DONNIE DARKO - DVD review

...in the years since the film was made, the country and the world have become even more divided.... Maybe the movie is more meaningful today than ever.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

When this film first appeared in 2001, millions of other people and I welcomed it as a dark, often comical, mostly surrealistic venture into regions of the mind that cried out for personal interpretations on the part of every viewer. Much of the movie's charm was derived from the fact that it could be construed in so many different ways. What, after all, did any of it mean?

Apparently, that's what its creator, writer/director Richard Kelly, was constantly asked, too: What's it all about? So, he produced "The Director's Cut" in 2004, adding about twenty more minutes to the proceedings in an effort to further explain just what it was he meant in the first place. If you already own the original release of "Donnie Darko," this new Director's Cut is probably best regarded as an adjunct to it rather than as a replacement. On the one hand, it's nice to see and hear more of what the director had in mind. On the other hand, a good deal of the movie's mystery and the viewer's discovery is lost when things are explained too much.

What the potential viewer will want to know is whether the Director's Cut is worth the money. Well, fortunately for me, that's not my decision. I can only say that the Director's Cut is somewhat different from the theatrical version. Kelly did not take a bad film and make it better, nor did he take a great film and ruin it. "Donnie Darko" was already a good film, which in its new edition is simply augmented. It's probably the audio commentary and the second disc of bonus items that will be a greater lure than the Director's Cut for viewers who already own or admire the first version.

What Kelly does do in the Director's Cut is try to bring into focus just what is behind the main character's actions and what may motivate all of our actions, things only hinted at in the initial version of the film. First, imagine living in a world where nightmares and reality merge, where waking dreams are a part of everyday life. Imagine being visited each day by voices, beings, creatures, who could influence your present and direct your future. Paranoid delusions? Schizophrenic hallucinations? Dark forces? Space-alien abductions? It's the state that Donnie Darko, a boy in his late teens, finds himself in during the course of the grimly satiric, psychological fantasy named after him. In its abstract, often ephemeral themes and images, it's a film that even in its updated form will probably not find favor with everyone; but for viewers willing to put their disbelief systems on full suspend for a couple of hours, the effort can be uniquely rewarding.

If there's a weakness to both the old and new version of "Donnie Darko," it's that it strives to go in too many directions at once. It wants to be a dark comedy, a psychological thriller, a pseudo sci-fi/fantasy adventure, a social commentary, and a poignant, contemporary, romantic drama all at the same time. Its topics of teenage alienation and suburban anxiety, its "American Beauty" tone, and its wholly expected yet still vaguely unsatisfying ending seem often at odds. Nevertheless, one has to commend Kelly's ambitions, and I must admit I was mostly fascinated by both the old and the new versions of the story.

Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a bright, handsome, college-bound youth living with loving parents (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne) and two sisters (the older of them played by Jake's real-life sister, Maggie Gyllenhall) in a comfortable, affluent, upscale neighborhood in the town of Middlesex, Virginia. As the all-American boy-next-door, you'd think he had it made. Instead, he's in therapy for pent-up anger, maladjustment, and all-around hostility. He is becoming increasingly detached from a world he finds hypocritical and uncaring. He argues with his siblings, calls his mother a "bitch," pops tranquilizers, and seemingly dreams of a gigantic rabbit named Frank, who tells him the world is going to end in twenty-eight days, six hours, forty-two minutes, and twelve seconds, which, not coincidentally, turns out to be Halloween. There's more going on behind the idyllic facade of Middlesex than meets the eye.

The year is 1988, an era in American history associated with rampant consumerism, an increasing disparity between upper and lower classes, and a general public unrest in matters ranging from economics to religion to "family values" (an issue co-opted largely by conservatives like Donnie's parents), all of which are targeted in the film. Bush the elder vs. Michael Dukakis campaign ads are seen and heard throughout the story to reinforce the idea of conflict. Interestingly, in the years since the film was made, the country and the world have become even more divided between those who think one way or another. Maybe the movie is more meaningful today than ever.

Donnie attends the private, ultraconservative Middlesex Ridge School, along with several kids named Bates (wonderfully silly if obvious references to sexual disorientation and Hitchcock's "Psycho"). The wacko gym instructor, Mrs. Farmer (Tiler Peck), also teaches an ethics class where she insists that her students see the world in terms of right and wrong, "love and fear." Meanwhile, she tries to get books banned that don't meet her internal criteria for "good." Then, too, the school promotes a self-help course taught by a clean-cut, New Age guru, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who makes a fortune off his inspirational, feel-good counseling program, his videotapes, and his television infomercials, but who has a secret lifestyle as well. Lots of subjects here are ripe for satire; and for a topper there's a motion-picture theater playing a horror double bill of "The Evil Dead" and "The Last Temptation of Christ."

But the film reaches deeper than that. In fact, everything seems to change for Donnie the night fate steps in. How much fate? A jet engine drops through his roof. From then on, events begin to escalate. Donnie starts dating a girl, Gretchen (Jenna Malone), whose life is almost as wretched as his own but who is coping with it much better than he is. He continues under hypnosis with his therapist, Dr. Thurmin (Katherine Ross). He meets a reclusive old lady, reputedly 101 years old, Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland), known to the community as "Grandma Death." And he is advised by the rabbit (a perverted Harvey?) to do ever more destructive things. Finally, he undertakes to learn about the "Philosophy of Time Travel," a book written by the old lady, and he begins to wonder if the universe isn't going to collapse in on itself, and if it isn't possible to start everything all over again; or, indeed, whether somebody isn't going to start it all over again, anyway, with or without his cooperation. The Director's Cut uses a good deal more of the writing from Sparrow's book than the first movie did to help make more literal exactly what is happening to Donnie. That the new text still doesn't clear things up entirely is beside the point.

"What if you could go back in time and take all those hours of pain and darkness and replace them with something better?" Donnie asks. Maybe it's possible after all.

The movie gets weirder, funnier, sadder, and more tantalizing as it goes along; but it is not without its further oddities as it proceeds. Director Kelly opts for some peculiar filmmaking techniques throughout the story, sometimes at the expense of keeping his viewers' concentration on the subject at hand. For instance, he films Donnie getting off a school bus with his camera tilted sideways; later he speeds up his photography or gives us more curious camera angles. I suppose it's meant to visually demonstrate how distorted Donnie's world is, but I continued to find it distracting. In addition, all of the schoolroom scenes ring false, but since it's primarily a sardonic fantasy, I won't object. Likewise, the amount of drugs, alcohol, sex, and profanity among these teens appears excessive, but, again, I guess some exaggeration is necessary to make a point about the empty lives these kids see around them. As I say, by and large, there's probably still too much going on in the film for its own good, but if you can sort through the inessentials, there are some good pickings to be found.

Yet, for all the questions the first theatrical release raised, the Director's Cut only addresses a few of them and persists in leaving many of them unanswered. Is Donnie a living receiver of information from some other dimension? Does Donnie ever discover who he really is? Are our lives fated, predestined, or can destiny be changed? Can we dodge doom? Can others affect our destinies for us? Do others directly affect our lot in life, whether we know it or not, and to what extent? Are there tangent realities from which we can choose? Are superior or supernatural forces manipulating our lives, a deus ex machina controlling all things? Can love overcome all obstacles?

In the end, the "Donnie Darko" Director's Cut leaves us with the same message we got from the first version of the film, namely, that life is not so simple after all. Nothing is as it appears. It's not just all about good and evil, fear and love, conservative and liberal, black and white, sane and crazy. Everything, including the new cut of the film, is in between. Maybe that's the way it should be.

Video:
The aspect ratio of this anamorphic widescreen production is about the same as it was before, measuring approximately 2.35:1. The image quality, however, remains not quite letter perfect, whether intentional or not. Sometimes Fox's usual crystalline clarity is in evidence, and sometimes the picture is soft, vague, and almost blurred. Since I could find no plausible explanation for why the director would want purposely to do this (it isn't necessarily one of his cinematic devices), I can only assume it was this way when shot, an element of the original print (or introduced in the digital transfer). In any case, the defects are not severe and should not hinder anyone's enjoyment of the film. I also noticed a small degree of natural film grain throughout the movie. Otherwise, the color is good, fairly natural, even though facial tones tend on occasion to turn too orangish or pinkish. No big deal.

Audio:
In compensation for the slightly murky video, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is excellent, particularly for the all-enveloping quality of its musical track, which, as I've said, could sometimes in the first version be too much of a good thing when it began to obscure what characters were saying on screen. Here, I didn't notice the problem. In any case, the sound generally aids the eerie mood of the story line, with good, strong dynamics and a really deep bass.

Extras:
Disc one contains the feature film, twenty-eight scene selections (ah ha, twenty-eight again), English as the only spoken language option, and English and Spanish subtitles.

Of greater importance, disc one contains what has to be one of the most listenable audio commentaries I've ever heard on a DVD. Writer/director Richard Kelly invited his friend, writer/actor/director Kevin Smith to join him in the commentary, saying with tongue firmly planted in cheek that it was done to avoid the possibility of any long, silent stretches. Thank goodness for Smith. He not only brings a warm and refreshing earthiness to the proceedings, he keeps Kelly firmly grounded every time he goes off on a symbolic or metaphoric tear. This is an absolute must listen because between Kelly and Smith virtually the whole commentary is about the new film and its meaning, comparisons between the first and second versions almost always the center of attention. For instance, Kelly tells us he added music, songs, graphics, and sound effects to further heighten the sci-fi elements of the story, which he now admits he had wanted to do in the first place if time constraints hadn't interfered. The director also tells us that he wanted the new cut to reflect more concretely the supernatural or science-fiction aspects of the plot, the new version being infused with more of a comic-book sensibility toward time travel, alternative universes, and variant destinies. He wanted to show the possibility of other, tangential dimensions helping to shape our own. Smith is there to bring us back to earth when Kelly gets too metaphysical on us, even prompting Kelly on occasion to admit that he still isn't exactly sure what his own story is about. Which is kind of ironic, considering that so many viewers over the past few years have claimed to know what every gesture in the film represents. Is there a parallel world involved in the movie, or is it all a dream? We still don't know, not for sure, not even with the new Director's Cut or with the filmmakers' commentary. All we can say for sure is that the movie is a little more solid now, a little more matter-of-fact, with fewer loose, speculative ends, whether you consider this for good or not.

Disc two contains a few more interesting items. The first and most important of these is the "Donnie Darko Production Diary" (with optional commentary by director of photography Steven Poster). It was made in 2004, it's fifty-two minutes long, and it's divided into twelve chapters. Needless to say, it's a making-of documentary that begins in July of 2000 and takes us from the initial scouting of locations for the film, through the rehearsals, and on to the final shooting. The days are counted down in the schedule just as they are in the film, a cute touch, while the actors and filmmakers note what's going on. Steven Poster's commentary is helpful in filling in details of the actual filmmaking process. He adds at the end, "Did any of us understand what Richard (Kelly) had in his head? Sure, I understood it completely. Not. But that's the genius."

Next comes another recently made documentary, this one produced in the U.K. and titled "They Made Me Do It Too: The Cult of Donnie Darko." It's twenty-eight minutes long (twenty-eight yet again) and includes comments from artists, magazine editors, film critics, distributors, record-company owners, the director, and fans, all extolling the virtues of the movie. After that item is a storyboard-to-screen featurette, seven minutes long, that puts the film's rough initial sketches on the top of the screen and the completed shots beneath them for several comparison scenes. Then, there is "#1 Fan: A Darkomentary." Here, I'll quote from the introduction: "In the Summer of 2004, DonnieDarko.com held a documentary competition to find the #1 Donnie Darko fan. The winning film would be added as an extra feature on the release of the Director's Cut DVD." Well, here we get the winning entry. To conclude the extras, there's a widescreen theatrical trailer for the film.

The two discs come housed in a slim-line keep case, further packaged in a simple, almost surrealistic, slipcover as pictured at the upper right. Unfortunately, no insert comes with the set, which might have been useful not only as a handy chapter guide but as something outside the disc to identify the scenes containing extra material. Opportunity lost.

Parting Thoughts:
"Destruction is a form of creation," Donnie says in English class one day, responding to a question his teacher (Drew Barrymore) asks about a short story. His sentiment pretty much sums up the nature of the picture. The themes are mainly ones of tearing down in order to build up; self sacrifice for the good others. At the end of the Director's Cut, the sentiment is every bit as sappy as it was before, but the film is still well intentioned. The "Donnie Darko" Director's Cut is rated R for its depictions of profanity, alcohol, and drug use, and for its suggestions of sex; otherwise, it's largely non-offensive.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
8
Extras
9
Film Value
7