Fox // 2001 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 10th, 2009
Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?
"Pay close attention. You might miss something."
Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal, October Sky) is a somewhat troubled teenager. His parents have been worried about him lately. Donnie got in trouble when he was a kid for burning down an empty barn and spent some time in juvenile detention. Ever since, Donnie has been seeing a psychologist, and he's been forced to take medication. One night, Donnie has a strange experience. He is visited by a giant rabbit named Frank, who tells Donnie to go outside. Donnie goes outside and is shown a vision. Then Frank tells Donnie that the world is going to end in 28 days. That same night, a jet engine falls out of the sky and crashes into the Darko home. It lands in Donnie's room. It would have killed Donnie, but fortunately Donnie's strange vision had led him outside.
Donnie's life begins to change and evolve at a very rapid rate, as he attempts to determine how to process this new information about the end of the world. For the first time, he manages to start a reasonably successful romantic relationship with a girl named Gretchen (Jena Malone, Into the Wild). He doesn't particularly care for school, but begins to find great stimulation and satisfaction in the ambitious class led by his English teacher, Karen Pomeror (Drew Barrymore, Lucky You). He begins to develop a fascination with the concept of time travel. He loathes the very core of an inspirational speaker named Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze, Dirty Dancing) who has been spending some time "motivating" the kids at the school. All the while, his thoughts and actions begin to become increasingly controlled by the mysterious Frank. Is Frank real, a symbol, a dream, or none of the above? Is the end of the world really coming? What's going to happen to Donnie Darko? Where is the line between reality and fantasy?
Poor Richard Kelly. Ever since Donnie Darko became a cult hit on DVD, Kelly has only managed to alienate himself more and more from his once-rabid fanbase. The success of the film inspired the release of a lengthier "director's cut," which offered a considerably more explicit explanation of aspects of the film that may have seemed very vague in the theatrical release. Some loved this, but others felt like the director's cut was simply too obvious (not to mention too long). Years later, Kelly offered his next directorial outing, Southland Tales, which was widely regarded as an absolute train wreck. It was a film so bad that some began to reconsider whether Donnie Darko had been any good to begin with. Kelly's schizophrenic screenplay for Tony Scott's Domino didn't help matters, either. Jim Emerson recycled a wise piece of advice when speaking about Donnie Darko: "Trust the art, not the artist." Whatever you may think of Kelly, I don't think it can be denied that both versions of this film remain positively fascinating viewing experiences.
This Blu-ray release has thankfully included both the theatrical version and the director's cut, allowing viewers to compare and contrast the two, because both are worth seeing. The theatrical version is the best to watch first, as it really tantalizes the viewer with a lot of compelling questions. The director's cut answers some (but not all) of those questions in a satisfyingly subtle manner, particularly in regards to the time travel/tangent universe elements of the film. There are also some new adjustments to the soundtrack that are rather hit-and-miss. After that, viewers can pretty much go down whichever path they choose for repeat viewings. They can stick with Kelly's expanded version if they like, but I will say that receiving the information offered in the director's cut makes repeat viewings of the original version a bit more satisfactory.
Re-watching the film, I was struck by what a densely organized viewing experience it is. There are ideas literally bursting out of almost every scene. Multiple interpretations and loads of possibilities define Donnie Darko. There are those who feel it's simply too distant and incomprehensible, and there are plenty of boring teen slasher movies for those who simply want more of the same. If you would consider yourself an adventurous viewer by any stretch of the imagination, you owe it to yourself to see the film. Donnie Darko is a hypnotic and very rewarding viewing experience, one rich enough to encourage the viewer to come back again and again in search of more hidden treasures. Be sure to find someone to watch the film with you, because as soon as it's over, you're likely to be itching to discuss your many thoughts and theories with somebody.
I was a little disappointed by the hi-def transfer. Though blacks are quite deep, the image suffers from a good deal of black crush. The image is also surprisingly soft and a little blurry at times, and there are a few minor flecks and specks throughout the film. Flesh tones seem accurate, but facial detail and background detail are both rather lacking. This is a film full of subtle-yet-important images, so I was hoping for a bit better. On the other hand, the audio is superb throughout. The soundtrack is particularly well-distributed and immersive, but it never overwhelms the dialogue. There a few scenes that will make your room tremble a bit. In case you're curious, I couldn't hear or see any considerable differences between the theatrical version and the director's cut.
This Blu-ray disc really delivers in the supplemental department, though. There are no less than three audio commentaries onhand. The theatrical cut of the film offers one cut with Jake Gyllenhaal and Richard Kelly, and another track with bits and pieces from oodles of cast and crew members. The director's cut features a track with Kelly and Donnie Darko fan an atypically low-key Kevin Smith. All of these tracks are very informative, very engaging, and very well put-together. However, from one cinema fan to another, permit me offer you a piece of advice: don't listen to the audio commentaries. Both versions of the film are better without the commentaries. The director's cut may go to greater lengths in terms of explaining exactly what the film is about, but there are still lots of tantalizing possibilities that are left to the viewer. Frankly, I find Kelly's blatant explanation of the film a bit less interesting and compelling that the explanation I had put together inside my own mind. It's perfectly fine when people speculate and theorize, but in this particular case, I just don't like hearing what the whole thing is about from the guy who actually knows, because his explanation authoritatively limits the seemingly limitless possibilities of the film. That's just one man's opinion, though. If you want the audio commentaries regardless, you'll find all of them rather good listening.
On the second disc, there are plenty more special features that reveal the secrets behind the making of the film. There's a substantial production diary that covers the film's creation from start to finish, which comes with a rather dull optional commentary from cinematographer Stephen Poster. There's also a featurette called "The Made Me Do It Too: The Cult of Donnie Darko," which essentially offers interviews with fans who rave about the awesomeness of the film. More entertaining is the "#1 Fan: A Darkomentary" featurette, which spotlights a particularly rabid fan of the film in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner. There are also some storyboard-to-screen comparisons and a trailer. Finally, the disc is D-box enabled, for all of you movers and shakers out there who want to get The Full Donnie Darko Experience. You crazy kids.
This is a minor complaint, but one that I feel the need to make. The casting in the film is excellent, with one exception. Beth Grant has often demonstrated a tendency to go a bit too far over-the-top in her roles, and she does so once again here as prudish teacher Kitty Farmer. It's not that her performance is terrible...her sense of comic timing is strong, and she's actually kind of funny...but her wacky behavior kind of throws off the vibe of the film for me. It's a distracting performance that should have been toned down a bit for the sake of the film.
The hi-def transfer is a bit disappointing, but strong audio, tons of supplemental material, and -- most important -- the convenience of having both versions of the film included earn this one an easy recommendation. Do what Frank wants you to do, Donnie Darko fans. Go ahead and upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Production Diaries
* Storyboard Comparisons
* D-Box Enabled