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DONNIE DARKO
Director's Cut

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Daveigh Chase, James Duval
Director: Richard Kelly
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Digital or 2.0 Surround
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: 20th-Century Fox
Features: Commentary, production diary, featurettes, trailer
Length: 132 minutes
Release Date: February 15, 2005

"Donnie Darko.  What the hell kind of name is that?  It's like some sort of superhero or something."

"What makes you think I'm not?"

Film ****

Cult films are generally a hit-or-miss proposition, and the horror genre seems particularly replete with such pictures.  One of the better films recently to attain cult status is Donnie Darko.  First released without much fanfare in 2001, this film has since amassed a substantial following of truly avid fans.  As an enigmatic hybrid between psychological horror and 1980's John Hughes-style teen angst, Donnie Darko apparently struck a sensitive chord with the disillusioned youth of Generation X, who identified with many of the film's characters, particularly Donnie Darko.

Donnie Darko unfolds much as would a mystery.  The title character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is a frustrated high school student who has little regard for his parents and virtual disdain for most of his school instructors.  He is a typically rebellious teen, unhappy with his life and searching for a meaningful role model.  Donnie's life lacks direction, and when he isn't shutting himself in his own room, Donnie can be seen vandalizing property or wandering aimlessly through the community in the dead of night.  His exasperated mother has her son attending regular sessions with a child psychologist in the hopes of curing him of his morose tendencies.

One evening - October 2, 1988 to be exact - a strange catastrophe befalls the Darko residence.  The sky literally opens up and falls upon the home, destroying Donnie's room in the process.  Perhaps a premonition of impending disaster saves him, because Donnie awakens mere moments before the disaster for an impromptu midnight stroll in the neighborhood.

Donnie's survival proves not to be a stroke of good fortune but rather a destiny guided by more mysterious hands.  His night-time walk brings him into the presence of Frank, an apparently impervious demonic rabbit with a horrific prophecy - the imminent end of the world in approximately one month, a fate somehow linked to the partial destruction of the Darko residence.  It was Frank who had somehow summoned Donnie, and subsequently only Donnie can see Frank or remains aware of the apparition's ominous message.  As the October days fly by, Frank increasingly intrudes upon Donnie's subconscious or dream states, offering further warnings and instructions.

While the otherwise normal small suburban community of Middlesex eventually settles back into life's daily routines and prepares for the upcoming Halloween celebrations, Donnie begins to focus upon the enigma at hand.  What is the nature of the catastrophe to come?  Is there a way to stop it, and if so, how?  What true role does the demonic apparition play in this intricate web of supernatural events?  Are these strange events even real or merely hallucinations, the adverse side effects of Donnie's anti-psychotic medications?  Could everything merely represent dream images or a divergent pathway altogether into a tangential realm of existence?

Donnie Darko channels the dark undercurrents of David Lynch's Blue Velvet.  Beneath the superficial pleasantries of this peaceful Virginian town of Middlesex, there lingers the vestiges of an alternative underworld, a haunting realm in which appearances are shown to be quite deceiving.  Donnie Darko also plays off the style of the teen coming-of-age comedies of the 1980's.  Fittingly, this film boasts in its cast several 80's icons - Patrick Swayze as a motivational speaker and Drew Barrymore as a school teacher, albeit a most progressive one.  Songs from that era, by the likes of Tears for Fears and INXS, accentuate the seemingly cheerful environs which camouflage the more sinister elements of the story.

Donnie is a student at Middlesex Ridge, a Catholic high school.  With underlying themes of religion thus established, the film traces events in this one strange month of October, asking us to consider whether these deeds represent an act of god, the will of more sinister forces, or even the unsettlingly warped workings of Donnie's mind.

As Halloween draws ever closer, Donnie's behavior becomes increasingly more erratic and destructive.  One might certainly argue that Donnie is simply a paranoid schizophrenic losing his ability to distinguish reality from fantasy.  Perhaps he is even acting out as a psychological response to a school reading assignment, Graham Greene's The Destructors.  If destruction is a form of creation, then perhaps Donnie's world must be torn asunder before it can be reassembled for the better.

The original theatrical version of Donnie Darko was a rather obtuse film which stubbornly defied attempts to follow narrative conventions.  Director Richard Kelly sprinkled clues liberally throughout the film without actually spelling anything out.  Much more was implied than ever directly depicted or shown.  The film's apparent teen-angst and teen-romance storyline differed significantly from the true underlying horror context, interpretable as anything from a pure dream to a true mystery to a psychological breakdown.  In this light, watching Donnie Darko was akin to shuffling through a collage of unassembled jigsaw puzzle pieces, a frustrating experience perhaps for viewers accustomed to being spoon-fed every single plot detail in a movie.  The more enterprising viewers were able to assimilate the clues over multiple screenings and draw their own conclusions.

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut represents an incorporation of various deleted scenes (about 21 minutes' worth) into the original narrative.  The result is a somewhat more coherent and leisurely-paced film.  New initiates to the Donnie Darko cult will prefer this revised version of the film, while the true cultists will probably cling to the enigmatic shroud of the original release.  In either case, many (but not all) of the extended scenes are already available as bonus features on the original Donnie Darko DVD, while the film's official website is the source for other changes, particularly key notations and excerpts from the book "The Philosophy of Time Travel."  As such, the "new" material in this Director's Cut will probably be familiar already to long-time fans of the film, but as part of the extended version of the film, they do provide a more palatable introduction to Donnie Darko for the novice fan.

Of the new changes, the book excerpts are the most significant.  They describe the steps in the transformation that Donnie will undergo in his eventual quest to correct the perceived dangers in his present existence.  However, any viewer expecting clunky time machines or climactic clashes with angry demon rabbits or space aliens is in for disappointment.  Donnie's metamorphosis is entirely an internal journey.  As Unbreakable was to the super-hero genre, so Donnie Darko is to the horror genre, a cerebral portrayal of a spiritual or psychological voyage in face of great adversity.

Donnie Darko is not a film for everyone.  But there is no denying that it is a remarkable achievement which uses some admittedly conventional elements and plot devices to fashion a truly unforgettable experience.  The film's fans are rabid and legion, and they understand well what a unique film director Richard Kelly has crafted.  As Kelly's feature-length directorial debut, Donnie Darko sets a high standard for the young director to follow.  I am sure that I am joined by multitudes of Darko cultists who wish the best for Kelly's sophomore follow-up!

Video ***

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut looks okay in its 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen format.  Details are mildly soft, and colors are slightly muddy.  There is occasional grain to the images.  Some of the newer or extended scenes, particularly if visual effects are used, look decidedly different and more pristine then the older portions of the film.

Audio ***

The sound effects have been altered or otherwise sweetened in the new 5.1 audio track.  Dialogue is still clear, although the film has a broader aural ambiance now.  Bass is deeper, and the aural quality is generally more dynamic.

The music remains the same, although there is some reshuffling of a couple of the songs.  The Tears for Fears tune Head Over Heels remains prominently featured during one of the cooler tracking shots in the film, as does Mad World for the film's concluding montage.  However, Echo and the Bunnymen's Killing Moon has been shifted to the late party sequence and has been replaced in the opening sequence by INXS's Never Tear Us Apart (as per the director's original intent).

Features ****

"Twenty-eight days, six hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds...that is when the world will end."

Donnie Darko has been previously released on DVD.  This "Director's Cut" DVD offers further enlightenment for the discriminating Darko fan.  There are two discs in this set, the first one holding the extended director's cut as well as a very good audio commentary by writer/director Richard Kelly.  Director pal Kevin Smith also contributes his thoughts, although he comes across as a foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed dude, so cover the kiddies' ears during his comments, which are otherwise often humorous.  Overall, this is a particularly revealing track, especially for fans who wish to learn more about the new scenes or changes in the film.  Kelly also discusses the various songs in the soundtrack and the rationale behind the musical shuffling.  Be sure to listen to the commentary until the end, as Kelly begins a question-and-answer session in which he attempts to reply to all the questions posed by fans about Donnie Darko.  If some aspect of the film has been particularly nagging or cryptic, this last segment of the commentary track may provide an answer, or at least the director's own interpretation.

The second disc holds the remaining bonus features.  Be forewarned - these features give away crucial plot elements, so watch Donnie Darko first before perusing through anything on this second disc.

First up is the Donnie Darko Production Diary (52 min.), a home video recording of the production of the film.  There is optional commentary by director of photography Steven B. Poster, whose comments unsurprisingly focus on various aspects of the cinematography.  This documentary opens with location scouting in the spring of 2000; to be frank, most of these California sites hardly resemble Virginia, but such is life.  Once principal photography begins, we get a glimpse of many rehearsal scenes, alternate takes, and occasional mugging by the cast and crew for the camera.  As a nice touch, many of these people (including the most minor extras!) are identified by name and role in the film.

They Made Me Do It Too: The Cult of Donnie Darko (28 min.) is a series of quick interviews with enthusiastic British fans, including editors from some top British entertainment magazines, discussing their love of the film and their favorite quotes from the film.  Some fans were apparently interviewed by a costumed facsimile of Frank, the demonic rabbit himself, as they attempt to explain the vast appeal of the film.  This featurette does illustrate the apparent genesis of Donnie Darko's international cult status in the U.K.  Richard Kelly offers a few words (via telephone) as well.  This featurette includes a discussion of the advertising campaign, with artwork of the demonic rabbit face and other artwork inspired by the film.

A "storyboard to screen" featurette (8 min.) shows a side-by-side comparison of several scenes in the film, including the initial fate-spear phenomenon, party sequences, and the pivotal "Grandma Death" scene on Halloween night.

#1 Fan: A Darkomentary (13 min.) is a really disturbing look at an off-the-wall, utterly obsessed fan of the film.  This adult-aged fellow, Darryl Donaldson, borders upon stalker mentality.  His room's adolescent decor must be seen to be believed.  He stalks various cast members.  He stalks Richard Kelly, even!  As a finale, he tricks and kisses Richard Kelly, too.  Smack.  The mind boggles.  On the other side, this hoot-of-a-featurette earned Donaldson a legitimate claim to the crown of #1 fan by the official Donnie Darko website.  Okay, so maybe Donaldson is a harmless loon, but he's still a little freaky.

Lastly, there is the theatrical trailer for the director's cut of Donnie Darko.

Summary:

With a fine cast, innovative story, and exceptional re-watchability, Donnie Darko is a film well-deserving of its immense cult following.  This director's cut of the film is essential viewing for anyone interested in experiencing one of the most unique "horror" films in recent years.

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