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Donnie Darko is a film that leaves a lot of questions unanswered, which was arguably the intention of writer and director Richard Kelly. But by the end of the film, there are some questions that still have been lingering--even years after the release--that are begging to be explored in further depth. Specifically, the ending and the feeling of déjà vu haunting each character.
Released in 2001, Donnie Darko opened to a slow box office, but quickly gained a devoted cult following. The science-fiction drama centered around a troubled teenager named Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is led through a number of tasks by a creepy, rabbit-costumed figure known as Frank. All the while, Donnie struggles with determining the strange and surreal elements to which he is being exposed, and we question whether or not this is a part of his schizophrenic nature, or based in a new reality. As Donnie is led on a journey based in an alternate reality, a number of characters -- including his older sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal); his mother, Rose (Mary McDonnell); his psychotherapist, Dr. Thurman (Katharine Ross); his love interest, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone); his conservative gym teacher Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant); a creepy motivational speaker, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze); and more characters in his hometown of Middlesex -- become increasingly important to Donnie’s story, and the tasks in this alternative universe to which he has been brought. It is because of these characters’ importance that they are left with unsettling feelings at the close of the story.
Throughout the film, a countdown clock signifies how much time is left in this seemingly alternate universe. But as the clock runs out, and we come to the end of Donnie’s adventure (and subsequently Donnie’s death), strange things are still occurring, and this is the point that we want some more clear cut answers. This is the point where we need some understanding as to why Rose, Gretchen Ross, Kitty Farmer, Jim Cunningham, and more are experiencing a sense of déjà vu.
First we need to dive deeper into the worlds that Donnie Darko is set in. Clearly, there is something going on, whether it be an alternate dimension or a dream. When Donnie is sent back in time, in the beginning of the film, it exists on a different plane. In this scenario, we are going to assume that the 28 days the story exists in is within an alternate universe known as The Tangent Universe, as it is coined in Roberta Sparrow’s book, The Philosophy of Time.
Roberta Sparrow, otherwise known as Grandma Death, is a frequent yet unheard character in the story. But when Donnie discovers that the time travel book, The Philosophy of Time was written by her, she becomes a whole lot more important. Though The Philosophy of Time Travel is referenced a few times after Donnie’s discovery of the book, the final cut of the film did not give viewers many specifics. In Richard Kelly's invaluable Director’s Cut, though, the film actually shows passages from the novel, which helps to describe what is actually going on in this Tangent Universe.
Let's get in to a thorough outline to help lay it all out.
Explanation of The Tangent UniverseThe Tangent Universe exists when a fourth dimension is corrupted. It is a highly unstable construct that only exists a few weeks before it collapses upon itself, and the collapse is capable of creating a black hole that could completely destroy the Primary Universe.
In the film, the Tangent Universe is created at midnight on October 2nd and lasts for 28 days in an alternate reality. Donnie is saved from a falling jet engine in the Tangent Universe because he is chosen as The Living Receiver, which is the person chosen at random to guide an artifact out of the Tangent Universe, and therefore prevent the Primary Universe from collapsing.
The Artifact is what makes the Tangent Universe unstable. It spontaneously appears, and is formed from metal, so in this instance it is the jet engine.
How Each Character Fits Into The Tangent UniverseThe Philosophy of Time Travel also explains how each person fits into the Tangent Universe, which is extremely important to understanding their roles in the ending. Here’s that breakdown.
Donnie is the Living Receiver. He is chosen at random, but the Living Receiver is given some supernatural powers to help them guide the artifact out of the Tangent Universe. These powers include increased strength (the axe in the bronze mascot), mind control, telekinesis (ripping the engine off the plane to send it through the portal), and the ability to conjure fire (burns down Jim Cunningham’s house) and water (floods school).
Frank is the Manipulated Dead. The Manipulated Dead is someone who dies in the Tangent Universe and therefore has special abilities that help them guide the Living Receiver to complete his mission. Frank is only created because Donnie kills him, though. So the Manipulated Dead must create an Ensurance Trap to ensure that they are killed in the Tangent Universe. In this case, the Ensurance Trap is the love between Donnie and Gretchen.
The Manipulated Living are all those that are connected to the Living Receiver, Donnie. These people subconsciously help guide the Living Receiver, as opposed to the Manipulated Dead who is put in his position knowingly. The Manipulated Living include Donnie’s family, teachers, Jim Cunningham, his friends, and all those who play a role in his ultimate success.
So to quickly sum up how the Primary Universe is saved, at the end of the film we see a vortex appearing over Donnie’s house. That’s the start of the Tangent Universe collapsing. But Donnie, now aware of his mission, drives to a place where he can use his telekinesis to send the jet engine through a time portal and guide it to prevent the collapse from occurring.
The Primary Universe is then saved, and Donnie laughs in his bed, awaiting his final moments, as the jet engine falls through his roof.
But this is not the end of the film, because it is afterwards that holds even more questions. As Donnie’s family mourns their loss outside their house. We see Gretchen ride her bike into the scene. Gretchen, who in this instance has never met Donnie or his family, looks wearily over to the scene, and waves at Donnie’s mother. She waves back. And their facial expressions suggest some sort of strange déjà vu.
What does THIS mean? Let's discuss it.
In the Director’s Cut of the Donnie Darko DVD, Kevin Smith and Richard Kelly discuss many aspects of the film, from Roberta Sparrow’s book to the comic book influences behind the film. And towards the end, Smith prompts Kelly to discuss why Frank touches his eye in the end sequence, as well as the other characters who look to be experiencing some sort of regret or grief. To which Kelly answers:
What The Director Says About Déjà Vu
Anybody who wakes up, or even in Frank’s case he was dropping Elizabeth off, and on his way home, ultimately, while everyone is waking up and going in his room and thinking about it. I think part of the reason he is honking his horn there he is overcome by this feeling of déjà vu, where he realizes that, as all the other characters, they lived in some place, some other dimension for a brief time and its memories are, there but they’re sort of drifting away. Anything they do, even this glance between Gretchen and Rose, it’s a fragment. It’s like when you wake up from a dream where you remember everything so clearly. It just starts slipping away, and then it’s gone. In those moments, maybe you’re having very vivid memories, but those memories dissipate for some reason because they weren’t reality. They were just a dream.
While Kelly reiterates that he views it with a science fiction notion, that there is science behind this feeling of déjà vu, and the existence of the Tangent Universe; it is also not farfetched to think of the Tangent Universe as a dream. And a dream slipping away at that.
Why The Manipulated Living Experience Déjà Vu?The final chapter of Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel talks about the dreams that the Manipulated Living will have. It states that as the Manipulated Living awake from their journey into the Tangent Universe, they are usually haunted by the experience in their dreams. This is why you see everyone from Jim Cunningham to Dr. Thurman awake in different states of grief and discomfort. Cunningham’s is obviously more extreme, as a feeling of disgust comes over him, which ultimately drives him to kill himself. Rose and Gretchen both wave towards each other, and even though they may have never met within the Tangent Universe, they both have some of the strongest connections to Donnie, the Living Receiver, meaning their déjà vu as they see each other could be even stronger.
But, all those who are directly connected to the Living Receiver have some sort of memory of the Tangent Universe. And it is through their subconscious that they helped the Living Receiver complete his mission, so it is therefore through their subconscious that they hold on to some pieces from that alternate dimension that have the possibility of subtly haunting them through the feeling of déjà vu.