Donnie Darko and Determinism. By MG.

Donnie Darko – directed by Richard Kelly


The film has been described as a homage to “typical 80s classics” (despite being released in 2001). For those who have not seen the film – I particularly enjoy it as it discusses philosophical themes like Descartes’ mind/body dualism and many more which are fascinating to think about. I will be focusing on the topic of determinism and how Donnie Darko portrays free will or lack thereof, engagingly.

The movie opens with an idyllical town in 1980s America, in which the song “The Killing Moon,” by Echo & The Bunnymen plays, which first brings into question ideas of determinism and fate – “fate, up against your will, through the thick and thin, he will wait until you give yourself to him.” Here we are introduced to the main character, Donnie, a boy with a dysfunctional household and he seems to also be experiencing hallucinations and attends therapy.


The main plot of the film

I would suggest watching the film first to avoid being spoiled by this review, but here are the main plot points:

  • Donnie, prone to visions, sleepwalks and meets his imaginary friend, a rabbit named Frank who tells him the world will end in 28 days 42 minutes and 12 seconds.
  • Around this time, a jet engine mysteriously crushes his family’s house, destroying Donnie’s room – if he had not sleepwalked, this would have killed him.
  • Upon attending therapy, he nearly runs over a local woman, Roberta Sparrow, who is labelled as “Grandma Death.” This woman spends most of her days walking back and forth from her house to the letterbox.
  • Donnie, who attends a private school, tries to keep it together as Frank tells him to vandalise the school, and he ultimately does. He vandalises the school’s mascot, floods the school – spray-painting, “They made me do it,” on the floor.
  • From here, he navigates his relationship with the new girl, Gretchen, and those of his teachers, who view him to be troubled. In particular, the health instructor who is offended by Donnie’s lack of compliance in self-help classes and the binary terms of “fear and love,” to describe every feeling someone might feel.
  • Donnie also holds large contempt for a local celebrity, Jim Cunningham, “a self-help guru,” in which Donnie views him to be a fake.
  • Donnie finds a book named ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel,’ which was written by Roberta Sparrow, Grandma Death.
  • Gretchen and Donnie grow closer.
  • Frank’s true face is revealed, with a gun wound on his right eye.
  • Donnie torches Jim Cunningham’s house, who is revealed to be a paedophile.
  • Halloween party ensues and Donnie’s mother and younger sister announce they will be coming home via a plane from the daughter’s dance competition.
  • Donnie realises that 28 days have past and convinces that Gretchen and two other friends should accompany him to Grandma Death’s house as he is sure that she and Frank are connected in some way.
  • Donnie and Gretchen are jumped by the resident bullies and Gretchen is thrown into the road, where she is struck and killed by a car driven by Frank, who turned out to be Donnie’s older sister’s boyfriend.
  • Frank is wearing a rabbit outfit as a Halloween costume.
  • Donnie uses his father’s gun and shoots Frank in the eye, killing him.
  • He travels to the vantage point above town and can see a time travel portal forming, with the plane carrying his mother and sister directly above it, he drives into the time travel tunnel.
  • October 2, Donnie lies in bed and laughs. The jet engine from the flight crashes into the roof, killing him.
  • In the end, we can see how his death affects his community. In this reality, Gretchen and Donnie never met and nothing from the past 28 days ever happened.




There are two main branches of determinism explored in this film – hard determinism and soft determinism. Hard determinism states that no event or action is a person’s choice, rather everything is completely determined and rests on the idea of cause and effect. The principle of cause and effect (the axiom of causality) is taken to the extremes in hard determinism. The idea was first used by the French philosopher Voltaire – François-Marie Arouet – who described that words like “luck, chance and coincidence were invented to express the known effects of the unknown causes.” The cause and effect principle states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (Newtonian Law), however hard deterministic routes take this idea to the extremes. It is believed that the future is always determined by past actions (the cause) and because the future is just a result of a cause – the individual cannot change it. Many hard determinists also argue that every choice we have ever made is just a result of our environment, social, biological, and cultural causes which are ultimately beyond our control. As a result, hard determinism regards free will as impossible and improbable as actions are merely the result of predetermined causes.

Soft determinism in which it is argued that determinism and free will are compatible with each other. In soft determinism, the personality and character of an individual is beyond control and the actions of a person are still a result of this. However, they distinguish between actions caused or determined by our personalities and ones which external causes, therefore, even though desires and values are predetermined, the individual is still free to make a moral choice and thus is held morally responsible for their actions.

Determinism and Donnie Darko

“I have to obey him… because he saved my life. He controls me and I have to obey him, or I’ll be left all alone.” – Donnie to his therapist.


 Having escaped death, Darko creates what is labelled as a “tangent universe,” which is a clear mirror to the multiverse theory. The multiverse theory, in science, is stated to be the theory of which multiple or the infinite number of universes or parallel worlds to our own existence. Within the canon of the film – corruption of the primary universe creates the existence of a tangent universe; the existence of Frank is a signal of this tangent universe as Frank is alive in the original one. The tangent universe is seen to be stable only for 28 days and, if the original universe is not restored then this will cause the end of the world. This sets in motion the plot for the rest of the film.

In the beginning, it is established Donnie cannot stray from the path that has been laid out before him, when told by Frank that he must leave the house before the plane crashes on him, he does so. Some have argued that Frank’s character is like a godly figure, hanging over Darko – telling him to do things and, ultimately, knowing his every move which is in line with teleological determinists like Baruch Spinoza. If we take Spinoza’s view of determinism and God, he advocates for a God that is “all real, all existing” but is also impersonal and the only necessary being at the end of an infinite regress – a theme that is replicated in the film with Frank’s character. To further perpetuate this idea of Frank’s role in Darko’s determined path is when Donnie tells frank to take off his mask. When he reveals the gun wound on his eye and, ultimately, when Donnie shoots the real Frank at the end of the film, it shows that this course of action was always predetermined to occur.

The physical manifestation of everyone’s predetermined fates is shown as orb/cylinder objects protruding from people’s bodies like a path, leading to the places in which they will next go and their next movements they will take. Every time Donnie sees one protruding out of his chest, he mindlessly follows it without questioning it – suggesting, further, determinism.

This is shown via the quotation “If we were able to see our destinies, we could change our destinies. But not if we travel within God’s channel,” when Donnie is discussing the Philosophy of Time Travel with his science teacher at school. On the one hand, the quotation could be interpreted to mean that we have some kind of control over our fate as if we could “see our destinies” we could change them. However, the addition of this not being possible when applied to God raises some interesting philosophical questions about theological determinism. The idea that God sees all and knows every path a person might take suggests that everything has been predetermined. This is even more interesting when Frank has already been established as a “Godly” figure, perhaps he is manifesting control over Darko? As Darko even says to the bully at the end of the film, “Deus ex Machina,” – God from the machine, the mechanistic view of the universe which is a common use of metaphor for determinists. The theme of a mechanistic universe is further perpetuated via all the time motifs – like the time 28 days 42 minutes and 12 seconds written on Donnie’s arm or the constant clock always in view, ticking down to the eventual predetermined outcome.

However, I think that the idea that if we somehow knew our destinies and could change them is an interesting premise to explore.

If we take the interpretation that Frank is the representation of a godly figure, it can be shown that Frank, by pulling Donnie out of the primary reality and, therefore, causing him to not die – can be shown that he actively wanted Donnie to have free will in his actions. If he had remained in the primary reality, all that was predetermined, i.e his death, would have occurred with no say from the protagonist. However, taking Donnie out of the original reality means that he, himself, must make the ultimate decision to repair the universe, his own choice.

So, therefore, perhaps this suggests choices are open to us like soft determinism states?

“Every living creature on earth dies alone,” is spoken by Grandma Death, suggesting to Donnie that there is ultimately nothing a person can do and it is predetermined, from the moment that we are born, that we will die alone. I found this a particularly interesting quotation as some would argue that death is something that has to occur but the choices, we have in life are done by our own free will. A key philosopher I have studied in class, Boethius, advocates for this point of view. Boethius argued for providence as a key part of God’s guardianship over humanity – which can be reflected via Frank’s presence over Darko in the film. Furthermore, Boethius states that everyone has been predetermined for life and death, making a distinction between two types of necessity which exist.

  • Simple necessity: something which must be the case, for example: if someone is born, it is predetermined that they will eventually die. (in the context of the film: Donnie dies)
  • Conditioned necessity: a consequence of a choice, in which a person actively experiences free will. (in the context of the film: he chooses to revert the universe to the way it was)

From this point of view, we can see that the film is less dark than it appears to be. It may not be a story about a boy simply going through the motions, mindlessly following the commands of a Godly figure – but a story of that God figure giving Donnie the free will before the simple necessity of his death.


I find this film particularly interesting as there are so many different interpretations open for exploration, showing the differences between free will and determinism. The movie works in fascinating ways to discuss the question of whether we have free will.

“Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will” – Jawaharial Nehru.