the new girl who joins Donnie’s class and the two get into a steady relationship. Donnie exhibits extraordinary strength by striking his axe into a solid bronze statue with his bare hands. This is one of the powers of the Living Receiver.
- The school is investigating who was responsible for the water pipes. The gym teacher (Mrs Farmer) blames the English teacher (Ms Karen Pomeroy) for this because of her choice of literature. Karen is teaching a book which involves a group of kids flooding a house.
- Frank asks Donnie – “Do you believe in time travel?”. Donnie talks to Dr. Monnitoff (a teacher) about time travel. This results in Dr. Monnitoff giving Donnie the book – Philosophy of Time Travel. This results in Donnie finding out that Roberta Sparrow, Grandma Death, was once a science teacher at their school.
- The powers of the fourth dimension gives Frank a vision of what people are going to do a little ahead of time. This is shown in the form of a transparent tube emitting out of people. Frank notices a tube emitting out of himself and follows it. It leads him to his parent’s bedroom wardrobe. This results in Donnie finding a gun and keeps it with him.
- Jim Cunningham is a guy who has made it big by giving motivational speeches. He seems to be a guy dedicated to improving the lives of people by inspiring them. The school gym teacher, Kitty Farmer, is a big fan. She shows the class videos of Jim’s speeches. Donnie doesn’t like Jim’s way of looking at life. He has a tiff with Mrs Farmer too because she tries to force Jim’s concepts on to the students. Later Jim comes to school to give a talk, Donnie confronts Jim and is applauded for it. In reality, Jim is a douchebag. He produces kiddie porn in the basement of his house. No one knows this. Donnie accidentally finds Jim’s wallet on the pavement. As a result, he finds out where Jim’s house is.
- Donnie goes to Roberta’s house, but doesn’t find her. He hears Frank’s voice saying – “Send her a letter” and so he does. In the letter he writes “Dear Roberta Sparrow, I’ve reached the end of your book, and there’s so many things that I need to ask you. Sometimes I’m afraid of what you might tell me. Sometimes I’m afraid that… you’ll tell me that this is not a work of fiction. I can only hope that the answers will come to me in my sleep. 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”. What Donnie means here is that his current state of existence has been extremely stressful due to the hallucinations and other connected events. He imagines he would be free if the world actually ended.
- Donnie and Gretchen go to watch a movie. Gretchen falls asleep. Frank appears and takes off his bunny head to reveal a face with a bleeding eye. Frank is dead and is from the future. This is how he looks like once he is dead. Frank gets Donnie to burn down Jim Cunningham’s house. Donnie leaves the theatre, while Gretchen sleeps, and burns down Jim’s house. This results in the fire department finding the kiddie porn set up in Jim’s basement and leads to his arrest. Donnie exhibits the power to conjure fire. This is one of the powers of the Living Receiver.
- Rose’s and Kitty’s little girls are part of a dance team and the team gets selected to go to perform in Los Angeles. But Kitty can’t go because she needs to be around to testify in Jim’s defence. This results in Rose going instead. The dad is already on a business trip and so Donnie and Elizabeth are home alone.
- Ms Karen gets fired because of her choice of inappropriate methodologies. Donnie meets Ms Karen just as she’s leaving and she mentions about “Cellar Door”. She tells Donnie “This famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, that Cellar Door is the most beautiful”. This might sound random but it has a purpose.
- At therapy, Donnie goes through hypnosis. He confesses about flooding the school and burning the house down. He also says he has the ability to build a time machine. He says Frank is going to kill. He sees Frank. He says the skies will open up. The therapist says “if the skies opened up, there would be only him and Frank”. The therapist clearly sees Donnie to be schizophrenic. She’s trying to tell Donnie that what he sees as the end of the world and the skies opening up would be end of any connection with the real world. His mind will get lost within his imaginary world which will have only Frank in it. He will lose everybody else. Obviously the therapist doesn’t believe that the world is going to end. She only feels that Donnie’s world is going to end. She stops Donnie’s medication as they are only placebos. She does this to indicate that Donnie now need real medication, therapy isn’t going to work. They say their goodbyes.
- Elizabeth gets an admit from Harvard. They decide to celebrate it by throwing a Halloween party at their home. This results in people form their school showing up in Halloween costumes. Gretchen shows up too stating that her mother has disappeared.
- Donnie leaves with Gretchen and two of his friends to Grandma Death’s house. They can’t find her. Then Donnie recollects the words “Cellar Door” and they head to the cellar. Two bullies from school are robbing the cellar and they attack Donnie and his friends. In the distance a car appears. Donnie calls it “Deus ex machina” which means “The God Machine” which is typically a plot device in which a person or thing appears out of the blue to help a character to overcome a seemingly insolvable difficulty. In this case the car happens to be approaching them to their rescue.
- However, Grandma Death, who has seen the letter, walks on to the road. The car swerves to avoid her but Gretchen who is lying on the road is not visible and the car drives over her, killing her. Out of the car exits Frank. Yes, this is the same Frank we’ve been seeing as part of Donnie’s hallucinations. But, this Frank is the real Frank. He is still alive in the timeline and is just a regular kid. He is not dead .. yet. He is in a bunny costume heading to Donnie’s house for the halloween party. Donnie is so angry that his love is taken away from him, he pulls out the gun (from his parent’s closet) and shoots Frank in the eye.
- Frank dies. After this Frank becomes a Manipulated Dead and goes back in time to guide Donnie towards his mission. This is not shown in the film, but that is what happens. This is why the hallucination Frank has a bleeding eye. Frank, after he is dead, becomes a vessel to help correct the rift in the spacetime continuum – the Manipulated Dead.
- Grandma Death mentions that there is a storm coming. She is referring to the end of the Tangent Universe. She knows that Donnie needs to complete his mission – of sending the Jet Engine, the artifact, to the Primary Universe. Donnie carries his dead girlfriend and drives to a high spot. The sky is tearing open. The Tangent Universe is collapsing. Donnie’s mom is heading back on a flight with her daughter.
CHAPTER : WATER AND METAL
Water and Metal are the key elements of Time Travel. Water is the barrier element for the construction of Time Portals used as gateways between universes at the Tangent Vortex. Metal is the transitional element for the construction of Artifact Vessels.
This tells us that Water can be used to aid in time travel. Metal objects can be sent through time. Donnie has the power to do this, he is the living receiver.
Donnie Darko: Ending Explanation
All the events that have happened to Donnie has lead to this one point. The Manipulated Dead and Living have lead things such that Donnie is saved from death, finds love, gets Jim arrested, is left home alone, throws a Halloween party, loses his girlfriend and becomes a murderer. While he’s saved, he loses everything. He is now left with the one obvious choice. He can use his powers to send back the Jet Engine before the Tangent Universe collapses. And he does this. He uses his powers to rip out the Jet Engine and sends it back through time. We are taken back to the earlier scene when the Jet Engine comes crashing.
CHAPTER : DREAMS
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. Ancient myth tells us of the Mayan Warrior killed by an Arrowhead that had fallen from a cliff, where there was no Army, no enemy to be found. We are told of the Medieval Knight mysteriously impaled by sword he had not yet built. We are told that these things occur for a reason.
This time when the Jet Engine comes crashing we are shown the creation of the corrected Primary Universe. All of the Manipulated (Living and Dead) remember their existence in the Tangent Universe as a dream. A very real dream. Donnie is awake and laughing, he probably understands the consequence of him being alive and decides to make peace with himself and not leave his bed. The Jet Engine comes crashing and kills Donnie.
- The therapist wakes up with a dream of the Tangent Universe and her experience.
- Jim Cunningham is shown to be crying because of his realization of what he’s been doing and experiences of the arrest and prosecution in the Tangent Universe.
- Donnie’s mom is shown to be in shock. She remembers being in the plane which crashes with her and her daughter. She also remembers the Jet Engine crashing and Donnie escaping his doom in her dream.
- Frank wakes up with a pain in his eye, a dream of getting shot in the eye.
- Gretchen, who is passing by Donnie’s house, asks a kid what happened. The kid replies that Donnie got smushed by a Jet Engine. Gretchen has had a dream too and waves familiarly at Donnie’s mom. His mom waves back.
Why does Donnie have to die?
He doesn’t, he chooses to. The timeline has corrected itself and in the Primary Universe, Donnie is dead but the Universe is stable. There is a general confusion about the importance of Donnie’s death with respect to the stability of the universe. Well, given that Roberta Sparrow has been a Living Receiver before and that she’s still alive, there is no compulsion that the Living Receiver needs to die to restore the stability of the Universe. Only the artifact needs to be returned. Which means Donnie chose his death.
Let us assume that Donnie once again leaves his bed. This time he would not do it because of his sleepwalking. We know this because Donnie is awake and laughing before the Jet Engine crashes. He would leave his bed knowing that the Jet Engine would smush him. After this, if he would not be able to do any of the other things – like flooding the school and meet Gretchen. He is the Living Receiver only in the Tangent Universe, he has no powers in the Primary Universe.
His being alive would not cause any of the events from the Tangent Universe to happen again. Yet he doesn’t leave his bed. He makes peace with himself and chooses death. Perhaps he feels his purpose was to restore the balance to the universe and that he has served his purpose and is ready to die. He also knows what Roberta Sparrow has become because of being the Living Receiver, a paranoid old lady. Maybe that would be the fate of Donnie as well. Perhaps he feels dying is better and so he does.