The Good: Great story, Blu-Ray includes both versions, Decent bonus features, Good acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: Ambiguity may be making up for weaker concept moments.
The Basics: A creepy, high-concept film, Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut follows one young man through the last days of the world in the late 1980s!
Somewhere on a laptop that is decomposing, there is my original review of Donnie Darko almost completed and when I restarted the review, I thought that the loss of the original might actually be a decent form of fate. Since I originally watched Donnie Darko – The Director's Cut, I watched writer-director Richard Kelley’s subsequent film, The Southland Tales, which I discovered I was one of the very few people to enjoy, and the original theatrical release of Donnie Darko. I can see why this movie ended up as a “cult favorite.” It’s too weird for the mainstream. That said, I find I am once again in the minority on a Richard Kelley film: I enjoyed the Director's Cut more than most anyone else I know.
The fundamental difference between Donnie Darko and Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut is the restoration of about twenty minutes of scenes as well as interstitials that help to explain (or confuse) the plot/concept for the viewer. The interstitials are inter-scene flashes which include text from The Philosophy Of Time Travel (a book in the film) which more clearly spells out Donnie’s place in the film and in the paradox he is helping to create through his actions. What the Director's Cut does not do (which I feared it might given comments comrades of mine made back in the day when both films came out) is dumb down the film. Instead of leaving the bulk of the conceptual work of the film up in the air, the Director's Cut assigns specific terms to the characters and their relationships in an alternate universe scenario, which (more than time travel) is what the film is preoccupied with.
Donnie Darko, a troubled young man arguably suffering from schizophrenia, sleepwalks at night, leaving his more conservative parents worried and troubled. One night, Donnie follows Frank (a six-foot tall bunny) out into the night and as a result, he manages to avoid being killed by a falling jet engine that crashes into his room. But Frank has a dire prediction for Donnie; the world will end in a little over twenty-eight days. Frank, troubled by this but feeling powerless to stop the impending destruction of the planet, returns to school the next day where he meets Gretchen Ross, a new student who has arrived in the suburbs because her step father tried to stab her mother to death. Drawn to Gretchen, Donnie works with a therapist to try to stop his nightmarish visions.
As the doomsday date (and Halloween) approach, Donnie causes unrest at school by combating the gym-teacher-turned-health-teacher’s efforts to indoctrinate the students with the current self-help guru's, Jim Cunningham, philosophies. Rejecting his dialectic view of the world, he falls in with a rebellious English teacher and her science teacher boyfriend. In his attempt to understand what is happening to him, Donnie becomes fascinated with the book Philosophy Of Time Travel, which was written by an aged local woman. As Donnie confronts Frank, Cunningham and his minions, and his own fears, doomsday rushes toward all of them and Donnie may be the key to saving them all.
What I enjoyed most about Donnie Darko was that while the film takes a lot of time to be moody, cerebral and creepy, the film always has something going on. Most films have a direct purpose and story and it is obvious from almost the very beginning. Donnie Darko does not. Instead, it creates a very real world where there are all sorts of things going on. Sure, Donnie is having a mental breakdown (arguably) and problems with his parents, but that does not matter to his English teacher Karen Pomeroy. Instead, she is preoccupied with keeping her job after one of Donnie’s nocturnal journeys cause him to mimic the controversial actions from a book the health teacher, Kitty Farmer, wants banned from the curriculum. While Donnie inadvertently exposes the secret life of Cunningham, his sister, Samantha, and her dance troupe win a place on Star Search. While the film's title seems to indicate the film will be focused entirely on Donnie Darko, the truth is, the movie takes a sufficient amount of time to explore the reality of the time and place it is set in, including a ton of references to the Dukakis/Bush election, which is impending at the time of the action of the film.
On that front, from almost the opening of the film, I (as a writer and seasoned film viewer) spent the film waiting for a very specific moment and perhaps the greatest praise I can think to bestow upon Donnie Darko is that when the moment came (it was inevitable), it did not disappoint me. Instead, Donnie Darko is a film that feels extraordinarily well put-together, even if it takes an engaged viewer to truly appreciate all that is going on. Like the television show Lost,” this is not a film to have on in the background, one must actively watch it and put the pieces together (hopefully in advance of Donnie!). And while the movie might seem plot heavy, it actually does an excellent job of creating vivid characters, especially Donnie.
Donnie Darko, whose super hero-like name is addressed forthrightly by Gretchen in the film, is actually a likable protagonist and while the viewer might become confused by all he is going through, to his credit, Donnie seems confused by the string of events that seem centered around him. Frank (the Bunny) torments Donnie in many ways and as Donnie begins to perceive the way time and space bend and flow, he is suitably unsettled. But some of the film's most enjoyable moments are the simple character moments: Donnie at home having a conversation with his family around the dinner table, Donnie and Gretchen fumbling through the beginnings of a teenage romance, and Donnie and his friends talking about the Smurfs (seriously, hilarious!). Donnie is a character it is very easy to empathize with because he is told he is ill, but we see little evidence of that, so we feel as confused as he does.
Donnie is played with a slack-jawed, dead-eyed physical performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal is articulate enough to make his character's rebellious scenes seem smart and not just like those of a generic angsty teenager. Similarly, Jena Malone, whose work in Saved! has a wonderful physical presence in the movie, characterizing the insecurities of a teenage girl thrown into a new social climate wonderfully. She has a more quiet quirkiness whereas Gyllenhaal’s chemistry with her comes from his character's almost constant chatter. The cast is supported by an amazing assembly of character actors, including Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Beth Grant and Patrick Swayze. Despite having a number of young talents (including Seth Rogen in a bit supporting role), the acting is surprisingly good all around. Richard Kelley assembled an exceptional group of actors and gets consistently good performances out of one and all.
On Blu-Ray, Donnie Darko looks exceptional and sounds great, too (audio effects are one of the richer portions of the experience, if one has a home theater equipped for it). The Blu-Ray includes both The Director's Cut and the original Donnie Darko and this makes a comparative set of viewings very easy. The theatrical cut features two different commentary tracks and the disc also includes all of the bonus featurettes from the DVD of “The Director's Cut,” including the theatrical trailer for Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut and an exploration of the fan base surrounding the film.
Either way, Donnie Darko is smart, but not a film that hands the viewer all of the answers. My wife thinks the hype over how great the film is comes from a fan base who doesn’t want to admit that the ending is just plain terrible.
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© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.