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 naïveté that is mindful of strange events that seemingly happen for a reason though not always for the better good.
Because Donnie Darko is such a great movie, I cut the first DVD edition of the film some slack for its shoddy image transfer (according to sources close to the film, the "look" was intended). That said, this 2-disc DVD edition of the film’s director’s cut has problems that don’t seem to exist on the previous disc. I can dig the grain levels, but blacks and color resolution are piss-poor. Also, there appears to be more dirt and other types of debris on this DVD than there was on the recent DVD release of Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Nothing wrong, though, in the sound department: The sound design was remastered in order to augment the film’s sci-fi undertones, and you can hear the difference as soon as Richard Kelly’s camera begins to zoom in on Gyllenhaal during the film’s opening shot.
The brains behind this 2-disc DVD edition of Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut understand that its impossible for any studio to top the collection of features included on the first DVD set in terms of quantity and quality. Instead of recycling old features, Fox Home Entertainment instead chooses to explore how the cult of the film has evolved since the film’s first DVD incarnation. The commentary by Richard Kelly and Kevin Smith is quite possibly one of the best tracks of its kind. Smith isn’t just here to make us laugh (which he does, especially when he screams, "What are you.Kubrick?!") and point out fanboyish trivia (like Donnie Darko ranking #94 on IMDB’s Top 250, though it’s at #97 as I type this), but to coax Kelly into revealing his deepest aesthetic and philosophical concerns. There’s plenty to treasure here, but I must point out two highlights: Kelly and Smith’s elaborate discussion of the films of John Hughes (who, like Kelly and Quentin Tarantino, writes with music very much in mind), namely a comparison Kelly makes between The Breakfast Club and Sartre’s No Exit, and the fear with which a depressed Kelly approaches his next project (Southland Tales, discussed intermittingly by both directors), which underscores the commentary but not in a cloying way. Rounding out the disc is an hour-long production diary that should be listened to with the optional commentary by cinematographer Steven Poster, a fascinating-albeit creepy-documentary "They Made Me Do It Too" featuring British fans of the film, an eight-minute storyboard-to-screen featurette, the film’s theatrical trailer, and the hilarious "#1 Fan: A Darkomentary," from the winner of a contest commissioned by Donnie Darko producers for inclusion on this DVD set. I’m thinking the red-bearded winner is an actor (and a great one at that). If not, then be afraid.be very afraid.
Don’t think about throwing out the first Donnie Darko DVD. This "remix" of the film is a totally different beast, as is the collection of features collected on this accompanying 2-disc DVD edition.