Donnie Darko Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

The Note On The Fridge, Gretchen’s Greeting & Other Clues To The Movie Donnie Darko (2001). Donnie Darko: Meaning Of The Film, Explanation Of The Plot & Ending.

Country: USA

Genre: Drama, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller

Year of production: 2001

Director: Richard Kelly

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Maggie Malone, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barymore

The meaning of the film “Donnie Darko” twenty years after the release of the screens continue to be actively discussed. Reviews with new interpretations are constantly being written, despite the fact that director Richard Kelly himself has repeatedly offered an explanation of the plot of his creation in interviews.

Analysis of the plot

October 1988 The protagonist is a high school student Donnie Darko suffers from sleepwalking. On the night of October 2, he hears a voice, sees a man in a rabbit costume with a predatory grin named Frank, and leaves the house at his behest. He reports that in more than twenty-eight days the world will end. Donnie wakes up on the golf course. When he returns home, it turns out that at night an airplane engine fell right on his room in the house. The authorities are trying to find out the circumstances of the incident, but cannot understand where this engine came from.

Donnie Darko and his imaginary friendJake Gyllenhaal as Donnie Darko, Jena Malone as Gretchen Ross and Frank’s imaginary friend. Frame from the film.

A new student appears in Donnie’s class – Gretchen Ross. Young people begin to be friends, although the girl notices that Donny is a little strange. The boy’s visions become permanent. He visits a psychotherapist and takes medication, but it does not help.

Donnie Darko asks his physics teacher about the time travel that Frank told him about. The teacher gives him a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel. Its author, Roberta Sparrow, is now an elderly woman who everyone in town thinks is insane. She constantly crosses the road, not looking at passing cars to see if there is a letter in the mailbox.

Donnie, once again delirious, climbs into the school at night and cuts pipes with an ax, causing the building to flood with water. After some time, he also sets fire to the house of Jim Cunningham, who lectured at the school about the right and happy life and with whom he and Donnie had a skirmish. After a fire in Jim’s house, child pornography tapes are found.

Patrick SwayzePatrick Swayze played the role of Jim Cunningham. Frame from the film.

Before the arson, Donnie was in contact with Frank. He, at his request, removed the mask, under which was the face of a young man with a shot through the eye.

Before the celebration of Halloween, the father of the hero leaves for work, the mother and her youngest daughter fly on a plane to a dance competition. Donnie and her older sister are having a party, which is attended by people in costumes and masks. The hero sees a note on the refrigerator door with the words “Frank was here, went for a beer.”

He, along with Gretchen and two friends, rush to the house of Roberta Sparrow. There, in the basement, they are attacked by Donnie’s classmates who were in conflict with him. One of them grabs Gretchen, pushes her out of the building and throws her onto the side of the road. A car appears on the road. His driver, trying to bypass Roberta standing on the road, does not notice the lying girl and runs over her. The same Frank comes out of the car – a guy in a rabbit costume. Donnie pulls out a gun and shoots him in the eye. The hero takes Gretchen’s body and drives out of town. There he watches the approaching tornado. The plane on which Donnie’s mother and younger sister are flying hits him, and the engine falls on the house of the Darko family.

Time turns back, and together with the hero we find ourselves in his room on the very night when the turbine fell on it. Donnie isn’t going anywhere this time. He laughs, falls asleep and dies. In the morning people gather around the destroyed house. Gretchen drives by. The boy, Donnie’s neighbor, tells her about what happened and asks if she knew this guy. Gretchen says no, but waves to the hero’s grieving mother, who raises her hand in response.

Ending explanation

So, the director of “Donnie Darko” Richard Kelly, in addition to the special edition of the film on DVD, as well as in other interviews, gave an explanation of the ending and the content of his creation.

Why then do new analyzes continue to come out with the revelation of the hidden meaning of the picture? The fact is that Kelly’s explanation does not turn out to be exhaustive: he put too many hints, quotes, references into the film, which can be interpreted in very different ways. The task was to shoot not just science fiction, but a multifaceted philosophical drama with its own atmosphere. It succeeded, but it also confused the audience.

The meaning of the ending of the film “Donnie Darko”, according to Richard Kelly, is as follows: the hero is not crazy, he really traveled through time and returned, sacrificing himself. And to understand how this happened, and how it affected the characters, you need to delve into the details.

To understand the meaning, it is better to watch the director’s version of the picture, which is twenty minutes longer than usual. It is filled with quotes and excerpts from Roberta Sparrow’s book. Text and drawings from there are also posted on the official website of the film “Donnie Darko”.

According to Roberta Sparrow’s theory, the universe is in danger. The writer calls it the main universe. The danger arises from the appearance and destruction of another – tangential (or tangent) universe. The tangential universe appears in rare cases when the fourth dimension – time – is damaged. It exists for only a few weeks, and then forms a black hole in the main universe, capable of destroying all life.

Drew and JakeDrew Barrymore as Karen alongside Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko). Frame from the film.

Before the appearance of the tangential universe, an artifact consisting of metal seems to fall into the main one from nowhere. In order to accompany the artifact to the main universe, a living guide is chosen – a person with the power of the fourth dimension, that is, time.

While the living conductor is in the tangential universe, he is tormented by nightmares, visions, hallucinations. He interacts with manipulators. Often these are close friends or neighbors of the guide. Manipulators, on the one hand, help him return the artifact to the main universe, on the other hand, they will try to save themselves from oblivion, sometimes behaving strangely, irrationally, aggressively.

In the tangential universe, there may be a dead manipulator – a person who died here. He is stronger than a living conductor and is able to communicate with him through the construction of the fourth dimension consisting of water – time.

The manipulators put the conduit in such a position that he has no choice but to use his power and send the artifact to the main universe before the black hole destroys all life.

Waking up after traveling through the tangential universe, some manipulators do not remember anything, while others are haunted by memories of what happened in it. An artifact serves as material evidence of the events that have occurred. Such an artifact was once an arrowhead that fell from a cliff in the absence of enemies nearby, with which a Mayan warrior was killed. Another artifact was the still unforged sword that killed the knight.

In accordance with the content of Roberta Sparrow’s book, the following picture emerges: Donnie Darko is a living guide; the people around him are manipulators; Frank is a dead manipulator; everything that happened in the film up to the final – events in the tangential universe; an artifact made of metal that killed the hero – an aircraft turbine.

That is, Donnie, starting from the first day, as we observe him, found himself in a tangential universe that lasted until the morning after Halloween. His thoughts and actions here were indirectly provoked by everyone around him – manipulators.

Frank went for a beerFrame from the film.

And Frank, the man in the bunny costume, controlled Donnie directly. In the end, Donnie delivered an artifact (a turbine from an airplane) using telekinesis (according to the director, he has this ability as a superhero) to the main universe, which led to a tragic ending for him and salvation for everyone else.

The Philosophy of Time Travel doesn’t say why things happen the way they do. Roberta writes about divine providence and is not inclined to look for reasons for this state of affairs. The book (at least in the part shown to us) does not explain why the artifact should kill someone (after all, Donnie, now aware of the upcoming fall of the turbine, could leave the room again) – it just always happened and will happen again.

The actions of people (manipulators and the conductor himself) seem to be predetermined. Including in the denouement: school bullies were supposed to attack Donnie, Gretchen was supposed to be on the sidelines, Frank was supposed to crush her and get a bullet from the conductor in order to control him after death. Another hint of predestination is the transparent construction of the fourth dimension emanating from the chest of living people, the description of which was made by Roberta Sparrow.

Toward the end, thanks largely to the book, Donnie understands the plan, and he calmly kills Frank, says goodbye to everyone in absentia, sends a turbine to the main universe and sacrifices himself.

After the death of the hero, his relatives (at least Gretchen and Donnie’s mother) have vague memories of what happened, as Roberta Sparrow wrote. So Gretchen waves to Donnie’s mother and she answers back. Although they do not know each other in this universe, the girl did not meet the deceased hero at all. We are shown other key characters, including Frank – they also remember something.

Soundtrack at the end of the movie:

Listen Mad World — It’s A Cover Up on Yandex.Music


It turns out that there was no sleepwalking as such: the hero was controlled by Frank, a dead manipulator. It’s just that, unlike living people, he could order Donnie. And Donnie obeyed orders. Often these characters were separated by a surface similar to the water surface. Roberta Sparrow spoke about this when she wrote about water as a construction of the fourth dimension – time.


It is hardly possible to consider Frank a negative character. Rather, he, like Donnie, was drawn into this tangential universe, where he had no choice but to accidentally crush Gretchen, get a bullet and, having understood everything, push the main character to commit certain acts. Frank would be more correctly considered an instrument in the hands of fate or God. And initially, this is just an ordinary guy – the boyfriend of Donnie’s older sister, with whom he had not crossed paths before. He ended up on the road because he went for a beer. The bunny costume is just a Halloween outfit.

Rabbit FrankFrame from the film.


The girl is manipulative and manipulated, although, like everyone else with the exception of the dead Frank, she does not realize this. Let’s trace the chain of events connected with it.

Gretchen saw Donny for the first time by sitting next to him in a class of her choice, thanks to another manipulator, Ms. Pamiroy, an English literature teacher. Donnie tells Gretchen, “I’m glad the school flooded today.” This means that if the flooding had not occurred, the heroes would not have had a frank conversation. And it happened at the direction of the dead manipulator – Frank.

Gretchen kissed Donnie when he apologized for school bullies who spoke out about the girl’s family in a lesson where a joint science project of young people was shown. Donnie and Gretchen made love, again, largely due to the emotional intensity of the heroine due to the disappearance of her mother.

Gretchen and DonnieFrame from the film.

As a result, the heroes became close and Gretchen, without hesitation, ran with Donnie to the house of Roberta Sparrow, Death’s grandmother, next to whom she died. And Donnie, also without hesitation, shot Frank because of the death of his beloved.

Grandma Death

Roberta Sparrow, or Grandma Death, is also a manipulator and manipulated.

Why did Donnie run to her basement? Because Miss Pamiroy wrote on the blackboard before she left school: “Door to the basement.” Why did the car run over Gretchen? Because he was driving around Roberta, who was standing on the road after she received a letter from Donnie. Walking to the mailbox, all the time risking getting hit by a car, in her spirit. We can say that in this way she unconsciously prepared for this key event (remember the irrational actions of manipulators). Although she knows, no doubt, more than others, otherwise she would not have written her book.

old deathFrame from the film.

The words that Roberta whispers to Donnie (“Every living thing on earth dies alone”) are something of a pep talk. It seems that it was this phrase that made the hero, before his death, devote time to his loved ones and make peace with them: talk with his mother (the scene in the room), with his father (the scene in the backyard), with Gretchen (at the party). Roberta’s last words are also quite conscious: “A hurricane is coming – you must hurry.”


This is one of the many symbols in the movie Donnie Darko. The main character went to prison because he set fire to an abandoned house. He later sets fire to Jim Cunningham’s house. A turbine hits Donnie’s house. In the lesson, the students discuss the story of the destruction of the house by teenagers. A collision occurs in the basement of Roberta Sparrow’s house, resulting in the death of Gretchen. Home is also Donnie’s personality, drawn to death. This is the world that is collapsing and which the hero has to save.

Details, symbols and images

The film has a huge number of small but significant details and references. Here are just a few of them:

  • In the beginning, Donnie’s mother reads Stephen King’s book It, in which a terrible clown terrorizes children. The companion of Frank the Rabbit, who brought down Gretchen, turns out to be a guy in a clown costume. It from King’s novel lived in the basement. The tragic events at Donnie Darko also began in the basement.
  • The film takes place in 1988. Frank informs Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. If you add these numbers, you get 88.
  • Donnie tells the therapist about his dead dog. In one of the following sessions, during hypnosis, he picks up a soft dog toy.
  • There is a poster on the ceiling in Donnie’s room: “Swan Song” by Led Zeppelin. Cherita Chen impersonated a swan at the concert.
  • At the beginning of the film, Donnie, riding his bike home, passes a red car. This is the car that will hit Gretchen.
  • The phrase “door to the basement” (“cellar door”) is an anagram of “celar dolore” (translated from Spanish: “to harbor suffering”).
  • During the screening of The Evil Dead, there are only three people in the theater: Donnie, Gretchen and Frank. All three die in the film.
  • The cinema is called Aviation.
  • The turbine of the aircraft is shaped like a bullet – another hint at the suicide of the protagonist.
  • While Gretchen is waiting for the bus, a Volkswagen Rabbit car passes by.
  • On a table in the Darko family’s home is a picture frame of Donnie and his sister. Donnie is wearing a bunny suit.
  • At the end of the film, Donnie arrives in the same place where he was at the beginning.

young loversFrame from the film.

Movie idea

The beauty of the film is that, even without knowing the clue (and without the director’s explanation, it is quite easy to miss it), and concentrating only on dramatic moments, you can catch its meaning.

The main idea is not time travel. The hero lives a segment of life similar to the life of many other teenagers: he falls in love, quarrels with classmates, grumbles at his parents, argues with teachers. He understands that all this was not in vain, it all made sense. He struggles with the inevitable, but in the end he accepts it.

The point is not that all our actions are predetermined, the point is that all of them are important and are part of a common destiny, and, perhaps, God’s plan.

Add a comment