One thing that independent films can do that is usually absent from major Hollywood releases is to explore the stranger aspects of life and imagination. When it comes to the great Donnie Darko is up near the top of any list. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a high school student. Although his test scores are beyond the top, he is extremely troubled. On medication for sleepwalking and under professional care Donnie is likeable if not a bit on the dark side. After skipping his medication, he sleepwalks and avoids being killed by the unexplained 747 jet engine that fell through his house. The film set in a typical suburban setting in 1988. Donnie’s mother Mary McDonnell) and father (Holmes Osborne) provide a happy home bit this happiness is not the cause of Donnie’s angst, against the usual format of Hollywood it is merely the backdrop for a much darker tale. For one thing, Donnie is visited by Frank (James Duval) a six foot tall demonic rabbit with a skull face mask. Frank informs our belabored hero that the world will end in 28 days. Donnie becomes fascinated with the concept of time travel and alternate time lines. These alternative futures appear before Donnie as he sees translucent foreshadowing events of his family. As Donnie delves into the theory of the time space continuum, he discovers that one of the leading experts in the field, Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland), also known in the neighborhood as Grandma Death, lives nearby. The film takes offhanded jabs at some of the most beloved films of our times. Frank is the evil universe version of Harvey, the benign six foot rabbit that befriended Jimmy Stewart so long ago. There is a feel to the community that Donnie lives that reminds the audience of the opening of Poltergeist, a typical cookie cutter neighborhood that much of America grew up experiencing. Personally, I like the ‘hidden horror’ that lies beneath sub-genre of film. Trouble is it is often not treated in a manner that gives credit to the audience has had even a modicum of intelligence. With Donnie Darko, the thriller aspect is psychological and not the typical visceral and graphic as most films. As with the real world, populating th film with a mixture of people both ordinary and bizarre. The gamut of views and the means to express them is impressive in and of itself. It helps to keep this film not only moving but something difficult to turn away from these expressions of artistic achievement. Of course, part of that is the same as slowing down in traffic to watch a car wreck; you just can’t turn your head.
The casting of this film also represents what is great about these small budget independent films; it is a mixture of well-known personalities and talented new comers. The multifaceted Gyllenhaal family is represented here in full. Born from the director Steven (The Shield) and screenwriter mother, brother and sister, Jake and Maggie are very well utilized here. The sibling relationship on screen without a doubt reflects their real-life as siblings. Jake has had a rather uneven career initially that has blossomed, especially since his highly controversial ‘Broke Back Mountain.' While excellent here and in the recent critically acclaimed ‘The Good Girl’ his parents must have been out of town or unable to advise him when he signed on to ‘Bubble Boy.' Jake’s real life and on screen sister Maggie is has been quite successful in both the mainstream and independent cinema. Never typecast, she has come into her own as an actress. Her resume includes some of the quirkier films around including the very strange ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.' She has a presence on screen and provides an offbeat jot to keep this movie from becoming too dark. Naturally, there are the bigger, more established stars also present in this film it is refreshing to see stars of this caliber willing to forego their normal, large salaries to participate in the movies of this nature. Among them is Drew Barrymore that not only acts as Donnie’s English teacher but served as the movie’s co-executive producer. Far more than just a beautiful, goofy girl she is emerging as one of the true forces reckoned with in the film industry. Patrick Swayze as the nearly demented motivational speakers is a piece of inspired casting and a treat to watch.
This was director/writer Richard Kelly’s first and so far only foray into movie making. For a freshman, the effort is surprisingly good. There is a little touch of film school influence, trying a bit too hard to cram as many tricks of lighting and camera work as possible. Considering the innate talent commanded by this individual, he is certain to continue as an influential director. The plot is somewhat convoluted and at times difficult to follow. Many viewers too used to the simplistic plots typically offered by Hollywood will not get all that this film has to offerHolding the audience’s attention in this movie is how emotionally and visually compelling. Rather than going off the beaten path just for the sake of doing it this film was written and directed with purpose, albeit a rather strange one. Watching this movie gave me the impression that Kelly is a real fan of movies. This is refreshing in an age where so many directors seem to be in the craft just for their personal exaltation. One obvious influence for Kelly is Paul Thomas Andersen’s brilliant film Magnolia. Where Andersen went off on the track that life is an immutable series of events bound by coincident, Kelly’s world view is just as dark but motivated by alternate timelines set upon a backdrop of quantum uncertainly.
The film has achieved the significant cult following, which is richly deserved. Frequently surreal and often perplexing, is undeniably always fascinated. Personally, I have seen this movie many times and each experience, I have discovered another level that holds me into a new and exciting understand. The original DVD edition of this film was afforded far better attention to the presentation the freest features of that time. As nicely done is that was, the subsequent Blu-ray release is quite literally a fan’s dream come true. Over time they have been many films concerning the oncoming apocalypse when deadly premonitions. Most pale in comparison to how artfully done his opus by, Richard Kelly worked out. While the expertly lays the groundwork with a strange universe. Donnie and his friend Frank existed in any fundamental parameters regarding the time space continuum; the filmmaker has left most of the interpretation to the audience. The filmmaker presents the core story, what can be understood from it is mostly left up to the public. This is why; the film is so highly conducive to multiple viewings. The obtuse nature of many scenes has been used as a source of consternation by some that have critiqued this work. It is one of the greatest strengths. Kelly respects his audience and expects the same from us. He has provided everything we needed to know and set it in a very dark, disturbing environment. What we do with it. However, translate to what we feel about the movie. Typical Hollywood tropes are incorporated into the darkness the unique fashion. The relationship between Donnie and Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), maybe highly reminiscent of the familiar 80s romances. We become so accustomed to this emotional dynamic. Gretchen’s possesses the own darkness that makes this a bad in a couple in their way. A significant part of the appeal of this film is how it leads us to believe we are watching something cozy and comfortable and interested in a foreboding place. In some ways, this is symbolized by Frank. As noted, there is analogous to another imaginary rabbit, Harvey. Whereas Harvey was a gentle companion to a lovable drunk, Frank is a sinister manifestation of the darkness working in a disturbed teenage boy. Once again, the casting is superb with the selection of Jena Malone. She was a child star that somehow managed to escape many of the misadventures that have plagued many who began their careers or young. She has made quite a name for herself in independent films and recently has a prominent part in one of the most successful fantasy franchises, ‘Hunger Games.'
‘Donnie Darko’ belongs to rarified strata of cinematic achievements retaining its status as a cult classic despite the passage of time. So often a movie becomes dated either through the natural progression of fashion, language or acceptable social sensibility. Although these factors do impact the appreciation and understanding of the story, the fundamental themes remain largely intact. They explore several aspects of our humanity within a first context permitting us to consider that psychological threshold between instinct and conscientiousness. When it was initially released, it had a reprieve from the then dreaded ‘direct to video’ when it was accepted for a premier at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie was capable of surviving several events in the real world that would destroy the momentum of any other film. A significant plot point is an airplane crashing, losing its engine. With a theatrical set for the last week in October 2001, the tragic events of September 11th still too painfully fresh in our collective perception. Despite these factors, the film went on to a financial success on but VHS and the newly introduced DVD format. As a movie of extraordinary complexity and nuances, it is best understood through repeated viewings. This concept applies to a substantial number of movies and in the case of ‘Donnie Darko’ many experiences are mandatory.
DVD may make it possible for directors to finally release their intended vision of the story before the studio executives, financial backers and those with input on the content, all pushed for changes in how the filmmaker could tell the story. Typically changes made for a ‘Director’s Cut,' ‘Extended Sedition’ or ‘Unrated Release’ are relatively minor and mostly insignificant. The differences between the two editions are considerable and listed below. Many avid fans consider the two versions of entirely different films. Both versions have been available on both Blu-ray and DVD for some years but finally the superiority of the movie and the considerable impact it continues to make on the zeitgeist of our popular culture.
With the Director’s cut there is more than the usual splicing in some discarded sweepings from the editors bay. In keeping with the subtlety employed by this filmmaker the differences may appear to be slight, especially when taken individually, but collectively they enhance the film significantly.
Posted 1/31/03 (DVD)
Posted 02/18/09 (Blu-ray)
Posted 11/15/2014 (Director's cut) 04/09/2017