Richard Kelly's genre-bleeder Donnie Darko arrived in a year that's considered to be a genesis point of sorts for cinema's current mind-bending trend, where Memento's jarring memory thrills and Mulholland Dr.'s identity-perception eeriness dominated festival circuits and award ceremonies. Kelly's concept is, arguably, no less audacious at its contemporaries; shot over a month for less than $5million, his tempestuous exploration of time-travel, consequence, and the possession of a demented teenager's mind crafts an ominous tone, testing thresholds -- and rubbing elbows with philosophical horror -- as it tinkers with out-of-the-box scientific theories for its psychological thrills. A wealth of interpretive gloom stirs at the core of his original vision as a result, burrowing through a maze of confounded metaphysical puzzles that contently revel in their own half-elucidation. Clarifying further would take away the fun.
Set in the '80s for little other reason than atmospheric flourishes, including Bush-Dukakis debates and late-era tunes, Kelly's film begins with Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) sprawled out on a road early on the morning of October 1st, 1988. Donnie, a troubled private-school student with "intimidating" intelligence, visits a psychiatrist regularly to discuss his contorted emotional problems and peculiar contemplations. The evening after his odd sleepwalking spell, a rumbling voice -- pouring from the visage of a deranged-looking human-sized bunny, Frank -- draws him to a nearby golf course and tells him that before the month is out, the world will end. He awakens (while still at the golf course) to find that a mysterious liner-jet engine plowed through his house in the middle of the night, yet left his entire family unscathed.
This "brush with catastrophe" and his conversations with Frank leads Donnie -- who already skips out on taking his medication, heightening his mental instability -- into an darker frame of mind that suggests a dangerous, easily malleable streak in the young man, which lures the film itself down a bleak and disquieting avenue that accentuates his teenage angst and edginess over the visions. The world around him changes as he bends under the words of his prophetic new friend; the toll of school bells triggers the speeding up and slowing down of time, while idyllic shots of his suburban neighborhood juxtapose against Frank's manipulation, reminiscent of David Lynch's composition in Blue Velvet. You're never allowed to feel comfortable in the environment Kelly creates since Donnie never feels at ease, even (and especially) when he's getting to know Gretchen (Jena Malone), a newcomer to his school with a sordid past and an eye for weird boys.
On the surface the mentally-unhinged teen passes through school halls and down streets with a clock counting down in his mind, navigating Donnie through a palpably bizarre rural setting. He goes about his life peering at a town under the spell of a self-help guru (Patrick Swayze) that, apparently, has more of a place in his private school's curriculum with his Fear-Love gamut paradigm than the work of author Graham Greene, constructing a surprisingly authentic farce of a teenager's bizarro-world acuity of his environment. Donnie starts to feel his awareness of the world's end elevating into a call to change these things, driven by his unhinged brew of anxiety and burgeoning self-awareness; instead of allowing his school to suffocate under the debasement of humanity's capacity to feel, he tells them where to shove their principles and deems them evil presences. In the surroundings, his brash actions seem just.
Exploring Donnie's mind becomes part of the mystery itself in Donnie Darko, made riveting by the dronish gazes and brusque delivery of Jake Gyllenhaal's absorbingly creepy performance. We spend a lot of time peering deep into Donnie's pensive eyes, contemplating what exactly is passing through his mind while listening to Frank and wrapping his conscientiousness around the end of the world, and the young actor -- now, of course, a higher-profile Hollywood star by way of Brokeback Mountain, Source Code, and others -- delivers a chilling exertion of the eerie depths of an unhinged individual with at-times constructive, at-other-times caustic motives. It also creates a state of restlessness about our perception of what Donnie sees around him; if his six-foot bunny is merely a projection of his addled psyche, as he might be, who or what else around him could be woven of the same psychotic fabric?
Frank mentions something bluntly as a retort to one of Donnie's strained inquiries that changes the shape of the story: "Do you believe in time travel?" The film operates as if we haven't an answer to that ourselves, and it offers a rush of cleverly-hewn details on the science and leap-of-faith belief involved as we map out an answer to Frank's presence, with wormholes, God's path, and, yeah, even The Delorian all rearing their heads in conversation. Kelly's writing doesn't operate like a first-timer's tinkering with the ideas, though, taking scientific theories and metaphysical material and shaping them into a subversive and intelligent mixture driven by Donnie's gifted curiosity, where he stumbles onto books to build his own understanding. Looking into Donnie's bewildered eyes as he stabs at the near-tangible fabric of time and space resonates within the lofty concepts swirling around him.
Kelly's film pivots on interpretation of its byzantine details, from what to swallow about the cosmos of time travel to what Donnie perceives as tangibly real or false, which come together into a spellbinding work of ominous creativity that grasps onto the bedrock of valid humanity. A degree of puzzlement permeates the film once he sees stretches of metaphysical goop extend from peoples' chest cavities, seen as projections of their preordained path through life; yet, the viewer has all the tools they need to grasp Donnie's perception of what he's seeing, as well as how he feels about the idea of a preordained path in itself. Sure, there's a lot to chew on as the mystery spirals into a furious climax to the energy we've poured into piecing together the obscure clues, but seeing the catharsis of Donnie's addled journey -- and the way Kelly's cosmos reveals itself -- makes the urge to restart from the wake-up point at the beginning of the film one you'll want to indulge in this weighted philosophical mindscrew.
With an extra twenty minutes added on, filled with intertitle excerpts from "The Philosophy of Time Travel" and a menacing voice literally telling its audience to look closer, Kelly's "director's cut" of Donnie Darko grabs the hands of those watching and lumbers through a less concise, less interpretive take on the material. In the process, it loses some of its cryptic vigor, explicitly outlining deeper contemplations and removing some of the mystery behind the gradually-revealed elements of Donnie's mentality. Computer graphics that render scrolling digital text against an eye (and other blunt-force elements) also pop up, as if to suggest mental processing. Other new material does arise in this alternate cut -- DVDTalk has a detailed rundown of the differences here -- yet most of it reinforces concepts instead of offering new discoveries. Thankfully, Kelly acknowledges that his "director's cut" isn't necessarily the one he prefers, instead a beefed-up B-side version to accompany the far-superior theatrical cut.
To hallmark the tenth anniversary of the theatrical cut's release, Fox have bundled together elements from Blu-ray and DVD releases for this Donnie Darko: 10th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray package. Contained within a four-disc, standard-tray package, the discs are as follows: Disc One = the original Blu-ray (reviewed here); Disc Two = the supplemental disc from the Director's Cut DVD (reviewed here); Disc Three = the Theatrical Cut DVD from 2002 (reviewed here); and Disc Four = the Digital Copy disc. If you're a fan of the film, which this release should gear towards, then you've likely owned everything offered here in one form or another over the years. However, at a starting price of $25, it's also a fine way to regather the old elements at an inexpensive price if needed, even if it's not exactly a package befitting much of an "anniversary release".
Video and Audio:
If you still have a copy of Fox's initial Blu-ray of Donnie Darko, hold onto it and look right past this 10th Anniversary release. When I say that the Blu-ray disc included -- and the 2.35:1 1080p AVC treatment contained within -- mirrors the previous release, that's meant literally; from the disc art to the audiovisual treatment for both the theatrical and director's cut, it's the exact same. The director's cut shows extra spit-polish that its theatrical counterpart doesn't, especially during the additional sequences and, of course, the computer-generated additions. But mostly, the film only sustainably projects the film's cinematography, from overly-lush colors and a hazy focus on detail to erratic grain and the occasional glimmer of edge enhancement.
Thankfully, the audio treatment makes headway to counterbalance the lackluster visuals, sporting DTS HD Master Audio tracks that deliver quite a few spine-chilling moments of aggressiveness and high-definition clarity. You'll feel Donnie Darko stabbing the invisible barrier of space with a kitchen knife in your chest as it rattles the lower-frequency channel and pierces the high-end shelf with exceptional vigor. Verbal clarity sustains a buoyant, only occasionally harsh property, always preserving the context of conversations against the film's aural ambience, while Duran Duran, Tears for Fears and the other '80s bands presented in the soundtrack offer a crisp, clear stream of energy. English, French and Spanish optional subtltles are available alongside the English audio treatment.
Three Commentaries adorn the Blu-ray included, one with the director's cut of the film involving director Richard Kelly and guest Kevin Smith, and two others with the theatrical cut involving Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal and another Cast and Crew track. The Smith-Kelly track has a lot of fun cutting into the content in true fashion once Smith gets rolling, while the commentary track involving the full cast can't help but pour informative content and intriguing conversation among the assortment of participants. Kelly carries the content in the remaining track, revealing his palpable passion for his craft as a younger Gyllenhaal meanders.
Disc Two is the same offering as the second disc from the Director's Cut DVD, which includes the beefy, absorbing behind-the-scenes glimpses contained within Donnie Darko: a Production Diary (52:51, 4x3). A lengthy expose on the film's cult following, They Made Me Do It Too (28:03, 16x9), serves primarily as a portrait of the UK's rabid fanbase of the film and the way it's taken hold in the years following its flop at US theaters, while the highly bizarre #1 Fan: A Darkomentary (13:17) shows what "real" fandom can generate through a look at a man that considers himself the biggest supporter of the film. A Theatrical Trailer (1:02, 16x9) for the director's cut and a Storyboard to Screen (7:58, 4x3) comparison fill out the rest of this disc.
And lo, what's that? Sneakily, we've also got the tacked-on special features from the original theatrical DVD of Donnie Darko (a low-cost maneuver), including the aforementioned two theatrical-cut commentary offerings to play with the standard-definition presentation. This disc also includes a slate of twenty Deleted Scenes with optional commentary from Kelly, a Trailer (2:28, 4x3 Letterbox) and a handful of five TV Spots (4x3), and a slate of other design elements under the Cunning Visions and Art Gallery segments -- production photos, some soundtrack liner notes, and the now redundant pages from Grandma Death's "The Philosophy of Time Travel".
Donnie Darko has become an elevated cult classic for good reason; Richard Kelly displays audacious creativity and mental stimulation in his layered depiction of a troubled teen with awareness of the world's end, fed to him by a huge demented-lookin' rabbit as his doomsayer guide. Genres and concepts crisscross and mesh relentlessly in this surprisingly cogent script, where sci-fi-centered content around time-travel mingles with a peculiar but highly-intelligent teen's perception of predetermination, life, death, and the cosmos, colliding into a moody, gripping mind-number. While the film itself should undoubtedly be checked out, Fox's 10th Anniversary Blu-ray only receives a lukewarm Recommendation due to the completely recycled discs crammed into the package. It's a cost-effective one for those who haven't picked Kelly's film up at some point, yet it's one that fans can very easy skip over.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site