Fox // 2001 // 134 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // August 12th, 2011
"Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?" "Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?"
Every few years a movie appears out of nowhere and captures people's attention. Sometimes these movies go on to huge popularity, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But other times, the movie stays under the radar picking up a dedicated following that seems to get bigger each year. Donnie Darko is one of those movies.
Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal, Zodiac) has a lot going on. He sleepwalks. He's seeing a therapist who has him on medication. He's been known to burn down houses. He's got a few emotional problems. One night a figure in a disturbing bunny suit materializes in front of him. The bunny is named Frank (James Duval, Go), and he wants to tell Donnie that the world is going to end in a month. Needless to say Donnie freaks out.
As he tries to deal with the increasingly frequent visits from Frank the prophetic bunny, he also finds himself falling for Gretchen (Jena Malone, Saved!) a new girl at his school. Pressures begin to mount on Donnie at school and at home. It becomes apparent to him, that he's going to have to take some kind of drastic action, but is he going to stop the destruction of the world, or help it along its way?
Donnie Darko is one of those movies that is a puzzle. The pieces are set before the viewers and it's up to you to put them together. Director Richard Kelly (The Box) drops hints throughout the movie like tiny morsels of logic and dreams that keep you believing that in the end, everything will come together. Depending on how much effort you want to put into watching and absorbing the film, you'll either be hungry for more, or rolling your eyes at the artsy fartsy crap.
Is Donnie Darko an exercise in style over substance? Possibly. I love movies that use dream logic and present puzzles to solve. David Lynch is one of my favorite directors, and Kelly's work here is strongly reminiscent of Twin Peaks or Lost Highway. So it's hard to deny the style.
The acting is also solid, with Jake Gyllenhaal in nearly every scene and playing a character that appeals and repels you. His performance offers various shades, keeping you wondering if Donnie is mentally unstable, manipulated by the medication he's on, or actually being contacted by the otherworldly Frank. I also have to say that Patrick Swayze (Point Break) nails the part as Jim Cunningham the smug motivational speaker. You just wanna reach into the screen and slap him.
Kelly never goes overboard in his setting. The movie occurs in October of 1988. But Donnie Darko keeps its '80s setting subdued for the most part. The cars and clothes are vintage, but not outrageous. There is talk about the upcoming presidential election. But the most obvious nod to the decade is in the song selections from the new wave catalogue. Not only do they create a strange nostalgic fit, but they are selected to add to the scenes. This goes for both the Theatrical and Director's Cut, as the songs are placed differently or changed between the two.
What's odd is I don't know which version of Donnie Darko works better. The efficiency of the Theatrical Cut, running 113 minutes, fits the film. It preserves much of the mystery I love and moves at a good pace. This is the first time I'd seen the Director's Cut which clocks in at 134 minutes. There were more character moments for the supporting cast. It added some great new angles to the story, and fleshed out Donnie's life a bit more. On the other hand, it tended to slow down too much with odd insertions of the bizarre book Donnie discovers, "The Philosophy of Time Travel," and uses some very obvious imagery that tips its hand toward one definitive answer to the puzzle. It's interesting that the Director's Cut includes some slightly different takes of similar scenes, providing an altered take on the same story.
Luckily Fox has provided both cuts on the Blu-ray presentation of Donnie Darko. Both are on the same disc, and you can select which version you wish to watch at the Frank infused menu. The only disappointment is that the high definition format is not too kind to this film. Donnie Darko was filmed on a tight budget in 28 days. The Blu-ray ends up accentuating the grain of the 35mm film and in some places makes it look a bit murky. Part of this is by design, but anyone looking for a pristine sharp print is going to be disappointed. Both the Director's Cut and Theatrical Cut look very similar and this leads me to believe it's an issue with the source, not the mastering. I don't think this movie could look much better.
Unfortunately the sound mix also suffers. The DTS-HD Master Audio on the Director's Cut is much too heavy on the sound effects and music. The actual dialogue is very quiet, and there are scenes where people whisper followed by a cacophony of sound effects. You are forced to watch the film with one hand on the remote ready to lower the volume quickly to keep your speakers from blowing out. This is a real shame because I loved what they did with Frank's voice on this track. It surrounds the viewer and really resonates, creating a powerful fusion with his appearances. Too bad Donnie whispers to him on several occasions. The Theatrical Cut is a much better mix balancing everything with greater skill, but lacking some of the rumbling power of the Director's Cut. The Theatrical Cut also provides a Dolby Surround French audio track.
The extras are ported over from the previous releases of the film. On the Blu-ray itself you get all the available commentary tracks from the two previous releases. There are two for the Theatrical Cut, and one for the Director's Cut. Standard DVD versions of both cuts are provided on separate discs. These also have the commentary tracks as well as the extras on the previous versions including featurettes, storyboard to screen comparisons, trailers, production diaries, music videos, production stills and photo galleries, deleted scenes, alternate scenes, cast and crew bios, the informercial featured in the movie, as well as a closer look at the "Philosophy of Time" book. You also get a digital copy of the Directors Cut so you can take a little bit of Frank with you wherever you go.
Donnie Darko is a tough movie to recommend. Some people will love its dark story and visuals immediately. Others will write it off as pretentious crap that was a waste of a good cast. If you have an affinity for the styles of David Lynch or Darren Aronofsky give the movie a shot.
For anyone looking to upgrade it's even tougher to recommend. The visual issues are something that was going to occur no matter what. My bigger concern is the bad sound mix on the Director's Cut. If you already have it in standard def, you'll have to think about this a little more. The convenience of having both cuts on one disc is a big plus, and the fact that all the extras are included (albeit on separate discs) is nice. If this 10th Anniversary set goes on sale, I'd say is a worthy purchase. Just keep your audio remote handy.
Guilty of delivering Donnie Darko just about any way you'd want to see
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Cut
* Deleted/Extended Scenes
* Production Diary
* Photo gallery
* Music Video
* Concept Art