This has quickly become one of my favorite movies of all time. Any movie that involves a seemingly demonic man in a 6 foot bunny suit is already a winner in my book. Add to that some of the funniest lines I’ve heard in a long, long time (“Baby mice“,”Sometimes I question your commitment to Sparkle Motion“,”What’s the point of living if you don’t have a dick?“), and an amazingly complex and intrueging plotline, and a performance by Jack Gyllenhaal that is nothing short of brilliant, and you’ve got yourself a wonderful, wonderful movie you can watch over and over again.
The standard “Star Wars Canon” rules apply: The movie is taken as being completely trustworthy, whereas outside information: Director’s Commentary, the website, notes, Philosophy of Time Travel, and writings made by the director, actors, etc. are seen as helpful, but can be flawed. I’ve decided to accept the deleted scenes as pretty much Canon as well, as they were things that would have been in the movie if movies were allowed to be as long as you wanted.
Alright, you can start with one of two assumptions:
1.) Everything that’s happening is really happening (i.e. It’s not just in Donnie’s Mind), and time (not counting the events surrounding the plane engine.) is traveling as it normally does.
2.) Everything that’s happening is in Donnie’s mind as he is either dreaming, or on some sort of mental adventure (ala: A Christmas Carol, with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.)
Then, I think there are one of two other assumptions, independent of the previous 2:
A.) Donnie is crazy. His mind is messed up, and what he sees we can not believe.
B.) Donnie is not crazy. The things he sees, though strange, are actually happening, in one way or another.
These things the film tells us are true:
1.) Donnie’s pills are placebos.
2.) For seemingly unexplainable reasons, a plane engine smashes into Donnie’s room.
I’ll start off by saying that I don’t believe A is true, mainly because I think it destroys what I’d like to believe is the point of the movie. If Donnie is crazy, and we can’t believe what he sees, then nothing he does can be taken as being very significant or meaningful. (example: If I had killed Hitler, but only because I was insane and accidentally drowned him because I thought he was a beached whale, you can’t look as that action as being a noble or meaningful action made to save millions of lives.) The fact that the pills are placebos add some credibility to this idea, though it by no means proves it.
I could go either way with the first one (1 or 2), though I lean towards 1, because I think it’d be more interesting, and there seems to be more support for it inside and outside the movie. That being said, the underlying theme would remain the same, I think. Basically, if #2 is true, then I’d see the whole movie as an “It’s a Wonderful Life” in reverse, where Donnie sees what will happen if he doesn’t get out of his bed, with the knowledge of what, then, won’t happen if he stays in bed. So that being said, I’m going with an interpretation where Donnie is not crazy, and everything that’s happening is really happening.
A jet engine from the future enters a wormhole, and crashes into Donnie Darko’s room. This triggers a parallel “Tangent” Universe. From that point on, everyone in this Tangent universe is affected/altered. I see like this: Everyone besides Donnie in this Tangent universe exists for the sole purpose of guiding Donnie towards fixing this rift in the space time continuum, though most aren’t aware of it. The Universe (-> God) wants the universe to be made right again, and has thus endowed Donnie with supernatural abilities (at first only while sleepwalking, but at the end he’s harnessed that power), and a messenger, Frank. I don’t think Frank is God, but neither is he the devil. I think of him as a messenger that’ll do whatever it takes to make sure the universe gets back to how it is supposed to be. If you’ve ever seen the episode of Star Trek : The Next Generation -> Cause and Effect, The basic idea is the same: The universe has been altered to broadcast a message, in the hopes that the universe (or at least your portion of it) can be saved.
I think the ways the people have been altered are fairly obvious so I won’t go through each one, but it’s interesting to note that some seem willing or predisposed to helping Donnie on his quest (Gretchen Ross, Dr. Monnitoff, Karen Pomeroy, Dr. Lilian Thurman), and some that seem less willing, basically helping him despite themselves (Jim Cunningham, Kittie Farmer). The more Donnie learns about time travel the more he seems able to harness his new powers (he can see those pseudopods extending from people’s chests, for example). Donnie, with the “help” of Frank, continues to learn. At times, he’s forced to do things he doesn’t want to do (Leave Gretchen to burn Jim Cunningham’s house), but it’s all just another piece in the puzzle. Finally, he knows he has to go to Grandma Death’s house, and once Gretchen is killed, and Frank is shot. Donnie knows what he has to do, so he heads off to the cliff, guides the engine into the wormhole, and with that, the Tangent Universe is sealed and wiped out. We flash back to Donnie in bed, right before the engine crashes through, and he laughs. My take: for the first time (and final time, incidentally), he knows exactly why he’s there, and what he has to do. And he knows by his sacrifice things will be set right: His mom won’t die in the plane crash, Gretchen won’t die, Frank won’t die, etc. The bigger thing that has struck me the last few times I’ve watched it though: His biggest fear seemed to be dying alone… and he finally wasn’t alone. He had met Gretchen, and she really seemed to love him. His dying was suddenly less empty, cause he had that person who loved him, and his death was saving her. So afterwards, you get a quick look at the main characters back in the original universe, and I think it’s implied that they’ve retained small snippets of the events that occurred in the Tangent Universe. Kittie seems to know Jim is a kiddie-porn freak, and Jim seems to know that others know. Charita, the downtrodden girl that no one appreciates is shown at the end as happy. I think she remembers the message Donnie gave her: “I promise you things will be better some day”. And the music matches up to this perfectly: “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.”