Good movie for this because of all the subtle character-character interactions
Very relevant that I saw today-
onnie inadvertently finds himself in a tangential universe. The rules that regulate time travel in the film acknowledge, esp. in the directors cut, dictate that the those closest to a time vortex become the guide for the artifact to rectify the manipulated timeline. The vortex is directly above his bedroom and thus he becomes the living receiver and imbued with super human strength and control over the elements and the 4th dimension. These are demonstrated by his ability to bury an axe into a bronze statue, flood the school, and burn the house down. He witnesses 4th dimensional hallucinations that guide him to the gun.
Gretchen and Frank, being the two that die in the tangential universe are the only ones able to communicate with Donnie. In the film this is represented by the Frank's haunting and guiding Donnie, because Donnie killed him and Gretchen seeking Donnie out and leading him from the very beginning. Seth, Ricky, Jim, Kitty, Drew Barrymore, and Donnie's Family are the manipulated living. They are prone to more irrational violent behavior in the tangential universe as they seek to escape oblivion. This is why everyone in the film is always fighting and bitter to each other. This is why dickwad and young Rogen are constantly harassing Donnie.
Throughout the movie, Donnie is guided by the book he reads written by Roberta Sparrow or Grandma Death. Roberta is always checking her mail box. Why? It's because she was once a manipulated living as well, only her tangential universe did not end with her death and thus she lived on to write about it and, theoretically, maintained the ability to see and manipulate the 4th dimension. She wants to help Donnie and knows that a letter is coming but doesn't know when, so she waits for his letter, constantly checking the mail. Donnie, sadly, finds love and happiness in the tangential universe and doesn't want to leave it. He enjoys the power and you can see this by his tell-tale smirk as he communicates with Frank or uses his powers. But, when Gretchen dies, he begins to see the truth in Roberta's book. The artifact is the turbine, he is the receiver and the only one who can fix the timeline and save the universe and the woman he loves. He goes to the place where he first entered the tangential universe the day before the incident, the big bluff overlooking town.
As he begins to see the universe tear itself apart, he can see the tell-tale vortex ripping apart the fabric of reality above his house, and what is above the vortex, the airplane and the doomed turbine. This creates a paradox. The turbine cannot exist without the tangent. But the universe cannot exist without the artifact crossing into the main timeline and out of the tangent. And historically, according to the book, the living receiver will be killed by the artifact as the vortex epicenter and location are directly related to the living receiver and vice-versa.
So Donnie uses his powers one last time, a power he hasn't used before but that he knows will work. Just like his other powers, he doesn't learn to use them, he just knows that he can; he already knows what they do. Perhaps this is from a memory of some other tangential universe that dances on the outskirts of his consciousness. Either way, that smile we see on Donnie's face at the end, that isn't just him lying back and accepting his fate, his doom, that's Donnie smiling because he KNOWS that he just saved the lives of his family, the woman he loves, his friends, and his mentors. Drew Barrymore won't lose her job.
Gretchen and Frank live. Elizabeth will go to college. And Donnie's mom and little sister don't die in a plane crash/the end of the universe.
He smiles because he knows what the future holds and that it is good. While he is sad to lose this future for himself, the tangential universe has allowed him to accept his death, accept those he loves and express that love, and also say goodbye. He makes amends with all those he cares about in the tangential universe and he judges and brings justice to those that he dislikes. And as the waking dream of the tangential universe bursts and the timelines collide, bringing Donnie's death and a turbine crashing through his roof, all the actors within the tangential universe who have been affected by Donnie's actions wake with the memory of what occurred. The memory fades, just a dream. But the emotions remain. Gretchen was loved. Donnie was finally kind and showed love to his family. Karen found a student that really was motivated and inspired by her teacher and Jim was found out and convicted of pedophilia. Frank touches his eye, the sensation of the bullet ripping through his skull still fresh in his mind.
Gretchen and Rose look at each other and wave, a shimmer of a sense of recognition on their faces because for a moment, they knew each other and they knew a boy that in his last moments became a man and saved the universe.
I was then asked.... "Why can Frank and Gretchen communicate with Donnie, just cause they died in the tangential universe? I'm pretty sure a lot of other people talk to Donnie in the tangential universe and I can't remember Gretchen doing anything supernatural to Donnie."
Well, it's not like she is specifically guiding him throughout it but she is drawn to him immediately. Drew Barrymore is a manipulated living and she works in a similar manner, only with lesser ties and motivation. Think to Gretchen's first appearance, what happens? Drew Barrymore doesn't assign her a seat, she does something strange and, frankly, inappropriate. She asks her to seat by the cutest boy.
Almost without hesitation, she chooses Donnie. She is drawn to him and from then on out, she is never shown alone. She is never on-screen without Donnie. It becomes a paradox of the chicken or the egg. She's drawn to him because he is the receiver and she is the manipulated dead. But she doesn't haunt him like Frank does to Donnie, presumably because Donnie didn't kill her. But she does join him on his trip to the Cellar Door, a trip Donnie probably would have made himself, alone, even without her. But Donnie never would have killed Frank without Gretchen being there. And Gretchen never would have been in the road if it weren't for the two bullies, more manipulated living. What are they doing there? Just to rob Roberta? And on Halloween, no less? No, they are drawn there specifically because they are unconsciously seeking to escape the oblivion. It is only these steps that will bring Frank to kill Gretchen and nothing else and so they must be there or the world will end.
There's a lot of guided paradoxes in the film. The universe itself is guiding Donnie and all those around him and they have no control. All the manipulated will find a way to be in the circumstance demanded of them, but Donnie is not manipulated. He can make whatever choice he wants and so it is the purpose of the manipulated to guide Donnie, even if they don't realize what it is they are doing. An example of the universe guiding him is when he finds the gun; there is absolutely zero explanation for why he was going to get the gun or even knew where the gun was before he was guided by the fourth dimensional hallucination. In the original, there's that stupid hand that waves him forward, but that's not there in the director's cut. It's his own curiosity that leads him to follow his "path" to the gun, but he has no idea why he needs it or should grab it.
The truth is though, if Gretchen hadn't died, Donnie would have let the world end, because he had finally found happiness. It's only in losing that happiness that he matures and comes to understand that there are larger things than himself and that he must, ultimately, sacrifice himself for the ones he loves and that's the biggest, most important character arc for Donnie.