Donnie Darko: I think I understand, but can you explain? (possible spoilers?)

For the second time the other night I watched Donnie Darko. I really enjoyed it. It seems to have the same feel as American Beauty which is a favorite of mine, however, is this one of the movies that does not have a true meaning but a sense of “What you take out of it”?

It is quite confusing for anyone who has seen it, but I’m turning to the dopers to help me out. Is there an “emperical” (for lack of a better word) ending or is it supposed to be abstract? If there is supposed to be an ending with a definite meaning, what is it and what happens?

I took it as abstract and it was one of the movies that kept me thinking far after the movie (which to me, makes a good movie) What do you all think?

Definite ending or what you should take out of it? Other thoughts?

I don’t think you’re going to get an “empirical” ending, but here’s what I make of it:

Grandma Death has some insights as to how the dead act outside of time to guide and manipulate people on the material plane.

Donnie is sort of a Schroedinger’s Cat. He’s being manipulated by extradimensional entities who have a sort of God’s eye view of things. They are working from outside of time to allow him to make choices that effect the people he cares about.

The entire part of the film in which Donnie is alive is an alternate timeline that exists mainly to show him the options that are available that he’s unaware of. That’s not quite right.

He’s fated to die in a way that seems senseless. The diegesis of the story exists to show him why it’s not actually that bad, and to give him the opportunity to “choose” it. The dead, after their deaths, get “let in on” the joke. Except that part of the joke is that time is an illusion, and so they get let in on the joke before they actually snuff it.

Frank was “in on the joke” at the beginning of movie, which is why he (otherwise inexplicably) honked his horn like a madman when he dropped Donnie’s sister off in the wee hours of the morning. He was trying to get Donnie out of his bed, so that he wouldn’t get hit by the jet engine.

The idea is that death releases you from the point-of-view of the Ego, and makes you aware of the capitalized Greater Good. Frank wanted to save Donnie’s life. (There’s a strange loop here, because Frank wouldn’t be dead if Donnie didn’t survive the accident.)

Donnie’s “free” week shows him that, in some ways, it would be better if he were squashed by a jet engine. He has suddenly fallen in love with Gretchen-- and his sacrifice will allow her to live. It will also allow Frank to live, and, although when he kills Frank, he’s just some jerk who ran over the girl he loved, his enlarged perspective makes him realize that Frank is necessary for his sister’s happiness.

So, in a gross net sense, it’s better for the people he cares about about if poor Donnie lets himself be squashed by the jet engine.

The writer cheats a bit though, and allows the positive changes that Donnie made in the alternate reality to ripple through into the “real” reality. The alternate Donnie takes steps that result in Patrick Swayze’s character being exposed as a child molester, and he also give words of comfort to Cherita (the nerdy girl.) On the night that Donnie dies, Mr. Kiddy-diddling Motivational Speak has a crisis of conscious, without his house being burned down and his kiddy-porn stash being discovered, and Cherita is shown looking at ease for the first time in the entire film. (Speculatively, I think that there may be some connection intended between Gretchen and Cherita Chen, since Cherita is clearly infatuated with Donnie, writing his name in her notebook, and his minor act of kindness with her mirrors his ultimate sacrifice for Gretchen. My take on this is that the writer considers that, with a “God’s eye view,” a casual act of kindness like offering a few words of comfort is pretty much equivalent with laying down a life.)

Donnie laughs hysterically at Frank’s warning because he sees Frank taking an action that Frank must know will result in his own death, and that Frank values a relative stranger’s life over his own. This is funny to Donnie because he knows that Frank is only choosing this because he has the “God’s eye view,” – but Donnie also has the “God’s eye view,” and also knows that his life is worth laying down. Frank is choosing to die so that Donnie doesn’t have to die, but but Donnie is choosing to die (in part) so that Frank won’t have to die. How deep does this recursion go? What was Grandma Death thinking when she stood in the road in anticipation of Frank’s speeding car?

In the context of Donnie Darko, we’re all here to learn that, ultimately, we aren’t worth shit, compared to everyone else. But everyone else has to learn that, too, so that, taking a broad view, it’s a cruel, cruel joke.

The kind at which, when you finally get, you laugh at like a hyena, through the tears, as you wait for that damned jet engine turn you into a fine pink mist settling over your Transformers figures and The Cure LPs.

Yes, I love this movie.

chefIL11-try watching the director’s cut, if you haven’t already.

It makes things a little clearer by having extracts from Grandma death’s book read narrated over events.

Basically, Donnie should never have survived, and the only way to save the world by ending the time anomaly was for him to get squashed by the engine. All the characters within the anomaly will try and ensure that this happens, in one way or another, although the final choice must be Donnie’s.

My reading of the take home message is that “shit happens, but it happens for a reason”.

But yep, basically what Larry Mudd said.

Jesus Christ! How much clearer could it be?

No, really, think of Donnie as Jesus and it makes a hell of a lot of sense. He some how realizes that if he doesn’t die like he is supposed to, his family and friends will go through hell. So, he dies for them, to save them from their sins and such.

This becomes pretty apparent, for instance, when Donnie and Gretchen go to see the “Last Temptation of Christ” right near the end of the story. Time traveling and Frank are all just ways he is able to see into the future and nothing more.

They didn’t see Last Temptation of Christ, they watched Evil Dead.


It is all coming together now… very very interesting.

No one touched on donnie and his medication. How does this pertain? What about this “bunny” that makes him do things to the school?

Maybe I missed something but, during this week, does Donnie know that he is going to die? I understand he is told by this “mystical bunny”, but does he realize what it actually means because he’s experienced it and he’s going back and at the same time trying to figure out how in the hell he’s reliving his life?

now, I remember someone with the bunny mask and drawings at the end. What does this mean?

Donnie is medicated because this isn’t the first time he’s been “guided” by the dead to do apparently psychotic things. (He explains to Gretchen that he has been in trouble for setting fires – as they have unknowingly stopped in front of Patrick Swayze’s character’s house, which Donnie will later be guided to burn down.)

The bunny, we learn by the end, is Donnie’s sister’s new boyfriend Frank, in his wicked cool Halloween costume, which he was wearing when Donnie shot him in the alternate reality.

Another reason I love Donnie Darko is that it’s a “movie movie” – there’s a metric tonne of cinematic intertextuality. The Last Temptation of Christ is on the bill with The Evil Dead, which is kind of a comment on the ambiguity of what’s happening to Donnie. Frank appears like a ghost or zombie, and has a sinister aspect. (The conversation in the theatre is a bit of a nod to An American Werewolf in London, BTW.) Anyway, the appearance of dead people intruding in the world of the living is scary and sinister, and Evil Deadish, so you’ve got that going on. But the metaphysical reality of what’s happening to Donnie isn’t B horror, it’s much more like The Last Temptation of Christ, in which (Does this need a spoiler? I’ll be cautious)Jesus, on the cross, is shown an alternate reality in which he doesn’t die. He gets to be with his best girl instead – but she ends up dying, and Jesus then ends up marrying another woman with the same name. “There is only one woman in the world, they have different faces.” In this “alternate timeline,” Judas eventually guides Jesus into accepting the necessity of his sacrifice and poof the alternate reality (or dream/hallucination/whatever) vanishes and Jesus gives up the ghost on the cross.The rabbit costume also references Harvey, in which Elwood P. Dowd’s best friend and counsel was a 6’ 3 1/2" white rabbit (with the ability to manipulate time) that nobody else could see. Elwood also receives psychiatric treatment to cure him of his “delusion.”

Slight hijack. Isn’t it uncanny how perfectly “Mad World” fits with the film. In another thread there was a reference to an interview with either Curt Smith or Roland Orzabal. Anybody have a link to it? The song seems written specifically for the film. Or might the film have been inspired by the song?

I agree the song works perfectly. It wasn’t the first choice, though-- it was supposed to be U2’s “MLK,” off The Unforgettable Fire.

Both have the 80s connection, and I can see how MLK fits with the theme (and the cool thunderclouds,) but that version of Mad World is way more effective than a U2 song ever could have been. As you say, it seems like it was made for the film.


There’s a revealing deleted scene that reveals Donnie is taking placebos. Larry Mudd gets pretty close to explaining the movie. The director explains more if you listen to the commentary. Donnie surviving creates a “tangent universe”. This universe is unstable. A messenger is sent to put the universe right. You can decide whether Frank or Donnie are the messengers. Also, I remember something about only metal and water can pass into tangent universes I highly recommend checking out the website:

This was the final nudge that I needed. I went out and bought the director’s cut dvd today – gonna watch it tonight.

I feel a bit of a wanker for not having it already, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be one of those Ridley Scott type director’s cuts that aren’t as good as the original. The reviews seem good, though.

Saw the director’s cut on the big screen, you won’t be disappointed. I’m gonna have to rush out for the DVD myself now. This film is an all time favorite. Love how it’s a sort of moebius strip that folds in on itself. Feels really good on the brain.

My two second review: Load of pretentious bullshit.

But here’s my question - wouldn’t Donnie’s mother and little sister still end up in the plane that loses its engine?

I liked the director’s cut, except sometimes I found the graphic overlays a little bit crap – especially when he was preparing to hit the wormhole and it was a bunch of vaguely NASA-ish technobabble and imagery. That bugged me because it confused “natural” time travel with technological time travel. Also, the repeating o fthe crash from the Wipe Out video game was a little too obvious. I liked that in there as one of the subtle details – didn’t need to be hit over the head with it.

One of the changes that I thought was pretty cool was the inclusion of Oingo Boingo’s Stay as the first song in the Halloween party scene. “Hey! That’s off Dead Man’s Party!:cool: And of course the lyrics are totally appropriate. Well, maybe not totally appropriate. Totally appropriate Boingo would have been Is This?:

But Stay works too. “Won’t you stay with me one more day? If we can get through one more night…” is pretty damned fine, under the circumstances. And there’s “This is not a party where people know your name - This is not a classroom with teacher at the board,” which works nice with Donnie’s concern about whether people “know” him, and also folds into “Hello teacher, what’s my lesson? Look right through me, Look right through me,” in Mad World.

Woot! That’s craft, right there.

Guanolad, Mrs. Darko was on the plane because Frank told Donnie to burn down Cunningham’s house. The discovery of the kiddie porn dungeon made nasty Mrs. Farmer concentrate all her attention on working on her cult hero’s defense fund, so she couldn’t chaperone Sparkle Magic on their Star Search trip, and had to ask Mrs. Darko to do it. With Donnie dead, that doesn’t happen. The Star Search thing probably doesn’t happen either.

Even still, whoever was on the plane (which might still include the other members of Sparkle Magic and Mrs. Farmer) would probably be fine apart from soiled underpants. The plane just lost an engine. Hell, sometimes the whole damned cabin splits in two over open sea and folks make out okay. :wink:

Can’t help self. Have to link.

Daffy Darko:

Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!

Come on. Someone had to say it. :stuck_out_tongue:

Larry Mudd, I don’t haven’t seen the director’s cut yet, but I heard “Killing Moon” by Echo & the Bunnymen was replaced. Is that true? That song, much like the others, is perfect for the movie.

And wasn’t the original song from the Halloween party scene “Under the Milky Way” by The Church? I hope I’m wrong, because I’d hate for that to be cut, too.

Damn it, now I’ve got to get the DVD tonight. I love this movie and whenever any of these threads comes up, I’m always itching to see it again. Great explanation, Larry. That makes the most sense of any that I’ve heard so far.