Donnie Darko: Director’s Cut

Donnie Darko, one of the highlights of the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, had the misfortune of opening in late October that year, barely a month after the September 11 terrorists attack.

The movie experienced a quick death at the box-office, grossing about half a million dollars, a paltry relative to its budget.

Now the movie, in the very capable hands of Newmarket’s Bob Berney (who has also made hits out of tough material like Monster and The Passion of the Christ), is getting a second theatrical chance, a director’s cut with added footage of 20 minutes.

Richard Kelly’s visionary tale is part sci-fi, part fantasy-horror, part satire of life in a typical American burb circa 1988. Defying easy categorization presented yet another problem for the movie’s publicists and viewers when it was initially released. People didn’t know what to make of the narrative and its apocalyptic axiom–“the world is coming to an end.”

That this nihilistic view is embodied by Frank, a six-foot horrific deformity in a freaky rabbit suit, made the movie all the more bizarre. And that Frank is a nightmarish apparition visible only to Donnie, the film’s hero, was even more perplexing.

A seemingly ideal all-American teenager, Donnie is blessed with sharp intellect, world-weary wisdom and vivid imagination. Like Jeffrey, the young protagonist of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Donnie is about to discover a macabre underworld of dark secrets lurking behind the veneer of placid suburbia, where he lives with his parents (Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell) and two younger sisters.

In the shocking overture, a huge jet engine falls on the roof of Donnie’s mansion and just stays there. Frank then informs Donnie that he’s destined to have a unique purpose in life. Offering only a few clues, like a future meaningful relationship, Frank begins to pay calls on Donnie, relentlessly haunting him day and night.

The principal American coming-of-age saga is more accessible, perhaps because it features all the genre’s usual suspects: an open-minded English teacher (Drew Barrymore, who also produced the picture), whose liberal reading list is attacked by conservative teachers; a wise physics teacher (Noah Wyle), through whom Donnie discovers that none of the bizarre incidents happens randomly; a New Age guru, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who’s hired to heal the children’s self-esteem but turns out to be a phony and a pervert.

Like most youth movies, there’s also romantic yearning, here between Donnie and a new student, Gretchen (Jena Malone). Like Donnie, Gretchen is an outsider with family problems.

The high school sequences, a veritable catalogue of all the awkward rites of passage, are engaging and often even hilarious.

Audiences at the Sundance festival were confused by the narrative, whose structure shifts from one time-frame to another, and disoriented by the rapid changes in tone from the real to the surreal and back. Part of the puzzlement derives from the movie’s ambitions. Unlike most school flicks, Donnie Darko is not about scoring or getting laid. Instead, it deals with metaphysical concerns, like the inner workings of the universe, challenging notions about time-travel. In short, unabashedly, Donnie Darko aims higher than most youth pictures.

With all the admiration for the film’s arduous scope and the singular imagination of the helmer (a USC grad who’s only 23), some viewers found the special effects to be excessive, distracting attention from what’s already a complicated story line. Others simply didn’t get the film’s unconventional ending.

Revisiting the film, I am struck again by the technical command of the neophyte director (the lensing and production design are very polished) and his proficiency in guiding his ensemble.

Holding the entire picture together is an appealing performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose physique and acting recall the young Tobey Maguire; with some luck, he should become a major star. Gyllenhaal provides unity to a fractured narrative and a much needed emotional hook for viewers’ engagement in an admittedly demanding movie.

Though Donnie Darko was removed from the big screen after a few weeks, it never disappeared. People in and out of the industry continued to talk about it. Midnight screenings and recurrent chats on the Internet indicated a rapidly growing fan base for the movie. In interview after interview since 2001, the actors report to have continuously asked questions about the film and its meaning.

Does history repeat itself Set in 1988, Donnie Darko shows TV debates between the then presidential candidates George Bush (the father) and Michael Dukakis. Fourteen years later, the re-release also takes place in an election year, in which incumbent President Bush will debate another Bostonian Democrat, John Kerry.

The soundtrack, which made a star out of singer-songwriter Gary Jules and was always a major asset, is expanded and so are the special effects. No doubt, the theatrical showing and new DVD edition will only increase the film’s cult status. It’s important to note, though, that Donnie Darko is a very different cult movie than either The Rocky Horror Show or Lynch’s Eraserhead.