DONNIE DARKO – Blu-ray review

“Donnie Darko” is a bit like a teenager: brooding, complex, rebellious, and difficult to comprehend. Which is perfect, because the 2001 film is about a title character (Jake Gyllenhaal) who’s all those things and more. But Richard Kelly’s intelligent script goes beyond teen angst, weaving in mental health issues and sci-fi elements that make us wonder whether those things are in Donnie’s head, or if they’re real. If the latter, how much is real . . . and which parts?

Like James Stewart’s character in “Harvey” (1950), Donnie sees a rabbit that no one else can see or hear. Stewart’s spirit-friend is a benign sort, but the demon-spawn bunny that hops into Donnie’s life is like a malevolent voice in your worst nightmare–the one who gets you to do bad things. Really bad things. He tells Donnie the world is going to end in roughly 28 days, which, if you believe bunny “Frank” (James Duval), removes all consequences from the equation. The film’s progression is essentially Donnie’s, as we watch the maliciousness steadily escalate.

Donnie is a rebel anyway, but it’s never clear how much is James Dean “bad seed,” how much is mental illness, and how much is simply the result of Frank’s deleterious influence. Influence is a theme that’s interwoven into “Donnie Darko” with painstaking care, ranging from parental and teacher influences of differing kinds to a motivational speaker of dubious nature. But when you bring in talk of “portals,” “worm holes,” and notions of altering time, you also get into “Lost” territory, as Dean Winkelspecht points out in his review of the Collector’s Edition Blu-ray. It’s what gives this cult classic an edge that’s capable of cutting right through the film’s own substantial depth.

By the way, if you already have that Collector’s Edition, you should know that this 10th Anniversary Edition seems to have the exact same transfer and also offers both the theatrical and director’s cut of the film. So what’s different? The 10th Anniversary Edition is multi-platform. In addition to the Blu-ray with all the same bonus features as on the Collector’s Edition, there’s the DVD version of the film (and a few extras not included on the previous Blu-ray), plus a Digital Copy of the film.

Really, then, it’s for an audience new to the film or for those who are in the process of consolidating their collections and have warmed to the idea of combo packs that keep everything in one easy location.

I plead guilty on all counts. Somehow I missed seeing this one before, but I was impressed at how “Donnie Darko” managed to deliver a fantastic portrait of teens in high school while at the same time cultivating a moody atmosphere that’s the perfect vessel to hold all of the otherworldly elements.

And the cast? Watching this is like looking at the sky and counting the stars. Playing Donnie’s feminist Harvard-bound sister is Gyllenhaal’s real sister, Maggie. Patrick Swayze turns up as motivational speaker Jim Cunningham, while Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle (“E.R.”) play teachers and Katharine Ross is Donnie’s psychiatrist, the only person who seems to listen to him. Jenna Malone is superb as the slightly-less-troubled girlfriend, and their “love” sidebar adds more texture. Seth Rogan also makes an appearance, and sharp eyes will pick out Ashley Tisdale as a “dorky girl.” Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne play the Darko parents, with Daveigh Chase (“Lilo & Stitch”) as their youngest child. One has to figure that the acting is as good as it is in part because the script is so good–as is first-timer Kelly’s and Kevin Smith’s direction. Meanwhile, smart cinematography from Steven Poster and superb visual effects help sustain the believability of the alternate universe / time travel elements. What’s more, though the plot is all about Donnie and his Doomsday countdown, enough minor characters are inserted, sometimes with scenes dedicated to them, so that it creates a fully-formed world in which Donnie exists . . . well, at least a part of him.

I’ll say no more, since this is a “puzzler.” But at least it’s a puzzler that holds up under scrutiny, rather than being unsolvable nonsense. You can do what Donnie does at one point and go backwards and pick up on a lot of the things you missed the first time around. And in so doing, you can appreciate the artistry of this film and understand why it’s become a cult classic.

“Donnie Darko” isn’t the sharpest Blu-ray you’ll find, but there’s nothing here that you’ll find distracting, either. Many of the scenes seem low-lit, with edges a little softer than you’d like. Then again, that almost adds to the slightly surreal tone of the film. Colors are natural, but black levels seem to vary from sequence to sequence, producing an uneven picture. Then again, if you’re not looking for it, I doubt that you’ll have a problem with this Blu-ray. “Donnie Darko” was transferred to a 50GB disc using AVC/MPEG-4 technology. It’s presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack that distributes the sound nicely across the speakers, creating a wide and fairly dynamic sound field. During the film’s most “noisy” and traumatic scenes, the audio kicks into high gear, with the rear speakers more than holding their own. What’s more, dialogue is nicely prioritized, so there’s no annoying toggling up and down on the volume needed. This combo pack features a French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround option on the theatrical version. Subtitles are on the Director’s Cut: English SDH, Spanish, and French.

As a sticker proclaims, this 4-disc combo pack includes a Blu-ray, two DVDs, and a Digital Copy–the first time, for the latter. The Blu-ray features both the 113-minute theatrical version of the film and the 134-minute Director’s Cut, which includes more about time travel that will help you cipher your way through the film. On this disc you can catch an audio commentary on the Director’s Cut by Kelly and Smith, or sample two commentaries by Kelly and Gyllenhaal and a crowded mic on the cast-crew tour, both of which are decent. But the best of the three is probably the Kelly-Smith one.

The first DVD contains a “Production Diary” that runs darn near close to an hour, with the behind-the-scenes footage augmented by an optional commentary by the film’s cinematographer. “They Made Me Do It: The Cult of Donnie Darko” (28 min.) is a look at the film’s cult status in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the winning entry in a fan competition, “#1 Fan: A Darkomentary” (13 min.) is included, along with a storyboard feature (8 min.) and the trailer for the director’s cut. The second DVD features deleted and extended scenes with optional commentary, “The Philosophy of Time Travel” book, an art gallery, a “Mad World” music video, an art gallery, cast and crew bios, and trailers/TV spots.

Bottom Line:
“Donnie Darko” was a box-office disaster, opening just a month after September 11, but it’s gotten new life through home video. This new release should expand the audience even more. It’s crazy without being hokey, and cleverly brooding so that the entire film feels “teenage.”