There's a moment you'll experience while watching Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut when Frank the giant rabbit whispers, as if into your ear, "Watch closely." Ostensibly, the disturbingly insect-masked bunny is talking to the film's reluctant hero, Donnie, but he's really speaking directly to you, yes you, the audience member, and let's get right down to it, it's not really a huge rabbit telling you to watch closely—it's the film's director, Richard Kelly, cluing you in on just one of the little bits of his sci-fi head-scratcher that will surely open up the film's meaning to you. Trouble is, I don't know of anyone—particularly Donnie Darko's fervent and vocal fans—who ever requested that the film's weirdly appealing and nutty sci-fi mysteries be so baldly spelled out.
If you've never seen Donnie Darko and the notion of a large talking rabbit is bewildering, perhaps you ought to go out right now and buy the previous DVD version of Donnie Darko, which has been available for a few years now, and let this minor cult classic squirm its way through your brain as Kelly originally intended back when the film debuted to wowed audiences at Sundance 2001. That's the inscrutable little film that immediately began building an improbable cult audience, a legion of geek-cool thinkers puzzling out Donnie Darko's funky riddles and getting all nostalgic about its curious 1980s setting and soundtrack. There's a strange comfort in the original version's refusal to give out any logical answers—or, in some aspects, any answers at all. I find Donnie Darko to be endlessly fascinating in its original form, an affecting little teen comedy that explodes into a nearly impenetrable time-travel mindfuck. I can watch it over and over again, not really to attempt to piece together its quandaries but rather to gape at the audacity of it all.
I'm still sorting out my thoughts about this new version, Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut. On the one hand, I acknowledge that the theatrical version—yes, it was in theaters for mere moments in late 2001, but its pivotal image of a jet engine falling from the sky didn't digest well at the time—can be maddeningly obtuse, steadfastly dodging your understanding for the simple reason that what's really happening in the film is only barely glimpsed. Underneath this story of engaging characters and increasingly odd nightmare moments is a blurrily complex, fragmented time-travel understory threaded with pseudo-science and Richard Kelly brainfarts. You get the feeling that Kelly grasps the out-there fantasy that's holding his story together, and a part of you wants to know those answers and understand how all the film's facets click together. On the other hand, the joy of watching the original cut of Donnie Darko comes from simply letting it crash against you and through you, all odd angles and black-humor riddles and hints at huge, ridiculous truths. And after seeing this new director's cut, and getting a more clear look into the mad psyche of its creator, I know that, no, I never really needed these answers, I never needed these extra scenes and explanations. Frankly, with its goofy comic-book explanations and its tendency to direct your attention to narrative clues, the Director's Cut diminishes Donnie Darko—but only a little.
Although I strongly recommend seeing the original theatrical version first, either DVD offers a film worthy of study. I fear I've made Donnie Darko sound like a convoluted disaster, and in fact many of the film's detractors consider it to be just that, but this is an intriguing film despite its unwillingness to follow a clear narrative path. Yes, it involves a parallel dimension and the specter of time travel, and the fate of the entire universe depends on its resolution, but hey, just think of it as a teen flick that goes spectacularly wrong. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes one morning on a mountain road, disoriented, with the sudden knowledge—thanks to the aforementioned rabbit—that the world will end in 28 days. In his absence from his quiet suburban home, a massive jet engine has fallen mysteriously from the sky onto his empty bed. Donnie and his slightly dysfunctional family—mom (a contemplative Mary McDonnell), dad (a hilarious Holmes Osborne), older sis (real-life sibling Maggie Gyllenhaal), and younger sis (Daveigh Chase)—get on with their lives, but it's soon apparent that something's askew with the world. We won't realize it until later, perhaps even in a second or third viewing, but the remainder of Donnie Darko's central plot takes place in a tangent reality, the purpose of which is vital to Donnie's fate and the fate of the universe. Don't worry, it's all in good fun.
Central to the story is an '80s-tinged teen romance that develops between Donnie and the new girl in school, Gretchen Ross (an adorable Jena Malone), who has her own dark problems—and perhaps those are entwined with the fate of the universe as well. Also tied up in the mystery is repellent self-help guru Jim Cunningham (a perfectly cast Patrick Swayze), who isn't what he seems. A pair of Donnie's teachers, Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore, who also helped produce the film) and Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), play larger roles in the story than you think at first. And we can't forget the ever-present Frank (James Duval), the giant rabbit who becomes the film's central motivator and the key to its sprawling mysteries. I should probably also mention Grandma Death, or rather Roberta Sparrow, the local hag who long ago penned a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel and who is now also vitally important to Donnie's task. But see, now I'm regretting having told so much about this movie, which is best experienced fresh, so that you can appreciate its dark-humor charms and its gawky sci-fi carelessness.
What I love about Donnie Darko is that it avoids all the narrative impulses to go the straightforward route. Its storytelling is unique in that it asks you to bring whatever you want to it. If you want to watch it for its quirky teen comedy and just let the nightmare moments fall to the side, it's more than happy to accommodate you. If you want to delve into its riddles, it'll take you up on the challenge quite playfully. It's a movie that's alive in a way that's pretty rare, and it's one of the few movies I can watch regularly, gleaning more from it each time. Its tone is lively and engaging, and yet it confounds you time and again. The original theatrical cut is the version I will continue to rewatch, simply because I feel that the director's cut tries to spell out too much that's better left to the imagination.
Having said that, I'm glad I experienced this new director's cut, in the spirit that its director has intended it. Kelly, in his commentary, refers to the new cut as "an extended remix," not as any sort of preferred cut. In fact, he admits that the theatrical cut is his preferred cut. This is an alternate Donnie Darko for those who require further clues about the film's mystery—and there's nothing wrong with admitting that you need those clues. As I've said, the original version is inscrutable without supplemental information. Indeed, the film's official Web site contains a lot of the information that appears in this cut, namely the excerpts from Grandma Death's absurd Philosophy of Time Travel tome that define what's going on and when. What this director's cut provides, finally, is all that information within the film, where, some may argue, it actually belongs. I don't necessarily agree, but Donnie Darko remains a fun, oddball ride in either incarnation.
WHAT'S NEW TO THIS CUT?
The Donnie Darko: Director's Cut includes about 21 minutes of additional scenes and some alterations to the soundtrack. Pages from Grandma Death's Philosophy of Time Travel—previously available at the DonnieDarko.com Web site—have also been inserted between and over scenes, disrupting the narrative but explaining plot/character points. Many of these scenes were available as deleted scenes on the original DVD. Here are the changes:
WARNING: By necessity, spoilers follow.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Fox presents Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut in a disappointing anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. I say "disappointing" because although it's quite watchable, I feel it could be much improved. If you're familiar with the look of the originally released DVD—a passable if frustratingly muddy effort—you're in for more of the same. I had fully expected this new release to correct some visual wrongs of the previous release, and perhaps brighten and sharpen a wanting image, but unfortunately this appears to be the same transfer. Detail is merely okay, but with each passing frame, you'll wish that the image offered improved clarity. Fine detail is mostly lost in a smeared haze. Backgrounds are too soft and noisy. The color palette is, again, muddy and indistinct. Blacks aren't particularly profound.
As a result of these flaws, Donnie Darko looks like a neglected film, a movie that's been treated poorly. It doesn't help that digital artifacts crop up here and there. I noticed minor edge halos and digital instability. The entire look is low-rent.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The DVD offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that's quite involving. Leaving aside the soundtrack modifications mentioned above, the track is similar to that of the previous DVD. Dialog comes across accurately and cleanly, with no distortion. Surround activity is effective—for example, a certain disembodied voice seems ominously centered, hovering in the middle of the room—but focused surround sound can also tend toward gimmicky. The film's score is rich and punchy, and I confess to jumping a couple of times at bass-heavy sound effects, as when Donnie taps at an invisible barrier.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Fox and Richard Kelly have teamed up to provide an all-new selection of extras for this release, effectively squeezing everything possible from this modern cult classic. The good news is that none of the extras on this set are repeated from the previous DVD (except, of course, for the reinstated scenes), and at least two of these new extras, in fact, are complete home runs. The bad news is that one of these items is an utter turn-off and will make you want to hunt down a British Donnie Darko fan and punch him in the face.
The most enticing extra in the set is a brand-new Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Richard Kelly and Kevin Smith, and it proves every bit as engaging and humorous as you might expect. It's not laugh-out-loud hilarious—as most of Smith's tracks are over his own films—but Smith proves wryly well spoken, as well as an outspoken fan of the film: "Dude, you are reaching so far beyond what I'm doing." Or, "This is a movie that swings for the fences." The two directors come across as buddies, and you can easily see why Kelly wanted Smith to liven up the track. They bounce thoughts off each other freely, and even though there are a few blank spots, the discussion is fascinating. Kelly is very open about his intentions for creating this director's cut, calling it more an "extended remix" than a preferred cut. Indeed, he seems very proud of the theatrical cut, and wouldn't want this cut to overshadow that one. For the fans, he says, he decided to amplify the sci-fi/supernatural elements, as well as the comic-book elements (another reason Smith is onboard). Listen for many gut-buster Smith moments, such as when he talks about his daughter's piercings. Kelly is very generous about discussing exactly what he was going for in Donnie Darko, illuminating the under-story and talking at length about the pseudo-science at its core.
Next up is a terrific, fly-on-wall Donnie Darko Production Diary that runs about 52 minutes. Although it gets off to a horrible start—some jackass has the gall to insult the good name of In-n-Out Burger—it settles into its rhythm of following location scouting, voyeuristically watching the filming of a bunch of key scenes, and generally walking you chronologically through the shoot, showing you exactly what the mood of the set was like. I came away from this documentary mostly marveling at what a strange, wired kid Jake Gyllenhaal is. You can view this Production Diary with optional Commentary by Director of Photography Steven Poster. He's a good narrator for the behind-the-scenes action.
The 28-minute They Made Me Do It Too: The Cult of Donnie Darko is an unfortunate UK-produced piece in which British fans, critics, and publishers expound about their love for the film, talking—with noses raised haughtily—about how British audiences are far more responsive to Donnie Darko than US audiences are, for the simple reason that Brits are more "intelligent" and "adventurous" and "thoughtful." The worst thing is that all the thinking behind their inflammatory statements is flawed. I had enough of these insufferable people in just a few minutes. Interviews are composed as if subjects are speaking to a giant rabbit. The piece is also annoyingly shot and framed, with off-putting extreme close-ups and self-consciously wobbly camera. It's so amateurish and off-putting, you'd think it was made in the UK or something.
Storyboard to Screen walks you through the 8 minutes of film. In a split screen, storyboards are compared with footage from the finished film. The sequence in which Donnie follows the Abyss-like fate worms through his house to his parents' bedroom is included, as well as the end-of-film Darko party and the climactic Grandma Death sequence.
The 13-minute #1 Fan: A Darkumentary is a hoot. Apparently, in the summer of 2004, DonnieDarko.com held a documentary competition to find the most obsessive Donnie Darko fan on the planet. That fan and that documentary are right here on the DVD. This is a frightfully hilarious study of one man's mania. The freak's name is Darryl Donaldson (he acknowledges the alliterative similarity of his name and Donnie's), and we follow him on a quest to meet director Richard Kelly. Funny, stalker-scary stuff. (My colleague Josh Zyber was repelled by this piece over at DVD File, but I think he missed the fun of this one.)
The Theatrical Trailer for the director's cut of Donnie Darko is included, highlighting some of the added footage. It's mostly a whirlwind montage of imagery, adding up to more of a teaser than a real trailer.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
The theatrical version of Donnie Dark is the one I'll continue to rewatch, but Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut is a fascinating watch, if only because it will finally help you solve the wacky riddles in the center of the film's plot. But do you really want to? Either way, this is a film worth savoring, and even though image and sound quality offer no real improvements, the extras on this disc are all new. Two of them are musts.