The Ending of ‘Donnie Darko’ Explained

One of the most complex portrayals of time travel in film history, the ending of 'Donnie Darko' is filled with clues and double meanings.
Donnie Darko Explained

Ending Explained is a recurring column in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider the ending of the cult classic Donnie Darko. Yes, prepare for spoilers.

Two decades after its release, Richard Kelly‘s Donnie Darko still boasts one of the most delightfully mystifying movie endings of all time. Regardless of how impressive your attention to detail is, it’s essentially impossible to fully comprehend every important aspect of the film without multiple viewings: from its exceptionally complex time travel philosophies to its parallel universes, time-bending telekinesis, and everything in between. So, I took the liberty of doing some of the heavy lifting myself so that you don’t have to. Here’s my noble crack at unpacking the film’s marvelously perplexing third act. 

Donnie follows Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young misfit who, at the beginning of the film, is out sleepwalking and therefore avoids being crushed by a jet engine that lands in his bedroom. Following his near-death experience, strange things start happening in Donnie’s life, including, but not limited to: the constant presence of a man in a bunny suit named “Frank” that only he can see, the appearance of glowing, worm-like portals, and mysterious encounters with Roberta Sparrow, the old author of a time-travel manifesto. 

It is obvious that all of these oddities have some special purpose in Donnie’s life. However, it is not quite clear what that purpose is until the very end of the film. Things only really start to come together when Frank instructs Donnie to burn down the house of a motivational speaker named Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). Upon attempting to salvage Jim’s home, police discover his stash of child pornography, which leads to his arrest.

Because Jim is now in jail, a woman named Ms. Farmer, who was supposed to chaperone Donnie’s little sister, Samantha (Daveigh Chase), on a cross-country dance trip, is unable to leave town because she is preoccupied with trying to help the disgraced motivational speaker. So Donnie’s mom, Rose (Mary McDonnell), accompanies Samantha to LA instead.

Meanwhile, Donnie and his girlfriend, Gretchen (Jena Malone), are at home celebrating Halloween. Attempting to make sense of the apocalyptic messages that Frank has been delivering to him, Donnie begins to suspect that Roberta’s time travel manifesto might offer him the potential to save the world.

So Donnie and Gretchen set out to hunt Roberta down. Disaster strikes, however, when, on their way, Gretchen is hit and killed by a car that swerves to avoid hitting the old woman. The driver of the car is Frank, who Donnie shoots in the eye out of distress, giving him the same wound he has throughout the film.

After shooting Frank, Donnie looks up to see a tear in the sky, which simultaneously causes Samantha and Rose’s plane to crash, with its engine falling off and into Donnie’s bedroom. At this point, Donnie time travels for the first time, sending himself back to his bedroom at the time that the jet crashes and allowing himself to be crushed to death by the object in the process. This action sets the clock back 28 days. Donnie is dead, he and Gretchen have never met, and Gretchen, Rose, and Samantha are still alive. The end.

Okay – so that’s how everything goes down. But what does it mean? One of the keys to understanding the ending of Donnie is the knowledge that the film features not one but two universes. The first universe is where the October 2nd plane crash and everything before it takes place; the second universe is where everything after that occurs. Most of the film takes place in Universe #2, which is an exact replica of Universe #1.

But why does Donnie get sent to the second universe in the first place? Well, because of his initial survival of the crash. Indeed, because Donnie avoided being killed by the jet engine, he inadvertently disrupted the natural order of things. Therefore, the engine had no choice but to enter the tangent universe – and give Donnie a chance to restore order in the world.

The problem is that the tangent universe cannot handle having a foreign object in it, and if the object doesn’t get sent back to the real world within 28 days, the alternate reality will collapse in on itself and destroy the original world in the process. Therefore, everything that happens to Donnie in the tangent universe is geared toward making sure that he knows to sacrifice himself in order to send the engine back to its rightful place.

This is where things start to get really complicated, as it becomes clear that the jet engine is actually a product of the tangent universe’s eventual collapse. Indeed, the reason the plane crashes at the end of the film is that the tangent universe has collapsed in on itself and, during this, created a tear in the sky. But at the beginning of the film, this can’t have happened yet, because Donnie hasn’t yet avoided the crash and given the engine a reason to be teleported. This suggests that Donnie’s time travel also functions as a paradoxical time loop, wherein there is no clear beginning or end.

Once it becomes clear that almost everything in Donnie occurs in the tangent universe in an attempt to guide Donnie back to his bedroom to sacrifice himself, the strange events of the film start to make a little more sense. Frank, for example, functions as Donnie’s chaperon from beyond the grave, guiding him to the very moment that he kills him on Halloween night so that he can move between universes and act as his mentor (it seems that only the dead can do this).

The first thing Frank instructs Donnie to do in the film is flood his high school. While this might initially seem like a random act, it’s what ultimately leads him to walk Gretchen (whom he later kills Frank over) home, asking her out on the walk. Similarly, Frank tells Donnie to burn down Jim’s house, which forces Rose to accompany her daughter on the dance trip, thus putting her on the fated airplane and giving Donnie even more incentive to sacrifice himself for his loved ones.

While Donnie ends with our protagonist making the noblest of sacrifices, however, the final shot suggests that the tangent universe is still out there in some capacity. At the very end of the film, Gretchen and her little brother pass Donnie’s house to find cop cars and ambulances outside, as well as a tearful Rose grieving the recent death of her son. The two stop and observe the scene, and Gretchen tells her brother that she never met Donnie. But instead of moving on, she waves at Rose with an unmistakable look of recognition in her eyes. Perhaps a part of her remembers the reality that she and Donnie shared in another world.

Aurora Amidon: Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.