Donnie Darko (2001)
Written & Directed by Richard Kelly
Donnie Darko is a troubled teenage boy living in Middlesex, Virginia. He has bouts of chronic sleepwalking and sees a psychiatrist for his many emotional problems. His parents constantly worry about him while trying to raise his two sisters, his mother especially has Donnie on her mind at all times. Then a strange twist of fate occurs. An airplane jet engine crashes down on the house, right on top of Donnie’s room. However, he has been pulled from sleep, wandering to the local golf course where he encounters Frank, a man wearing a ghoulish bunny rabbit suit. Donnie is told the world will end by the close of October and from there he is encouraged to commit acts of vandalism that are seemingly random. However, there is a pattern to all the things Frank has Donnie doing and only, in the end, will the truth be revealed.
To say that I loved Donnie Darko during its original run would be an understatement. I saw it four times at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville and bought The Donnie Darko Book. The book contains the shooting script plus other pieces of errata from director Richard Kelly. When Kelly announced his follow-up, Southland Tales, I was elated to see what he did next. When I finally got to see that film…I was kind of flabbergasted at how terrible it was and have watched the Director’s Cut to see if something was salvaged. I am of the opinion that even this additional cut is a trainwreck of a film. In 2009, when his third film The Box came out I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. That’s a movie with fantastic atmosphere and music, but structurally….an utter disaster that makes little to no sense in its conclusion. So, I was admittedly nervous to revisit Donnie Darko, wondering with over a decade of film watching on my brain, would the movie still be as good as I remembered it.
The short answer is, it’s an okay movie. I could not find the original cut, so was stuck with the 2004 Director’s Cut which I had never seen. I’ll talk more about the differences a little later. The story of Donnie Darko is an interesting one, there’s a quick plot hook, and Kelly definitely knows this world. Supplemental material revealed he wrote extensively about the characters and ideas being presented and what we get is a small glimpse at this universe. From looking at Kelly’s later work, he has a big problem with putting too many ideas in a single film or being too cryptic for the audience to get much out the work. Donnie Darko walks this perfect line of ambiguity where on multiple viewings you can begin to extrapolate the connections between characters and events.
The greatest strength of this film is its cast. Jake Gyllenhaal is doing fine work for being so young, and I think we have seen his talent indeed grow in the last decade and a half. The real foundation of the film comes from its older actors. The late Patrick Swayze nails the charismatic motivational speaker role with a dark secret. The always fantastic Beth Grant nails the role of the school health teacher coach for SparkleMotion. Katherine Ross does a beautiful job of playing Donnie’s psychiatrist. The standouts for me are Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne as Donnie’s parents. They are not feeding his dysfunction, they love and support him even when called to the school after he curses out Beth Grant’s character. They believe in his intelligence and soul and encourage him even when the world might tell him to stop. Mary McDonnell, who you likely remember as President Roslin on Battlestar Galactica, gives the performance of her life. Even watching it so many years later I felt myself still getting emotional as she exudes such unconditional love for her son.
The Director’s Cut brings a lot of problems to a film I believe didn’t need to be recut or added to in any way. The apparent reason to produce this different version was based on the film’s undying popularity in the early 2000s as a midnight movie and its strong DVD sales. The Pioneer Theater in New York City showed the original for 28 consecutive months. One of the first things you notice is the changes to music in certain scenes, and Kelly explained he was not able to get the licenses for the music in this release. The part that hurts the film the most is inserted montages of pages from The Philosophy of Time Travel book. The result is that the mystery of the movie loses a lot of its ambiguity. By imposing a page on the screen that explains the subtext of a previous scene you sort of don’t have that appeal of a film that you have to think about for weeks and weeks later. It’s nowhere near as abominable as the sequel, S. Darko, but it does take the ambiguity I loved about the film away.
Donnie Darko is still a pretty good film. I don’t feel like I was as enamored with it as I was in my youth, but it makes sense. The movie seems like the ambitious first efforts of a young filmmaker with all the strengths and flaws you would expect. It still stands up as an intriguing picture that can’t really be compared to anything else, though copycats (The Butterfly Effect, The Jacket) would pop up in the years that followed they never matched the original. What’s sad about watching this is knowing how far Richard Kelly’s star fell afterward. Here’s hoping he is able to make something good again one day.