Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut

8 Apr

Donnie Darko (2001)

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When “Donnie Darko” was released in 2001, it became a box-office flop. But since then, it has become a cult classic. It is easy to see why. “Donnie Darko” had a lot going on with it and while it didn’t pay off the way people expected, the setup left people wondering what they just saw and have their own ways of explaining what happened. I love a movie like this. It lets our imaginations run wild but also, doesn’t make us hate the movie. We love the movie. We embrace it. This is why “Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut” is actually somewhat better than the original cut. This new cut is twenty minutes longer but not a lot easier to understand. However, fans of the original will love the new footage that delivers more of the characters we have grown to love. It also enriches and strengthens the material, but the tone of the movie remains the same.

Richard Kelly is the director and writer of “Donnie Darko.” He delivers so much ambition to the screen and fills it with great performances and a unique, clever script. He warns us (on the Website and as a line said in the movie) to “pay attention; you might miss something.” It is possible to miss something here, but once you have your own idea on how every strange event in this movie pays off, you don’t really seem to care. I will not say how I think everything paid off because I could be wrong. I do think I have an idea, however. But I still won’t spoil anything.

“Donnie Darko” has a plot that doesn’t toy with reality but also with logic. How can anyone explain the presence of a six-foot-tall creature that is a demon crossed with a rabbit? His name is Frank and he visits the title character of the movie Donnie Darko. In the beginning of the movie, Frank forces Donnie to sleepwalk out of his house in the middle of the night just to tell him that within a month, the world will end. When Donnie wakes up and walks back to his house in the morning, he learns that a jet engine fell into his bedroom. The strange thing is that there are no reports of a lost engine. Nobody knows where it came from. Now how can you explain that?

Donnie Darko is played by Jake Gyllenhaal in an offbeat yet believable performance. He plays a schizophrenic oddball who visits a therapist every day, finds logic in almost everything that’s being thrown at him which causes him trouble in class, and lives with a seemingly normal family. He has supportive parents and an older sister old enough to vote (the movie takes place in the mid-80s—the sister announces she’s voting for Dukakis). His school life is like something out of a John Hughes movie. He has an English teacher (Drew Barrymore, also credited as an executive producer) who is good enough to get herself fired, a life lessons coach who lives her life following the tapes of a motivational speaker (played by Patrick Swayze), and a girlfriend (Jena Malone) who is in the witness protection program, taking the name of Gretchen Ross because it “seemed cool.” One of the film’s best scenes is in which Donnie’s parents laugh at Donnie’s behavior at a certain point instead of scolding him.

Donnie gets visions of the future from Frank and he discovers that time travel may be involved somehow. In this new cut, we see pages of “The Philosophy of Time Travel” being shown on the screen just to see if we can understand what’s happening. I understand that there is a Tangent Universe that rarely occurs. But when it does, the world has 28 days before it flashes into nonexistence. We also get a countdown every few minutes that keeps reminding us. We wonder what could happen when time runs out. Also strangely intriguing is when Donnie can see timelines (which look like the liquid ropes from “The Abyss”) pulling people into the future. When Donnie follows his own timeline, it leads to a gun. What would he do with that gun? Then there is the case of Grandma Death, an old lady who checks her mail everyday, expecting a letter from somebody, but from whom? Then we discover that she’s the one who wrote the book about time travel and we’re thinking about where it could go from there.

Richard Kelly directs and writes with a strange, creepy mood in this sleepy small town and suburban setting as Donnie tries to piece everything together, just as we try to piece it together as well. Maybe Drew Barrymore is the six-foot rabbit or maybe not, maybe we’re in a parallel dimension throughout this movie or maybe not, but it’s such an intriguing and interesting film that we desire an explanation. It would be one thing to have somebody revealed as Frank and an explanation as to what’s happened and why. But it’s another to figure it out for ourselves. All of the clues are there in the amazing journey and we just have to piece it all together. It’s like a “Twilight Zone” episode without a Rod Serling narration to explain what happened. The performances are very strong, especially by Gyllenhaal who has to carry the movie with his odd yet appealing gawkiness.

“Donnie Darko” was already alive, original, and compelling; with the director’s cut, it is even more alive with originality and compelling energy. The pacing is just right. It allows the story to have depth and room to breathe. Like I said, I have an idea as to where everything led to but I will not give it away because of what everyone else may think. For the most part, “Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut” is better than the original cut and it loved it.

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