Writer-director Richard Kelly’s debut feature, the Lynchian Donnie Darko, is a tale of adolescent angst ripe with enigmatic sci-fi underpinnings. Regardless of whether Kelly’s titular protagonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is seemingly deranged or merely on the brink of saving humanity from itself, his timewarping fantasies become startling metaphors for confused teenage male development. This endlessly inventive film is the virtual antithesis of happy-go-lucky ’80s teen flicks, hauntingly gauging the pulse of a nation gripped by sexual repression and political uncertainty. Kelly’s jabs at Reaganism are about as subtle as his devilishly boldfaced “Vote Dukakis” shtick. By film’s end, Kelly has expertly transformed his comfortable ’80s milieu into an apocalyptic sweat chamber nervously situated between moral complacency and heartbreaking could-have-been hopefulness.
“Maybe it’s the story of Holden Caulfield, resurrected in 1988 by the spirit of Phillip K. Dick,” says 26-year-old Kelly of his film. The students at Donnie’s school free-float through hallways that begin to resemble portals into an alternate universe. Make no mistake, this is Kelly’s deadpan notion of what life was like in the ’80s. A school bully openly snorts cocaine by a friend’s locker in one hysterical slow-motion shot. Kelly allows ample room for poignancy when the bronze statue of the school’s mascot (here, a curious squatting dog) keeps stoic watch over a fat girl named Cherita (Jolene Purdy), whose swan-inspired performance at the school’s talent show is rejected in favor of a lame Stacy Q rip-off. The group is named Sparkle Motion, spearheaded by Donnie’s young sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase). They are the embodiment of ’80s cheese-pop; their performance is ghoulishly applauded while Cherita’s hopeful gaze into the future is tossed aside with polite disinterest.
A sleepwalking Donnie is lured out of his house by his alter ego (here, a rabbit named Frank), who saves Donnie from the plane engine that crashes into his bedroom. As a result, Donnie comes to believe Frank’s prophecy that the world will end in 28 days. Halloween’s arrival and the Bush/Dukakis race pitch-perfectly compliment the film’s apocalyptic wind-down. With doomsday nearing, Donnie becomes an upstart messiah ridding the town of self-righteous false prophets, though he does find time to innocently woo new-girl-in-town Gretchen (Jena Malone) with retro come-ons like “do you want to go with me?” A New Age gym teacher who makes little emotional allowances outside her fear/love lifeline is Donnie’s main target. Her downfall is followed by and linked to the fiery demise of a self-help guru played by Patrick Swayze, whose motivational shenanigans Donnie hysterically shoots to the ground.
Now in a hectic search for enlightenment, Donnie begins to believe that time travel is possible. For help, he looks to the town’s 101-year-old biddy (writer of the fictional tome The Philosophy of Time Travel), who is as eerily frozen in time as her hopeful disciples. Taught in English class by quasi-hippie Karen (Drew Barrymore), Graham Greene’s The Destructors and its tale of creation/destruction beautifully compliments the film’s fateful finale. References to ’80s pop-culture abound: Sparkle Motion is invited to be on Star Search ’88 while Donnie and Gretchen catch Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead before Donnie does away with the town’s false prophet, whose participation in a kiddie porn ring seems to shatter the entire town’s sense of complacency. Donnie Darko is a blazingly original evocation of better-place-than-here hopefulness, an affront to ’80s naivete that is mindful of strange events that seemingly happen for a reason though not always for the better good.
There is a moment in Donnie Darko where Kelly physically isolates a young Cherita from a group of fellow classmates with the use of a light post that bisects the celluloid frame. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the DVD edition of Kelly’s little-seen gem preserves the director’s outstandingly symmetrical compositions. That said, Donnie Darko’s deliberately grainy textures appear less cinematic on the small screen while the disc’s audio couldn’t be better. The well-rounded Dolby Digital 5.1 mix chillingly heightens the more terrifying elements of the film’s soundtrack.
Someone at Fox Home Video must be a Donnie Darko fan. Hoping to give Richard Kelly’s box office flop new life on the small screen, the folks at Fox have targeted fans and cultists with a DVD edition brimming with outstanding supplemental material. First up are the film’s theatrical trailer and five TV spots. A section for cast and crew info contains no less than 20 bios. Also included is a website gallery, "His Name is Frank" slide show, production stills, a virtual guide through the film’s Philosophy of Time tome and, most notably, pre-production concept art evocative as the film itself. The soundtrack’s liner notes are also available as is Richard Kelly’s music video for the film’s amazing "Mad World" song (performed by Gary Jules). "Cunning Visions," the infomercial featured during the film’s health education classroom scene, has been isolated here on the DVD and comes with subversive audio commentary.
The film’s screen-specific audio commentary with Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal is a mixed blessing. Gyllenhaal’s presence is somewhat intrusive while Kelly displays profound understanding for the film’s thematic nuances and the suggestiveness of his formal compositions. The director addresses sensitivity issues the film raised post-9/11: his paranoiac concern that Fox would force him to replace the film’s Arabic font and the comfort level of the film’s haunting plane sequence. (Kelly mentions how his brother called him at 7am the morning of the American Airlines Flight 587 crash in Queens, New York.) The track is inundated with many humorous recollections, including Kelly and Drew Barrymore’s conference call to the Peyo estate when trying to secure the rights to a stuffed Smurf for the film’s bottle-shooting sequence.
A second commentary track features Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Holmes Osborne, Katherine Ross, and James Duval. There are too many clowns in this car but Barrymore, whose Flower Films co-produced the film, brings immeasurable sophistication to the conversation, openly displaying her passion for the film’s social/spiritual relevance. Barrymore is the indie filmmaker’s dream producer-she risked (and took) a loss when she latched onto a project she admired for "thinking outside the box." Kelly needed to deliver a two-hour cut of Donnie Darko to distributor New Market, leaving countless scenes on the editing room floor. Considering the film’s box office failure, it’s a small wonder that Fox gave reserved room on the DVD for 20 of the film’s deleted scenes with accompanying commentary by Kelly. Kelly comments on his reluctance to beat the film’s spiritual themes over audience heads with an extended version of the film’s golf-field sequence. Kelly trimmed all the right scenes for all the right reasons but, more importantly, these deleted scenes expose many of the film’s lost intricacies. While Kelly misses the Watership Down thread, the sequences seem to call too much attention to the film’s rabbit imagery.
Donnie Darko is very much a film about isolated youth consumed by peer pressure, spiritual fear and a need to return to one’s inner self. Kelly’s funny, heart-breaking script is wonderfully complimented by his symmetrical compositions. From its awesome, hypnotic interactive menus to its meaty and informative array of features, the Donnie Darko DVD is an incredibly handsome class act.