Donnie Darko is the quintessential angsty teen movie from 2001, a film that helped define Richard Kelly’s career in perhaps a way he never realized. While Kelly has gone on to do other movies (Southland Tales, The Box), the mystique behind his debut has never dissipated. There’s a reason that Donnie Darko resonated with so many at the time, though: it artfully explored the darkness behind growing up, the confusion and fear of getting older and not knowing what comes next. While Kelly’s film developed a cult following shortly after its release, the mysteries of the film continue to engage; with Arrow Video’s Blu-Ray collection, Donnie Darko has traveled through time to impress a new age of viewers.
While Kelly sets his film in 1988, truthfully there’s no reason that Donnie Darko couldn’t feature any time period. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a typical troubled teenager struggling to figure out exactly what’s going on with his psychological state; he’s in therapy and he’s drawing as part of some creative release, but that hasn’t helped to quell the fear he continues to harbor, even when he can’t put it into words. Gyllenhaal captures the essence of Donnie, his haunted physique bearing an external expression of the turmoil inside the character. Despite that, though, Kelly’s script is often humorous as well, with Donnie finding avenues to lighten the mood even when he’s most definitely not okay.
All of that changes when a jet engine crashes into Donnie’s bedroom, an event that would have killed him had he actually been there. This sets off a chain of occurrences – meeting his girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone), seeing Frank the giant bunny (James Duval), being compelled to flood his school and burn down Jim Cunningham’s (Patrick Swayze) house – before Donnie realizes that perhaps he’s in a tangential universe, with the end of the world coming.
Kelly explores a lot of complex themes about time travel and psychology, and many of those add to the mysteries of the film. While Donnie eventually discovers a book about time travel written by his town’s Grandma Death – born Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland) – most of those elements don’t translate to the audience. Instead, Kelly offers up visual representations of fate and choice using watery spheres that travel out from a person’s solar plexus, leading them to their goal. While Donnie Darko doesn’t intentionally veil its science, Kelly’s writing often effectively leaves some of its most intriguing aspects unsaid, and instead focuses on Donnie’s issues and his relationship with Gretchen.
It adds pathos to Donnie’s character, a person who, despite his frustrations with self-help guru Jim Cunningham’s simplistic love/fear explanation about complicated human dilemmas, does struggle with fear. Kelly manages to pull a lot from Donnie’s troubled state, but the theme he keeps coming back to is the classic struggle to understand the universe and the search for God’s presence. It’s also about finding love in a kid who, at the start of the film, tells his sister to suck a fuck and allows his friends to ceaselessly mock an Asian girl at school.
That dynamic change occurs throughout Donnie Darko, and it all happens due to the film’s time travel philosophy. At the same time, though, there are multiple possible interpretations; Kelly’s ambiguity here is not just intentional but vital, an important distinction that does not always occur in films with open-ended plots. The viewer’s specific philosophy about life comes into play in the final moments of the film as Donnie sacrifices himself to save the ones he loves; one can view the film as a classic time travel moment with a tangential universe, or they can see this as an opportunity granted Donnie by a benevolent God who recognizes his fear of dying, or one can simply conclude this is the final hallucinations of a kid with schizophrenia realizing he is going to die. Whatever the case, it’s hard to deny the profound emotions at the end of the film, of the way “Mad World” combines with the reaction shots of all those that have been touched by the events of the film.
While Kelly’s film isn’t perfect – for one, the focus on Drew Barrymore’s character Karen Pomeroy feels shoehorned in to give her a part in exchange for help producing the film – it effectively encapsulates the weirdness and hormonal fugue of teenage years. The film features a dreamy ethereal quality that’s aided by its brooding score and performances, from its lingering shots of the angelic Cherita Chen to the oddly detached presence of Rose Darko (Mary McDonnell). None of this is explained, and Kelly leaves it up to the audience to make of it what they will. While that could be frustrating to audiences, it mostly translates to the feeling of being trapped in a lucid dream, as though Kelly is holding back an explosive secret.
Donnie Darko, then, transcends time with its timeless story of a boy in love tasked with saving the word. Boiled down to its simplest, Kelly’s film is about time travel and a superhero, but its quirkiness and extremely moody tone offers a more complex experience than its generic synopsis suggests. In his search for cosmic answers, Kelly found his best work.
Click next for the Blu-Ray review.
Arrow Video’s collector’s edition release of Donnie Darko is, to put it frankly, gorgeous. The package is extensive, with a nice hard box collecting the three smalled packages: one holds the Blu-Ray and DVD for the theatrical cut, one holds the Blu-Ray/DVD for the director’s cut, and one is a collector’s booklet featuring multiple essays including a new one from Nathan Rabin. Inside the theatrical cut is a pull-out featuring original and new artwork; the director’s cut features an envelope full of postcards with writing that looks nearly identical to Donnie’s letter to Roberta Sparrow. The attention to detail for this release’s physical extras is astounding.
Both the theatrical and director’s cuts get a new 4k transfer from the original camera negatives, and the result is an amazing picture that has no noticeable flaws. I remember watching older editions of the film where I struggled to make out the names of the films in the double-feature that Donnie and Gretchen attend, but here the image is crystal clear. Ultimately I believe Donnie Darko looks the best that it possibly can. The discs feature original 5.1 audio as well, which sounds excellent. English subtitles are also included.
Now you’re probably wondering: should I watch the director’s cut, or the theatrical cut? For this review, I specifically watched the director’s cut, and I would encourage viewers to do the same, at least on the first viewing. The director’s cut is about 20 minutes longer than the theatrical with multiple soundtrack changes, additional scenes, elongated scenes, and some added visual effects. Most important is its addition of pages from the book The Philosophy of Time Travel, which adds a lot of depth to the film’s science fiction. The theatrical cut is perhaps more mysterious, but the director’s cut provides more context that can be missed in the original.
Both discs contain a huge number of special features, which I will briefly touch upon. The theatrical cut contains the new full-length documentary from Ballyhoo about the making of Donnie Darko, an absolute must-watch. There are also multiple audio commentaries for the theatrical cut alone. This disc also contains the short film The Goodbye Place. The director’s cut disc collects just about all of the special features that have been released in previous collections of the film, including an audio commentary with Richard Kelly and Kevin Smith, a fan documentary, two behind-the-scenes featurettes about a Donnie Darko art competition, 14 minutes of interviews with the cast, a 52-minute vintage behind-the-scenes feature, storyboards, TV spots, and more.
Arrow Video’s release of Donnie Darko is easily the definitive collection, and fans of the film must have this release. However, I’d recommend it to just about everyone open to a science fiction film of this nature. Highly recommended.
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