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Case Number 01697

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Donnie Darko

Fox // 2001 // 129 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // February 18th, 2002

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Donnie Darko (Blu-ray) (published February 10th, 2009), Donnie Darko (Blu-ray) 10th Anniversary Edition (published August 12th, 2011), and Donnie Darko: Director's Cut (published February 28th, 2005) are also available.

The Charge

A movie about time travel, deranged bunnies, and other things that make adolescence tough.

Opening Statement

Set in the late, great 1980s, Donnie Darko is not a horror movie (as you might suspect by the cover), but really a dark, black psychological thriller. This movie showed up in many "art house" theaters around Los Angeles, but didn't get the wide release that it truly deserved. In the same vein as Final Destination and Stir Of Echoes, Donnie Darko is a disturbing story about the mind's eye and the sometimes dark destiny that awaits us all. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky), Patrick Swayze (Ghost), Jena Malone (The Ice Storm), Mary McDonnell (Grand Canyon), Drew Barrymore (Ever After), and Noah Wyle (TV's ER), Donnie Darko comes to DVD care of Fox Home Entertainment in a special edition that's gonna scare that pants off you!

Facts of the Case

Donnie Darko (Gyllenhaal) is a very disturbed boy. Aside of having visions about time travel and tunnels that filter out of people's bodies, Donnie is also corresponding with a creepy and eerie rabbit that looks something between Bugs Bunny and a drawing by H.R. Giger. Donnie lives a comfortable life in the suburbs (set in October of 1988) with his chipper mother (McDonnell), his amiable father (Holmes Osborne), and his two sisters (one played by Gyllenhaal's real-life sister Maggie). At school Donnie is known as an outcast—he insults one of his conservative teachers (telling her where she can stick a lesson plan), and spurs with Jim Cunningham (Swayze), a local self-help guru who thinks that "fear" and "love" are the only true, pure human emotions.

Donnie often finds himself sleepwalking at night, which ends up being a blessing in disguise: One night a giant airplane engine falls from the sky and crashes through Donnie's bedroom. The next morning Donnie and his family watch the FBI take the engine away, but lingering questions start to loom: Where, exactly, did the airplane engine come from? No plane was reported over his house that night, and the FBI just wants everyone to keep things quiet. All the while Donnie is visited by his freakish rabbit friend who instructs him to do physical damage to the town and tells him that the end of the world is at hand within 28 days (a pessimistic lil' bunny, to say the least).

As the days pass, Donnie realizes that he may have the keys to time travel and possibly where that inexplicable plane engine came from. To tell you anymore would spoil the surprises lurking inside Donnie Darko…a Rubik's cube of a movie that will leave you guessing until the final scene.

The Evidence

Donnie Darko gets a lot of things right, though not enough to transcend its genre into something truly special. Watching it, I was taken aback—it was, by all means, a thought provoking and simply original film. As the last half hour of the film rolls, it became clear that things are about to get confusing, and not for the better.

Donnie Darko was both written and directed by promising newcomer Richard Kelly, and executive produced by Drew Barrymore, who had the insight to see something new and fresh in the material. The tone of Donnie Darko is set in stone—like John Carpenter's now legendary Halloween, Donnie Darko sets its stage in the suburbs during the most chilling of holidays—and as such it lends itself well to the eeriness and placidity of suburban existence. This is a place where dark clouds seem to loom, even in the bright light of day. Donnie's character is complex and brooding—he's likeable yet dangerous. In actuality, this is a part that could have been played by any young, hip, hot actor (though Gyllenhaal plays it very well). He's supported by a very good group of actors, including a well cast Patrick Swayze as a lively self-help guru and Katherine Ross (The Graduate) as Donnie's questioning shrink. Some of the larger names, like Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore, have been set into smaller roles that work quite well. The script crackles with some unique dialogue, including my favorite exchange between two girls: when the high school washroom floods the school, one girl quips that "the bathrooms are flooded and they found feces all over the floor." "What's feces?," another girl asks, prompting an ignorant answer of,: "Baby mice." Another exchange about The Smurfs and Smurfette's sexual "duties" also elicited a few laughs. I also loved the fact that when Donnie and his girlfriend Gretchen go to the movies, they sit back for a comfortable showing of Sam Raimi's classic The Evil Dead.

Donnie Darko will be a good scare for those looking for thrills instead of gore. There isn't a lot of "horror" in this movie, and the ending seems just a bit too twisted (I had to turn on the director's commentary to see what was going on). Other inherent problems started to surface as well—while this film takes place in 1988, I never got the feeling that it was 1988. Except for some references to Dukakis and Back to the Future, this could have easily have been 1998.

I'm purposefully not going into much detail about the storyline because I think that some movies, like Donnie Darko, work better without much knowledge about the film. Donnie Darko is a strange and original movie. It has its flaws, but is well worth the trip.

Donnie Darko is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is a nice looking print that sports only a few minor flaws. In the beginning of the film, I noticed a few instances of grain and dirt. Aside of that, black levels look very sharp and well defined while the colors sport vivid brightness and clarity. I noticed a small amount of artifacting and edge enhancement in a few areas, but nothing major. This is a overall a very good looking print of the film that should please fans.

The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 in English as well as Dolby Surround in English and French. This is a very enveloping 5.1 soundtrack that utilizes both the front and rear speakers often and vigorously. I spotted no distortion in any of the dialogue, effects, or music. This may not be the most aggressive 5.1 soundtrack ever created, but it should keep all eyes on the screen with its bombastic sounds. Also included on this disc are English and Spanish subtitles.

Donnie Darko includes some excellent extra features, starting with not one but two commentary tracks, one by director Richard Kelly and star Jake Gyllenhaal, and a second by the cast and crew, including Drew Barrymore, Katherine Ross, Mary McDonnell, and more. The first commentary track is much more subdued than the second, featuring the director giving out lots of information into the production, plus some (thankfully) intense discussion on some of the thematic elements in the film. The second track is pretty bouncy with questions being asked and answered and a good time being had by all.

Under the "special features" menu we find all kinds of weird things. The Philosophy Of Time Travel is page-by-page look at the book prominently displayed in the film. The Art Gallery includes some production photos from the film, as well as conceptual art and the promotional materials used for the marketing. Cunning Visions is a collection of infomercials from the film by Patrick Swayze's character. An optional infomercial is available with commentary by a very lisp-heavy Fabian Van Patton and CEO Linda Connie (who are these people? I have no idea). Finally this section includes some book covers and a template of pictures used in the movie.

There is section on the soundtrack that includes a look at the liner notes from the CD, plus some fake website stills used for the film's promotion. Twenty Deleted Scenes are included that feature optional commentary with the director. Some of these are actually pretty cool, while others had validation for being cut. The commentary helps to answer some questions on why these scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

Rounding off the extra features are some TV spots and theatrical trailers, a music video for the song "Mad World" by Gary Jules (originally written by Tears For Fears), and some information on the cast and crew.

Closing Statement

Though not completely successful, Donnie Darko is a grand attempt at trying to add some new lifeblood into the age old "teen thriller" genre. The cast is good and the direction apt, but the script tends to peter out by the last fifteen minutes or so. Still, this is a recommended creep-fest for fans of weird drama.

The Verdict

Donnie Darko and Fox are both free to go, but before I go I just gotta ask: What was that ending all about?

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Scales of Justice

Video: 94
Audio: 93
Extras: 88
Acting: 87
Story: 84
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
• English
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Horror
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary with Director Richard Kelly and Actor Jake Gyllenhaal
• Commentary with Various Cast and Crew Members
• Deleted Scenes
• The Philosophy Of Time Travel
• Art Gallery
• "Cunning Visions"
• Theatrical Trailers
• TV Spots
• Music Video: "Mad World" by Gary Jules


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• Official Site

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Review content copyright © 2002 Patrick Naugle; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.