Donnie Darko Was Trapped in a Time Loop

Updated on August 11, 2018
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Disastrous Grape is from a dimension of sentient exploding fruit, and is author of the novels The Thieves of Nottica and Spherical Knives.

When people run in circles it's a very, very . . .
When people run in circles it's a very, very . . .

Anyone who’s read my book Time’s Arrow knows that I’m slightly obsessed with stories about time travel and time travel theory. As someone who has actually had weird premonitions and has experienced déjà vu since childhood, I have always somewhat believed that all time is happening concurrently. Everything we’ve ever done has already happened.

I also believe this is the basic theme of the 2001 movie Donnie Darko. My theory is that Donnie Darko and his entire town are trapped in a time loop that only Donnie, the hero of our tale, can end.

What is a Time Loop?

A time loop is basically the result of a paradox. Something happens that is supposed to be impossible. This impossibility threatens the very fabric of the universe, meaning the universe will collapse on itself unless the original timeline is reset.

The resetting of the timeline usually involves the sacrifice of the person who caused the paradox in the first place.

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the episode "Time Squared," the crew of the Enterprise is shocked one day when a Captain Picard double boards their ship in a shuttle. It is later revealed that this Picard double is from the future and traveled back to the past in order to prevent a disaster.

The same events play out as before for this Future Picard, almost culminating in the destruction of the ship. The crew is trapped in a time loop because of the Future Picard, who made the mistake of leaving his ship to save it when he should have stayed. It is implied that Future Picard allowed himself to get sucked into a wormhole (referred to in the episode as a "vortex") while fleeing the Enterprise.

Present Picard eventually realizes that the only way to save the Enterprise is to kill his future self, the one who caused the paradox in the first place. Once he does, the time loop ends and the timeline is reset, thus saving the ship and its crew.

Donnie Darko Caused the Time Loop

The same thing appears to be happening in the world of Donnie Darko (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), only most people seem to be somewhat aware of the fact.

Donnie Darko is the cause for the time loop. According to Roberta Sparrow's (aka Grandma Death's) book, Philosophy of Time Travel, this role is known as the Living Receiver.

The book also refers to an object known as the Artifact, which the Living Receiver is supposed to, well . . . receive. In this instance, the Artifact is the airplane engine that crushes Donnie's house as a result of Donnie's weird powers.

The movie hints several times that Donnie appears to have super powers. These powers involve:

  • Manipulating time and moving through it.
  • Being able to see each person's individual timeline/path in life.
  • Being able to talk to people across time.
  • Wormholes are magnetically drawn to him.

But true to a tale of metaphorical teen angst, Donnie's "super powers" are mistaken for mental illness by his parents, who just don't understand him and send him to professional help on a regular basis.

When the film first opens, Donnie Darko is seen sleepwalking toward the place where a wormhole will later develop. When he returns home, his mother asks him where he goes at night, the implication being that he's not just sleepwalking, he's disappearing entirely.

I mean, if Donnie was just sleepwalking, his parents could easily follow him and gently guide him back home. It's not hard to manipulate sleepwalkers. In fact, my mother was a sleepwalker, so I'm speaking from personal experience.

Donnie being a sleepwalker is a red flag, as most sleepwalkers are people who are highly psychic and have abilities of a supernatural level, i.e. talking to spirits and dead people, something that Donnie does for the duration of the film.

Donnie Darko is basically sleepwalking because he's some kind of witch with out of whack powers. In fact, his power is so out of whack, it is threatening the very fabric of the universe.

When Donnie Darko sleepwalks, he is not merely shuffling off down the road. He is moving through time. This is why his parents can't find him at night. This is why he accidentally brought the airplane engine through from the future, causing a time loop when it didn't kill him in his bed.

Donnie has circles under his eyes. Why? Because he doesn't get much sleep. Whenever he sleepwalks, he is actually moving forward through the night, cutting back his eight hours to probably about ten minutes, and waking up just in time to shuffle home again.

In other words, Donnie Darko caused the time loop by time traveling in his sleep.

Frank Bunny Needs Donnie to Die

People argue that Frank Bunny can't exist because, in saving Donnie from being crushed by the airplane engine, he actually caused his own death.

This isn't true.

Donnie is shown to be a chronic sleepwalker. Meaning that, even if Frank hadn't woken him up, Donnie probably would have gotten up on his own and shuffled away from his bed, moving through time in his sleep and causing the wormhole that brought the airplane engine through.

The Donnie of the original timeline saved himself simply by sleepwalking. In fact, it was his sleepwalking that brought the airplane engine through time in the first place. All Frank Bunny did was appear to Donnie and warn him to get his ass back in bed next time.

Frank Bunny wakes Donnie up likely wishing to allow him one more twenty-eight days to live before making the sacrifice that will save them all. Because this is a time loop, he knows the twenty-eight days will play out again and again and he will be shot again, unless Donnie gets back into bed.

According to Roberta Sparrow's book, Frank Bunny is the Manipulated Dead. To me, this means he is a dead person who wasn't supposed to die and has been manipulated by the powers of this out of control witch boy.

When Donnie Darko asks about Frank Bunny's name, he answers that it was the name of his grandfather and his grandfather before him. This is a reference to the time loop and the endless number of "Franks" that came before him.

Frank Bunny is trapped because of Donnie's actions and is trying to push Donnie into ending the time loop by staying in bed on the fateful night the airplane engine would have crushed him. In order to do this, he pushes Donnie into taking more and more destructive actions that wreck the lives of everyone around him, making the town pretty much hate him and filling him with guilt.

Donnie's prank on the school (flooding it one night by breaking a pipe with an axe) results in his favorite school teacher getting fired.

Another prank results in a motivational coach being ousted as a pedophile, which then leads yet another teacher into disarray, forcing his mother onto the same airplane that drops the engine on his house. (This is not a paradox because the airplane would have been there anyway. It's just that his actions forced his mother to be on it some time in the future.)

Meanwhile, his mother's heart is breaking as he continues to lash out at her for not understanding that he is actually a super hero with super powers and not "crazy" or "troubled."

There is one scene where Donnie seems to realize how he is hurting his mother and pretty much everyone else around him. After this scene, he becomes kinder to his family, even hugging his mother and little sister goodbye before they depart on the trip that results in the fall of the airplane engine.

Most People Know It's a Time Loop

Throughout the fillm, there are several people who know they are trapped in a time loop and are trying to guide Donnie toward ending their hell. Unlike Frank Bunny, they are not killed by Donnie's direct actions, so they can interact with him directly during the course of the twenty-eight-day-loop. According to Roberta Sparrow's book, they are the Manipulated Living. And there are several of them.

Donnie's teacher, Ms. Pomeroy, writes "cellar door" on the chalkboard after she has been fired for probably the umpteenth time in the umpteenth replay of the time loop. We actually see her go outside and scream at the sky, she is so frustrated. One of the students, Cherita Chen, is not a Manipulated Living and has no idea what's going on, so she stares at Ms. Pomeroy in amazement.

Understandably, Ms. Pomeroy is seriously sick of this shit and wants Donnie to just go to Roberta Sparrow's house and enter her damn cellar already.

She also purposely puts Donnie together with the new girl, Gretchen, in the hope that Gretchen's death will motivate Donnie to sacrifice himself and thus save her, ending the time loop.

Roberta Sparrow is another Manipulated Living who attempts to guide Donnie toward ending the time loop. She tells him that everyone dies alone. She is trying to comfort him that his greatest fear is something everyone must face and that dying isn't so bad. This was her attempt to coax him into staying in bed next time.

She also spends the movie crossing the road to her mailbox in search of Donnie's letter, which he will eventually send to her once the twenty-eight days restarts. She knows the letter will appear there because all of it has happened before.

Perhaps in the times that Donnie failed, he sent her a letter apologizing as he allowed the twenty-eight days to play out again, too afraid of dying alone to succumb.

Roberta probably always gets a letter from Donnie apologizing and is waiting anxiously for the letter where he says goodbye instead.

Gretchen is yet another Manipulated Living who needs the time loop to end so that she can stop reliving the horror of her abusive homelife.

Donnie confesses that he's lonely, so it almost seems as if the Manipulated Living in the film conspired to make Donnie feel less lonely by placing Gretchen in his path. She makes him visibly happier, but it's not enough. Donnie expresses many times that he wants to have sex before he dies. Like the typical sexually frustrated teenage boy, he goes into a rant about how the Smurfs are actually asexual, as if flailing in desperation at his own lack of a sex life.

Gretchen is hesitant the entire movie, almost as if she's holding back on purpose, making certain that Donnie sleeps with her (and thus falls in love with her) at the right time -- namely, right before she dies and his attachment to her is at its peak.

Roberta Sparrow and Frank Bunny -- who are in cahoots with Gretchen -- both play a significant role in Gretchen's death, which was by no means an accident.

The Manipulated Dead and the Manipulated Living conspired to make certain Donnie ended the time loop. One could even say the school bullies were a part of it as well, as their bullying was a huge factor in Gretchen and Donnie becoming close.

All of it was a set up to make certain that Donnie, wishing to save Gretchen, would face his fear of dying alone and would end the time loop.

At the end of the film, Gretchen feels terrible for conspiring to kill Donnie when she sees his heartbroken mother crying against a tree.

Frank Bunny also seems to remember. In the last few scenes, we see him alive and in his bedroom with his sketches, and it is implied that he made his Halloween costume (which is why he's so touchy about Donnie calling it stupid).

We see him touch a hand to his face, almost in relief that he isn't going to be shot this time, as all around the town, other people awake in the middle of the night, crying and in shock from the resetting of the timeline.

They remember what happened in the time loop as if it were a bad dream, and only the Manipulated Living and the Manipulated Dead know what really happened.

And now, so do you.

© 2018 Ash Gray

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