Recut a cult classic? Judge Joel Pearce is deeply suspicious, and gives us the benefit of his careful scrutiny.
Our reviews of Donnie Darko (published February 18th, 2002), Donnie Darko (Blu-ray) (published February 10th, 2009), and Donnie Darko (Blu-ray) 10th Anniversary Edition (published August 12th, 2011) are also available.
"Watch closely." -Frank
One of the most baffling films of the past decade has a shiny new director's cut, which comes with the promise of a much clearer explanation. Does that improve this already fantastic film, or just prove that even promising first-time directors can be lured into the director's cut double-dip trend we have been seeing too much of lately?
Facts of the Case
Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal, Moonlight Mile) is not a typical '80s teenager. He has a past of emotional problems and trouble, even though he is unusually intelligent. Recently, he's been having strange dreams and hears the voice of a giant bunny named Frank (James Duval, Gone in Sixty Seconds). After his life is saved by Frank after a jet engine falls in his room, he is told that the world is going to end in less than a month. Donnie believes that he will be able to save the world if he is able to learn the secrets of time travel quickly enough, but it's also possible that he's just crazy.
If you have seen the film already, you know there is so much more to it than that, but I certainly don't want to ruin it for anyone here.
I am a big fan of Donnie Darko. It strikes a near-perfect balance between coherence and ambiguity, perfectly capturing the reality of growing up in the '80s while spinning a wild tale of either dimensions or dementia. This flirtation with clarity provides one of the greatest joys of the film, which is attempting to unravel the complex web of connections afterwards over a couple of beers with other movie nerds. Donnie Darko gets more impressive with subsequent viewings, when it becomes even clearer that each moment of this film resonates with the rest. It sits on the razor's edge of insanity, but manages to almost sort itself out at the end.
Because of the brilliance of the original film, I was scared to see this director's cut. Since the film has such a delicate balance, any tampering could create a version of the film that would greatly disappoint Donnie Darko's many fans. Also, why would Richard Kelly even want to tamper with a film that has become such a success on home video? During the commentary track, we learn that he had two reasons for the new cut, both of which make sense and neither of which diminish the value of the original cut. This version gives him the chance to use the music that he couldn't get the rights to before, and it also gives him a chance to reveal his own interpretation. It is his gift to the fans that turned Donnie Darko from a box office flop to a DVD cult phenomenon.
How do these changes impact the film? The shift in music actually makes a massive difference, and one that I'm not sure I like. Richard Kelly wasn't able to secure the rights to the INXS song he wanted to use at the beginning, so he shifted The Killing Moon to a different section of the film, and put the far more upbeat Never Tear Us Apart. I don't think it captures the tone of the film as well, but maybe that's just because I have always seen it the other way.
The biggest addition to this version of Donnie Darko is the inclusion of the sequences that were on the original DVD as deleted scenes. While none of these scenes have a major impact on the storyline, they do add depth to some of the characters and subplots, and don't impact the pacing of the film too much. Contrary to what I have heard, though, these scenes are not the only additions to this version. There are several other short clips, normally parts of scenes that already existed. Some of these are fascinating, especially for viewers that are already familiar with the story. The most striking addition is text from The Philosophy of Time Travel. This text, which previously only existed on the film's homepage, makes major steps in explaining the process that Donnie actually goes through during the film. These sequences will be welcomed by audiences who enjoy the film but are completely baffled by the plot. I am less certain about these moments, as they simplify matters too much. Several new CGI sequences reveal the circumstances that allow Donnie to move ahead and meet his fate. I don't want to go into detail, but curious fans will be more than satisfied with the answers that are embedded in these sequences.
All said and done, however, this is not a better film. It's nice to have some of these answers, but knowing for sure what is going on in Donnie Darko isn't quite as exciting as toying with the possibilities of what might be going on. The sequences that deepen the characters are wonderful, but the book text and CGI sequences spoon-feed us too much.
The transfer is virtually identical to the last release. The video transfer is inconsistent, with the darker scenes looking good and the other scenes looking drab. The film was shot using a stock that would better capture the dark scenes; while it achieved the desired effect, most of the scenes are begging for a serious remastering. There is no difference in quality between the original sequences and the ones added for this release. The sound transfer is much better, however. There are tons of rumble and action in the surrounds, although the voices are occasionally difficult to understand. Again, this is probably indicative of the filming conditions.
Among the many extras on these discs, the best is a commentary track with Richard Kelly and Kevin Smith, brought in to "make sure there weren't any awkward silences." It's one of the best tracks I have ever heard, with entertaining and intelligent conversation about the differences between the two versions, Kelly's interpretation of the film, and a ton of background information about the production. This track makes clear that this version is not a replacement of the original, but rather an "extended remix."
The rest of the features are on the second disc. There is a production diary, which shows a little footage from scouting and behind the scenes. Second up is They Made Me Do It Too: The Cult of Donnie Darko. It's about some British fans of the film that like it even more than I do. A lot more. In fact, it's just a bit creepy. It's interesting to see the impact this film had internationally through word of mouth. Even more remarkable is the "#1 Fan: A Darkomentary" about Darryl Donaldson, who has gone to embarrassing lengths to get on this DVD. It's hard to tell how serious he is, but it's sort of funny and pathetic all at the same time. There are storyboard sequences, which are interesting to check out (and a little comforting after the featurettes). The second disc is a bit thin, but the commentary more than makes up for it.
This DVD set makes an excellent supplement for the original version. If you are a fan of the film, it is well worth a purchase for the commentary track and a peek into Kelly's interpretation of his incredible first film. If you have never seen Donnie Darko, this is not the version to get. Pick up the original DVD (which is very cheap), watch the film a couple times, then check out this version if you like what you see.
Although it would have been nice to get a definitive DVD set for Donnie Darko, I am happy to have this set sitting next to my original DVD. Not guilty.
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• Commentary Track
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