Donnie Darko


Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko

Explaining the Madness

A new theory to help the viewer unravel the cult classic.

Erik A. Coburn

In recent years, Donnie Darko, directed by Richard Kelly, has become a cult classic. While most people who watch this twisted film will love it, few will understand the intricate, multi-layered timeline residing within. But if you analyze the film, you will notice that every little detail, every single line, has significance in determining what really goes on in Middlesex. Let’s delve into the madness, unravel the convoluted uses of time travel, and get some major headaches.

Explaining the timeline

This diagram summarizes Donnie’s travel, to and from the Tangent Universe, to and from the past and the future. It details everything that has occurred in the movie, and includes some information that was unseen. Don’t try comprehending it all at once; we’re about to break this down.

Darko timeline diagram

The entire movie occurs between points B and C on the timeline, aside from the last five or ten minutes, which happen at point A. In other words, everything that is seen takes place in the Tangent Universe: an alternate reality. This is an important point, as things can happen in this Tangent Universe that cannot happen in the Primary one. It is due to these occurrences that the events of the movie unfold.

Before getting into the explanations, there are some phrases that need to be defined:

Tangent Universe— A Tangent Universe is a result of extreme fluctuations in the space-time fabric. Simply put, it is an extreme oddity that manipulates reality. A Tangent Universe is highly unstable and will collapse within a few weeks. The collapse will form a black hole in the Primary Universe (the original) that will destroy everything.
Artifact— The Artifact is the object (usually made of metal) that is a duplicate of something that already exists in the current universe. The appearance of the Artifact is evidence that a Tangent Universe has occurred.
Living Receiver— The Living Receiver is the person closest to the appearance of the Artifact. This person is tasked with guiding the Artifact back to the Primary Universe (I will explain what this means later). He is also “blessed with fourth dimensional powers,” the ability of time travel.
Manipulated Living— Anyone interacting with the Living Receiver becomes known as the Manipulated Living. They are tasked with guiding the Living Receiver through his quest. However, they do this subconsciously.
Manipulated Dead— Anyone who dies within the Tangent Universe becomes a Manipulated Dead. These people are able to communicate with the Living Receiver in an attempt to guide him through his quest. They also have complete control over time, allowing them to manipulate it at will.
Ensurance Trap— The Manipulated Dead will set an Ensurance Trap: A device used to ensure that the Living Receiver will succeed. This is explained later.

With these terms in mind, we can now begin breaking down the timeline.

At point A, the Tangent Universe appears. While this is labeled as October 2 on the timeline, it is, in reality, a bit earlier than that. Donnie traveled between points A and B, leading him, along with everyone else, to a Tangent Universe. Not long after, on October 2, the jet engine smashes into Donnie’s room. The jet engine is the Artifact, making Donnie the Living Receiver.

He’s been here before

Take a deep breath, now. Things are going to start getting confusing. This is not the first time that Donnie has been through the Tangent Universe. There is evidence of this at the very beginning, when Donnie wakes up in the middle of the road laughing. The reason for his laughter is that he has a second chance to fix everything. Also, note that he wakes up in the same exact location where he is at the end of the movie. As evidence of this, all throughout the movie, Donnie hints at having knowledge of things that have yet to happen (stabbing Frank in the eye he later shoots, for example).

Now what does this mean? Donnie frantically tries to save those he cares about (recall the conversation Donnie has about straying from God’s path). Time and time again, he tries, yet inevitably fails due to the collapse of the Tangent Universe. In order to try again, he sends himself back to the beginning, leading from point C to a bit before point B (he can time travel, as he is the Living Receiver), and follows Frank’s advice. The result, however, is inevitably going to be the same.

What is Frank’s story?

Frank is not a supernatural being. He is not a spiritual guide or an embodiment of God. Frank is simply someone who died in the Tangent Universe (Donnie shoots him through the right eye at point C), making him a Manipulated Dead. Afterwards, Frank travels back to point B, saves Donnie, and sets the Ensurance Trap. The purpose of this, if executed correctly, is to steer Donnie to the correct decision of sending the Artifact to the Primary Universe and saving humanity. Every time Donnie resets time, he resets Frank’s progress with Donnie. In other words, Frank’s Ensurance Trap fails.

But, if Donnie is saved by Frank at the beginning, what about his first trip through the Tangent Universe? Frank is killed by Donnie at the end, but Donnie is already dead. This is where the Manipulated Living come into play. They subconsciously attempt to guide the Living Receiver, yet the Living Receiver is dead. Knowing that only the Manipulated Dead can travel back in time, the Living subconsciously kill, or “elect” Frank to save Donnie and guide him (it is because of this subconscious decision that Frank is not killed in the Primary Universe. There are no Manipulated Living in the Primary).

In every other attempt, Donnie shoots Frank before starting over. This is because he knows he needs Frank to succeed (he read through The Philosophy of Time Travel, which illustrates Frank’s necessity).

The Ensurance Trap

The Ensurance Trap set by Frank is a chain of events that leads to Donnie consenting to send the jet engine back to the Primary Universe. It starts with the flooding of the school. This causes school to be canceled, leading to the conversation between Donnie and Gretchen, and ultimately to their dating (her death serves as motivation for Donnie). Burning Cunningham’s house reveals him as a pedophile, meaning Kitty has to show in court. This leads to Donnie’s mom chaperoning on the Sparkle Motion trip, leaving the house empty for the party. During the party, Gretchen shows up, terrified. This serves as the final piece in convincing Donnie that the world is ending, and he realizes what he must do.

Earlier, Frank has Donnie write Grandma Death (Roberta Sparrow) a letter. At the end, she is seen standing in the middle of the road, reading the letter. Frank (the living one) swerves to avoid hitting her and, as a result, kills Gretchen. This death drives Donnie to shoot Frank, sending him back in time to save Donnie from the jet engine (preventing any paradox).

After everything that has happened, Donnie decides that the lives of those he loves (primarily Gretchen) are more important than his, and he consents to go back to the Primary Universe to die. Everything works out perfectly, with nothing overlooked. Frank’s Ensurance Trap is a complete success.

He finally succeeds.

Now that we’ve gotten through the prologue of the movie (and half of the timeline), let’s focus on what is actually seen. Remember that Donnie only survives because of Frank. If it weren’t for Frank, Donnie would’ve died.

In his final run-through of the Tangent Universe, Frank’s Ensurance Trap works successfully, Donnie realizes that he needs to die, and the final ten minutes or so of the movie unfold. Using his fourth-dimensional powers, Donnie guides the Artifact to the Primary Universe (from point C to point A). The Artifact in question is not the same jet engine that falls on the Darko house. Rather, it is the duplicate. Having transported both the duplicate jet engine and himself to the Primary Universe, we then jump to October 2 in the Primary.

Here, we see Donnie lying in bed, laughing hysterically. He does not remember the occurrences of the Tangent Universe, yet retains some lingering feelings. Because of this, even though he was fully aware that the jet engine was approaching his house, he remains in his room. Also, because there are no Manipulated Dead in the Primary Universe, there is no Frank to warn him. Donnie’s Tangent self is aware of the impending doom, yet is satisfied, knowing that he saved those he cares about. The Primary Donnie knows nothing, yet shares Tangent Donnie’s joy and satisfaction. As a result, he wakes up in his bed, laughing, overjoyed.

Tying up the loose ends

Now, even though the entirety of the movie has been explained, there are still some lingering questions. For example, What makes a Tangent Universe so unstable? What does point D represent? How does returning the Artifact correct everything? What would happen if Donnie gave up and let the Tangent Universe collapse? Let’s now answer each of these questions.

What makes a Tangent Universe so unstable?

The answer is simple: Duplicate objects. When the jet engine appears in the Tangent Universe, there exist two of the same exact entity in the universe. This causes a cosmic imbalance, endangering everything within it. Eventually (in no more than several weeks, according to The Philosophy of Time Travel. Frank tells Donnie that the world will end, and this is because of the instability), the Tangent Universe will collapse.

What does point D represent?

There are two copied entities in the Tangent Universe. The additional jet engine had to come from somewhere, and it most likely came from the same jet in the opposite universe. The path traveled of each jet engine is a perfect mirror (from D to B and from C to A). This way, everything remains balanced. At the beginning of the film, both jet engines are in the Tangent Universe. At the end, there is one in each. If it were any other way, there would have to have been a third universe.

How does returning the Artifact correct everything?

When the jet engine is returned to the Primary Universe, there exists one engine in both universes. Since the instability of the Tangent Universe was caused by a duplicate, removing it stabilized everything.

What about the Primary Universe? If it is missing an object altogether, wouldn’t it become unstable as well? No. Think of a universe as a glass filled to the brim with water. If you add any water to it, it’ll overflow, creating a giant mess. If you remove water, however, nothing changes. You are still left with a glass of water.

What would happen if Donnie gave up and let the Tangent Universe collapse?

Notice how, on the timeline, there are no arrows on the right side. In other words, time stops. At the end of the 28 days, the Tangent Universe will collapse. It will die; it will be no more. There will be no time in this universe. According to The Philosophy of Time Travel, the death of the Tangent Universe produces a gargantuan black hole that envelops the Primary Universe as well. Both universes are destroyed.

Donnie does succeed, so time continues in both universes. To residents of the Tangent Universe, Donnie appears to have simply disappeared.

Wake Up

What happened at the end of the movie? According to The Philosophy of Time Travel, everyone, upon waking from the Tangent Universe, will retain some feelings from their journey. Every Primary person bears a connection to his or her Tangent self. Notice how Jim Cunningham, the motivational speaker/pedophile, wakes up in tears. After having been exposed, he wakes up in the Primary Universe with severe guilt. On the Donnie Darko website, it states that Jim shoots himself on the golf course.

Both the teachers, however, are seen in bed, smiles present on both their faces. They both helped Donnie throughout his quest, and are rewarded with satisfaction.

In short, everyone was given a second chance. They were shown their own faults in the Tangent Universe, and, upon returning to the Primary Universe, they are given the choice to change their actions.

Time travel: How is it possible?

The following theory of time travel is a collaboration of the works of Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Brian Greene. Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time, is not only directly referenced in the movie, but the theories presented in the book are discussed by Donnie and Monnitoff, his physics teacher. These theories are built off of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Also, throughout the movie, there is talk of wormholes and portals, a key element in time travel.

According to the theory of general relativity, gravity is caused by the mass of an object weighing down on a sort of “cosmic sheet,” known as space-time. The mass of the object will create a distortion in the fabric of space-time, causing surrounding objects to roll around the massive object (like the earth around the sun, for example). We’ve all seen the diagrams, but keep in mind that it isn’t just space that is distorted, but time as well (hence the phrase “space-time”). This means time actually slows down more drastically depending on the manipulation of the space-time fabric.

With Einstein’s theory in place, let’s now examine Hawking’s addition: Black holes.[1] These are unfathomable amounts of mass condensed to a miniscule point, resulting in an astronomical density. Due to the near-infinite mass of these anomalies, the distortion of the space-time fabric is so dramatic that, if you sat an inch away from a black hole’s pull for one year, 20,000 years would pass on earth. With knowledge of the possible manipulation of time, let’s jump to Brian Greene’s theory: Space is constantly tearing and repairing on microscopic levels.[2] These tears are miniscule examples of the wormholes and portals presented in the movie.

Now, due to what is known as the Uncertainty Principle,[3] these wormholes can occur anywhere in space, allowing anyone or anything to pass through them and potentially travel through time. The reason this works, as far as I can discern, is that a tear in the space-time fabric distorts reality at that point. Inside a tear in fabric, there is no fabric. There is no time, or space, for that matter. After travelling through such a tear, the traveler will re-enter through the area of least resistance. If there is another wormhole, or tear, at another point in time, the traveler will, almost certainly (Blame the Uncertainty Principle), re-enter at that point in time.

While this is theoretically possible in the real world, the chances of two linked tears opening, and remaining open long enough for someone to pass through (Not to mention them being humanly accessible and large enough to transport a human), are infinitely rare. Donnie, however, has been blessed with fourth-dimensional powers. As such, he is able to open two linked wormholes, leading him between any two points on any timeline.

Go back to the beginning

You now know my theories. You’ve read through the entire explanation. Maybe you agree. Maybe you think I’m entirely wrong. In either case, go back to the movie. Watch it over again with my theory in mind. See what else you notice; see if you can add on to it. If you completely disagree, then chances are that you have some theory of your own. Watch the movie again and see what you can piece together yourself. :::


1. Hawking, Steven. Brief History of Time, A. New York: Bantam Books, 1996

2. Greene, Brian. Elegant Universe, The. New York: Random House Inc., 1999

3. This is a complex idea best explained outside of the main text. The Uncertainty Principle is built upon the idea that it is impossible to know, with 100% accuracy, both the position and velocity of any single particle. We observe objects because photons are redirected off the object into our eyes, where our brains interpret the information. We know what the object looks like because billions of these particles are reflected off of the object. The same is true on the subatomic level. Photons (the smallest of particles) are reflected off of, say, an electron. This reflection can be calculated to pinpoint the location of the electron, somewhat like sonar. The problem with this on the subatomic level is that photons will dramatically alter the course of the electron. We can use fewer photons, disturbing its velocity less, yet giving us less information on its position. We can use a constant stream of photons, allowing us to constantly track its location, but its movement will be entirely unpredictable due to the enormous amount of collisions. Expanding this idea to everything (through mathematics and scientific reason that is quite complicated), the Uncertainty Principle states that anything can happen at any time. The chance may be a fraction of a percent, but it is possible.

Erik Coburn believes that a life on the edge is the only life worth living. His personal mantra is “‘Impossibility’ is simply the limits of the human mind.”

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