Can you believe Donnie Darko is 18 years old? Doesn’t time fly! But I’m here today to talk about the tale of Donnie Darko, who sadly didn’t make it to his 18th year.
Jake Gyllenhaal looks like a young pup when you watch it all these years later. Richard Kelly’s directorial debut absolutely still holds up as a great science-fiction film with a celestial heart and a schizophrenic mind. This story is so riveting, and it feels warm in that ’80s nostalgia way—a long time before Stranger Things brought it back in fashion. Yet, it’s laced with melancholy and magic that never gets old.
There are many ways to interpret the story, but by and large, I will focus on the Philosophy of Time Travel, the book which was given to Donnie by his science teacher, Prof. Kenneth Monnitoff, and which was written by Roberta Sparrow, a.k.a. Grandma Death.
But let’s start at the beginning—or the end depending on how you look at it.
October 2nd, 1988. Troubled and confused teen Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in the middle of a golf course. The night before, he was led there by a figure in a giant bunny suit with a creepy face. Donnie learns his name is Frank. He cycles home to find that an aeroplane engine has fallen from the sky into his bedroom. If he’d been in bed as he should’ve been, he would be dead. There’s a lot more to it than though, so let’s disappear down the rabbit hole…
The Creation of the Tangent Universe
Roberta Sparrow explains in her book that death comes to us all. “The Fourth Dimension of Time is a stable construct, though it is not impenetrable. Incidents, when the fabric of the fourth dimension becomes corrupted, are incredibly rare. If a Tangent Universe occurs, it will be highly unstable, sustaining itself for no longer than several weeks. Eventually, it will collapse upon itself, forming a black hole within the Primary Universe capable of destroying all existence.” This is what Donnie’s mission is; to save the Primary Universe, a.k.a. The World.
Leading up to the TU being created, the Darko family have dinner in the Primary Universe. Donnie and his sister squabble and she reveals that Donnie hasn’t been taking his meds. He goes to the bathroom, takes some pills then goes to bed. He’s woken by the image of a terrifying, man-sized bunny, Frank. Donnie follows Frank’s voice down the stairs; he takes a pen from the refrigerator and sleepwalks to the local golf course. There, Frank tells him, “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. That is when the world will end”. Donnie asks why but receives no reply.
While we don’t know precisely the moment the Tangent Universe formed, we know that scary bunny Frank only exists in the TU, so when he starts speaking to Donnie just after midnight on October 2nd, the TU is the world we see on screen. It formed before the plane engine fell, so it would seem that the accident was not the cause but an effect of the wormhole opening and the TU being formed.
Donnie wakes up on the golf course the next morning at sunrise in the Tangent Universe. Dr. Fisher, his father’s friend, and Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), a Motivational Speaker, stand over him. Donnie apologises and cycles home. He arrives to find his house partially destroyed by a plane engine that has dropped from the sky into his bedroom. If this sort of incident doesn’t make you question your purpose in life, nothing will.
Donnie is not aware that he’s in a TU, of course. He’d gone sleep cycling in the middle of the night, which was not unusual for Donnie; in fact, he’d done the same thing the night before and woke up at the side of a road, overlooking the town below. So it appears then that Donnie had problems before he became the Living Receiver. Why was Donnie chosen? Was he chosen at all? If so, who was doing the choosing?
In the TU the plane engine is a mysterious item. Mysterious because the government and air traffic control have no idea where it came from. It came from a plane that Donnie’s mother and little sister were travelling on in the Primary Universe during a storm. That couldn’t be the case in the TU because several things had to happen to lead to them being on that flight. In essence, the TU is an exact copy of the PU. Therefore, the Artifact is a duplicate of the plane engine that will kill Donnie, but in the TU it shouldn’t exist; this makes the TU unstable. For the TU to unravel without forming a black hole, it must again be an exact copy of the PU. By removing the duplicate jet engine, it will balance out the Universe allowing the TU to collapse safely. The only way to remove the Artifact is to send it through a portal into the PU.
Roberta Sparrow wrote the following about The Artifact:
When a Tangent Universe occurs, those living nearest to the Vortex will find themselves at the epicenter of a dangerous new world. Artifacts provide the first sign that a Tangent Universe has occurred. If an Artifact occurs, the Living will retrieve it with great interest and curiosity. Artifacts are formed from metal, such as an Arrowhead from an ancient Mayan civilization, or a Metal Sword from Medieval Europe.
Artifacts returned to the Primary Universe are often linked to religious Iconography, as their appearance on Earth seems to defy logical explanation. Divine intervention is deemed the only logical conclusion for the appearance of the Artifact.
What Roberta suggests here is that the wormhole can open doors to times long ago, whereas in Donnie’s case, the period of time, which is ‘misplaced’, is just 28 days. For Roberta to know this, she must have either been a former and surviving Living Receiver or, she is someone that witnessed and remembered life from a Tangent Universe. The former seems more likely, as if the TU was based too far in the past, she wouldn’t exist. She’s old, but not that old. I will talk more about Roberta further on.
“The Living Receiver is often tormented by terrifying dreams, visions and auditory hallucinations during his time within the Tangent Universe”. — Donnie does not know that he has been chosen to be a Living Receiver. He has no clue at first that he is in a TU, but over the 28 days he’s given to make things right, he is encouraged to follow specific paths by the Manipulated Living and Manipulated Dead.
“The Living Receiver is to guide the artifact back to the portal and into the Primary Universe”. — First, he has to take notice of what the living and dead guides are telling him. Then he must learn his chosen path and find a reason to risk losing his life to save the planet.
“The Living Receiver is given Fourth-Dimensional powers: strength, telekinesis, and to conjure up fire and water.” — While flooding the school by smashing the pipes is relatively easy, planting an axe in the head of a bronze statue is not. Donnie burned down Jim Cunningham’s house while an emergency meeting took place at the school. Not exactly a superpower, but his stealth to pull off a mission like that without getting caught was impressive.
It is fair to say that we, the viewer, are never totally sure of Donnie. He admits freely that he has emotional problems, that he ‘accidentally’ burned down an abandoned house and got kept behind a year at school. These things happened before the Tangent Universe was formed, so why was Donnie picked to the Living Receiver? He is an unlikely hero, but equally, it could be because of problems that he was chosen. He would not be easily suspected by those who may want to destroy him as he had previous for destruction. “Destruction is a form of creation”, as Donnie would say.
The Manipulated Living (ML)
“The Manipulated Living are often the close friends and neighbors of the Living Receiver. They are prone to irrational, bizarre, and often violent behavior. This is the unfortunate result of their task, which is to assist the Living Receiver in returning the Artifact to the Primary Universe. The Manipulated Living will do anything to save themselves from Oblivion.” — Roberta Sparrow, The Philosophy of Time Travel
Edmund Darko & Rose Darko — The Parents
Donnie’s parents are pretty laid back, and the part they play in Donnie’s destiny appears to be subconscious. For he is just their son, someone they love dearly and forgive him of any wrongdoings. They are aware that he is unwell mentally, but Rose, in particular, shows her love for him has no boundaries. He was seeing a Psychiatrist (Lillian Thurman) in the PU as well as in the TU.
Eddie Darko (Holmes Osborne) drives Donnie home from school and passed Roberta Sparrow’s house. Eddie is not paying attention to the road when he almost hits her with the car. It is then that she has the opportunity to whisper in his ear and become an influence on his life.
Rose Darko’s (Mary McDonnell) role, as well as being a supportive mother, is to be on the plane that will lose its engine. For this to happen, she has to (reluctantly) agree to take her daughter, Samantha (Daveigh Chase), along with the other girls in dance troupe ‘Sparkle Motion’, to a dance competition and travel by plane. At the end of the film, Donnie sees the aircraft in the sky above his house, caught up in the stream of the wormhole. He uses telekinesis to move the falling engine back into the Primary Universe and saves his mother and sisters lives within the TU in the process.
Elizabeth Darko — The Older Sister
Like many teenagers, Donnie and his sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) squabble a lot, but they mostly have a good relationship. Elizabeth’s role in Donnie’s TU life begins before the TU is even formed. In an argument over dinner, she tells her parents that Donnie isn’t taking his meds. This leads to Donnie returning to his bedroom to take his medication. The meds will help him contact Frank. Not because they help Donnie with his suspected Paranoid Schizophrenia, but because they don’t help him. They are a placebo—water pills and as Roberta Sparrow explains in The Philosophy of Time Travel, “water is the barrier element for the construction of Time Portals used as gateways between Universes as the Tangent Vortex.”
Later on, Elizabeth’s success in getting into Harvard makes them decide to throw a Halloween party at the house while both parents are out of town. Donnie will realise who Frank really is at the party when he sees a note on the fridge saying that Frank has gone to get beer. Frank was Elizabeth’s boyfriend, though Donnie may not have been aware of that. During the party, Donnie and Gretchen will go upstairs together and have sex for the first time. These moments of passion undoubtedly would have made Donnie feel in love with her. He had been a typical, sexually frustrated teen, but now he had a girlfriend. We all know how that feels, young lust and love. It probably is the emotion at the furthest end of the spectrum from fear, yet the two go hand in hand.
Samantha Darko & Sparkle Motion — The Younger Sister and Friends
Donnie’s younger sister was your typical pre-teen. She loved dancing with her girlfriends, making up routines and is driven by the desire to be famous. It is this desire that will make them practice over and over and go on to be selected to perform on Ed McMahon’s Star Search 88 in Los Angeles. Kitty Farmer, their dance coach, was unable to chaperone them to LA as she had to stay behind to attend the arraignment of Jim Cunningham, who was arrested for having a ‘kiddie porn dungeon’ in his home (all thanks to Donnie setting fire to the house). This meant that Rose became the chaperone in Kitty’s place, and she and Samantha were on the plane that would lose its engine above the Darko home.
Cherita Chen — Fellow pupil and secret admirer
Donnie empathises with and feels a connection to Cherita Chen (Jolene Purdy) because she is an outcast like him. She is bullied by her classmates, is a loner with no friends, and speaks very little English. She is regularly verbally abused, and that is why she starts wearing earmuffs.
Donnie is one of the only people who doesn’t pick on her and defends her at every opportunity. She keeps a close eye on Donnie, listening to his chats with Prof. Monnitoff and Miss Pomeroy. Cherita has a crush on Donnie, which is revealed at the end of the film when Donnie takes her earmuffs off and tells her things will be better for her soon. She looks startles and backs away, dropping her school books, which reveals Donnie’s name drawn on the cover. Donnie is secretly pleased and wears her earmuffs home.
Notably, the usually shy and self-conscious Cherita is brave enough to complete a solo dance routine at the school concert. It is strange to most people’s tastes, though Miss Pomeroy sees the emotion in it. The performance is named ‘Autumn Angel,’ which is appropriate given the time of year. I can’t help but feel that her movements helped protect Donnie as he went to burn down Cunningham’s house. Was Cherita an angel in disguise?
Katherine (Kitty) Farmer — The Gym Teacher and Antagonist
Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant) was one of those awful people we all come across from time to time in life. Those people who are supposedly doing God’s work, but in reality are immoral, patronising, greedy, hypocritical and hateful of everyone.
She did her best to obstruct Donnie’s path, but in doing so, it proved that enemies are just as important to have as friends. Saving the world was never going to be plain sailing, and without people to disagree with, what would you be fighting for? In Donnie’s case, he was angered by her pushing the message of motivational speaker Jim Cunningham into the classroom. Kitty had complained about Karen Pomeroy’s teaching of The Destructors, which she labelled as porn and said incited violence, yet she brought a paedophile into the school (albeit unknowingly). Even when she did learn the truth about Cunningham, she decided to go against all evidence and believe that he was innocent, in the way that the Church often does. The hypocrisy is sickening, especially when you consider the children at risk, including Kitty’s own daughter. She even decides not to travel with her daughter’s dance troupe to LA to stay behind to defend Jim Cunningham. Which, quite frankly, made me doubt her commitment to Sparkle Motion.
Donnie’s anger towards her notion that love and fear were the two strongest emotions—which, while not wrong—ignored the whole spectrum of other emotions and morals and behaviours that go with them. Donnie wrestles with the notion of God; it feels absurd to him at times, especially when people can act so terribly to one another in the name of faith.
Cunningham is the only Manipulated Living person that existed only in Donnie’s life within the TU. He would have met Donnie, no doubt in the PU if Donnie had survived. Donnie sees straight through the motivational speakers’ thin veneer of honesty and genuine care and doesn’t buy into his message. Of course, Kitty is too bewitched by Cunningham and invites him to speak in the school assembly. Donnie verbally abuses him in front of the audience, which pleases Gretchen. Later on, Donnie finds Cunningham’s wallet on the pavement and finds out where he lives. No-one would have suspected just how evil Cunningham was though—Frank helped uncover that.
Donnie takes Gretchen on their first date to the cinema to see The Evil Dead. Gretchen falls asleep! That’s totally giving the game away that she’s not all she seems. Nobody would fall asleep during that movie, and never on a first date—you wouldn’t keep your hands off each other! But of course, Gretchen is the Manipulated Dead, so she does whatever she has to ensure that Donnie is able to carry out his next Frank-assigned task: burn down Cunningham’s house.
Donnie starts the fire while the rest of his family are at the school concert watching his little sister dance. Donnie couldn’t have attended even if he wanted to do as he was suspended from school for telling Kitty to stick up the Fear/Love place card into her anus.
After the firefighters put out the blaze, they discover a secret room; a “kiddie porn dungeon”. Cunningham is arrested, and the story is a town scandal.
Professor Kenneth Monnitoff
Donnie’s Science teacher Prof. Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), appears, at least in my mind, to understand what is happening to Donnie. He seems to be more aware than most that he has to help Donnie find his path and reach his destined location. Along with Miss Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), whom he is in a relationship with—though we only learn this at the end of the movie, when we see the pair in bed together in the primary universe, after Donnie’s death.
Monnitoff helps Donnie understand time travel and what would be required for this to occur; theoretically, a wormhole in space could be controlled by man. And according to [Stephen] Hawking, a wormhole may be able to provide a shortcut for jumping between two distant regions of space-time—If you know where to find a wormhole you’ve got your portal, and your vessel could be just about anything, most likely a spacecraft. It just has to be made of metal.
Monnitoff gives Donnie the book The Philosophy of Time Travel, written by a former science teacher at the school, Roberta Sparrow, a.k.a. Grandma Death. How, or perhaps why, Monnnitoff had this book in his satchel is not known. Yes, he’s a science teacher so he may have a particular interest in this subject, but it’s certainly not on the curriculum and it’s no coincidence that the book that explains everything happening to Donnie was right there waiting for him.
Yes, Monnitoff was one of the Manipulated Living. However, his actions appear less subconscious than most. If he had the book, did he read the book? You would have thought so. So that would go a little way in explaining why he and Karen Pomeroy said in conversation to each other, “Donnie Darko?”, “I know”. Now, it could be assumed that they were talking about who flooded the school, but Donnie is never caught for that, and as far as we know, not suspected for it either—other than perhaps by them. I honestly believe they knew they were looking for a ‘chosen one’ but were surprised that it turned out to be Donnie—an unlikely hero if ever there was one.
When Donnie speaks to Monnittoff about time travel, Donnie mentions the paths of destiny in which we are all set. Monnitoff argues that if we were able to see our futures manifest themselves visually, then we would be given a choice to betray them. And the mere fact that this choice exists would make all pre-formed destiny come to an end. He is unable to talk more about that because he could lose his job. We assume that this is because Donnie attends a Christian school, and whatever Monnitoff would say would suggest the non-existence of God.
Alternatively, his role as a Manipulated Living forbade him from directly telling Donnie how to deal with this problem—he’s only allowed to drop hints and guide him in the right direction.
Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) is Donnie’s English teacher and her role in his life (and death) is vitally important. She places Gretchen in his story by asking Gretchen (who had just arrived at the school at her first class) to sit by the boy she thought was the cutest. Clearly, that is a totally inappropriate thing to subject a young girl to, but Gretchen didn’t argue and chose Donnie without much hesitation.
In doing this, Donnie was aware from the start that Gretchen thought he was handsome, and that’s half the battle done already when it comes to high-school romance. In placing Gretchen (Manipulated Dead) in Donnie’s path, it begins a relationship between them. Donnie will fall in love with her, and it is that love that leads him to save the world by sacrificing himself to save her life.
Karen Pomeroy also teaches Donnie’s class the book The Destructors by Graham Greene. Donnie pays close attention to the text and understands that the characters within the story choose to flood a house and tear it apart because they wanted to tear the world apart and change things. At the very least, this sowed a seed in Donnie’s mind, and with the additional encouragement from Frank, Donnie floods the school in the middle of the night by smashing an axe through the water pipes. He also plants the axe into a bronze statue of the school mascot: a mongrel dog. He would need to have super strength to be able to do that, especially from a climbing position. Does it appear that Donnie really did have superpowers?
After carrying out the vandalism, Donnie leaves a spray-painted message, “They Made Me Do It”. Interestingly, he said, “They,” rather than “he” or “Frank”. It seems that Donnie is subconsciously aware that its not just Frank who is guiding his path.
After Donnie burns down Jim Cunningham’s house, Karen Pomeroy is fired from her job at the school. This is because she has been teaching the class The Destructors, which some parents and Kitty believe could have been an influence on the firestarter. Once again, hypocrisy rules the day, as the school Principal chooses to ignore the fact that they’ve had a paedophile working at their school and instead go for the lesser crime—the one that helped Cunningham get caught.
Karen goes outside to scream, “fuuuuuck!” and turns to see Cherita Chen sitting alone, eating her lunch. It is perfectly reasonable that Miss Pomeroy would be devastated at losing her job. However, I think there is more to it. She knows that her contact with Donnie now is going to be almost impossible, and time is running out. She has to make sure he gets to the right place at the right time. She writes ‘Cellar Door’ on the blackboard. Donnie questions why she wrote it, and she tells him that a linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, that “cellar door” is the most beautiful. This will, of course, stick in Donnie’s head. He will later see a cellar door at Roberta Sparrow’s house and breaks in. This leads to the event of Gretchen’s death.
Roberta Sparrow may be the most crucial character in Donnie Darko, despite only saying five words through its entirety, “Every living creature dies alone”. She whispers this in Donnie’s ear after he and his father almost knock her down, crossing the street to her mailbox.
Her mailbox is always empty. She’s clearly expecting something very important, and on the last day of Donnie’s life and the last day of the TU, she receives a letter. A letter from Donnie.
Local legend goes that Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland) had been a nun for many years before changing into a totally different person overnight. She left the nunnery, became a science teacher and wrote The Philosophy of Time Travel. To go from a devout Christian to a believer in science must have meant something quite extraordinary happened to her. I would assume something that proved to her that there was no God. It is likely that she was at one point a Living Reciever and that she too travelled into a Tangent Universe, which she saved, and lived to tell the tale.
She even remembered enough of what happened to write about it. The fact that she checked her mailbox every day meant she was expecting a letter. Did she know it would be from Donnie when it finally arrived? Had she travelled into the future on her journey? The fact that she walked to the mailbox at that time, that day, suggests she knew he was about to arrive and she needed to tell him that “every living creature on Earth dies alone”. This sentence did upset Donnie; he didn’t want to be alone. This was something else that pushed him into the arms of Gretchen—the need to love and be loved.
The local kids called her Grandma Death because she was very old—101, Donnie said. She was a recluse and spent most of her time in her house because the local kids kept trying to steal stuff from her. She was said to have a gem collection, which is an interesting aside. Where would a nun or a science teacher obtain gems? They could have been an heirloom of course, but it does make you wonder…
Local bullies, and Donnie’s school enemies, Seth Devlin (Alex Greenwald) and Ricky Danforth (Seth Rogen), were at her house intending to rob her on the night of 28th October. Donnie knew he had to be there, along with Gretchen and his pals. Donnie sees her cellar door and takes it as a sign. They break in but get jumped by Seth and Ricky. This ends in a scuffle that places Gretchen lying in the middle of the road when a car with the real Frank (Elizabeth’s boyfriend) and his friend are dressed as a clown on board. They accidentally run over Gretchen and kill her.
Donnie is so distraught, that when Frank gets out of the car (dressed as the scary bunny for Halloween), Donnie shoots him with the gun that he was led to find in his fathers closet, by water spears that he is able to see protruding from the bodies of people around him, and his own. Roberta Sparrow documented these visual hallucinations in her book.
Dr Lilian Thurman
Dr. Thurman (Katharine Ross) is Donnie’s psychiatrist. She treats him in both the PU and TU. In the TU, she uses hypnosis to try and get to the route of Donnie’s issues. While under, he tells her about Frank and what Frank tells him to do.
The role Dr. Thurman plays is perhaps the most contentious issue of all. At the end of the film, she admits that the medication Donnie has been taking for his mental health issues was actually water pills–a placebo and nothing more. Roberta Sparrow’s book says that water is required for the LR to open a gateway between universes. It is only when Donnie takes the pills that he sees Frank, and he is able to prod the watery veil between them while looking in the mirror. In that sense, Thurman is very helpful to Donnie’s mission. However, she is not mentioned in the list of Manipulated Living at the back of the Philosophy of Time Travel.
On the flip side, Dr. Thurman gave a placebo drug to a boy who desperately needed treatment for his mental health issues. Instead, she decided to take a more natural approach and treat him without chemicals. However, his auditory and visual hallucinations became stronger and more dangerous. The voices in his head made him flood his school, burn down a house, and in the end, shoot dead his sister’s boyfriend.
We need to remember that Donnie’s mental health problems existed in the PU too. The PU may be the only place that ever existed. The whole TU thing could be a part of Donnie’s illness.
We need to question why Roberta Sparrow wrote the book. Did she too have Paranoid Schizophrenia? Why did she leave the church, give up her role as a nun, and become a science teacher so quickly? It appears she lost her faith—something made her feel that way, something she experienced maybe, or perhaps she, like Donnie, began to question why God that would allow such terrible things to happen to innocent people.
Did a crisis of faith drive her to create a book that would counteract the Bible’s teachings? A book that became hugely influential on a boy desperate for answers about the world and fitting his beliefs as an alternative to religion. Everything in the book is a sort of explanation as to how delusional Donnie was—he placed himself as the LR, a hero, the centre of the universe and the only one who could save it. Delusions of grandeur are a common symptom of schizophrenia.
The Manipulated Dead
Frank Anderson & Gretchen Ross (not her real name)
The Philosophy of Time Travel states that all the Manipulated are trying to lure the Living Receiver into a trap so they have no choice but to send the Artifact out of the TU into the PU. It is called the Ensurance Trap. This is effectively the role all the Manipulated play; they are trying to save themselves by guiding Donnie to complete his mission. If Donnie fails, they die as well.
Frank (James Duval) tells Donnie to flood the school, leading to Donnie walking Gretchen home and then asking her to be his girlfriend. This event is not just a coincidence; it’s specifically put in place as part of the trap.
Gretchen plays a crucial role in the trap—remember, Donnie only meets and falls in love with her within the TU. He is given someone to love, then she dies. He’s so upset at Frank for killing Gretchen he shoots him dead. This has now created Manipulated Dead Frank, the person guiding him to do these things. He must create Manipulated Dead Frank in order to be saved himself in the beginning.
The Manipulated have now successfully set the trap. Donnie was saved from death and is now in a desperate situation. His girlfriend is dead and he’s a killer on the run. He knows what his purpose is now and has only one way out, even though it will ultimately end his own life. Sending the engine through a portal will erase the last 28 days from history and time will return to October 2nd… back to when Gretchen was still alive.
This is just a theory, but as we never learn what Gretchen’s real name was (she changed it when she and her mother left town after her stepfather had tried to murder her mother by stabbing her in the chest), I feel that Gretchen could be Roberta Sparrow from the past. Gretchen’s story feels ‘out there’ enough to be made up and makes Donnie’s feelings for her even stronger as she is someone he needs to protect. It is as if she came down from another time portal as the Ensurance Trap.
Very interestingly, it turns out that Kenneth Monnittoff and Karen Pomeroy marry and have two daughters, Alice and Mary. Sadly, Kenneth is killed in a hit and run accident in 1999. The car that hit him is a black Sedan which hints at Government involvement. In the Middlesex Times-Dispatch, his Obituary states that he had formerly worked for both NASA and the CIA before becoming a Physics Teacher. Make of that what you will.
Adding fuel to that fire, Karen sent The Philosophy of Time Travel to Elizabeth Hartford of the Rare Books Division at the Library of Congress. Kenneth had requested this to happen should he die to keep it safe, somewhere “they” can never find it. I am not sure who “they” are exactly, but it seems likely that Kenneth and Karen were both involved much more deeply than initially thought.
Jim Cunningham was found dead on the fourteenth hole of the Country Club golf course on October 12, 1988. He had apparently shot himself. Before he committed suicide, he cleared out his entire mansion, including his child porn dungeon. The police found his suicide note but nothing else… his dirty secret was never revealed.
Whenever I hear “Mad World” play at the end of the film as we witness the aftermath of the plane engine landing in Donnie’s bedroom, killing him, I’m affected in a way that must compare to how his friends and family feel when we last see them. They each awake in the middle of the night and feel sudden remorse, great sadness or even gratitude; it’s something they just don’t understand. It is a feeling powerful enough to make them cry, and I do too every single time. They’re alone. They all share this emotion but separately, for the rules don’t allow them to know. Just as his family and friends are crushed by his death and cannot comprehend the feelings they have about it, we, the viewer, feel the same way. It is totally possible to love Donnie Darko without being totally able to understand it. I know that it is something instinctively human to feel strongly about people you have never met, and I believe it is possible for people not even in your universe to save your life.
Throughout the film, hints are made that allude to Donnie being more than a regular guy. For instance, Gretchen tells him that the name Donnie Darko sounds like a superhero. The best superhero stories often have these three elements: an ordinary person is given extraordinary gifts, someone or something threatens those they love, and they have to make a great sacrifice to save them. For me, Donnie Darko is Films greatest superhero. He didn’t do everything right, and the way he went about saving the world was not conventionally heroic. But he was brave, he was moral, and he always stood by his convictions. In many ways, he was the opposite of who we’d expect to be a “chosen one”. Donnie Darko was one of us.