"Donnie Darko" was one of the most talked about films at Sundance last year, a film that looked to be a success story once it eventually released theaters. Unfortunately, the studio didn't seem to be quite sure about how to market a film that largely revolves around a disturbed teenager who recieves prophetic warnings from a large, talking rabbit (possibly the cousin of the Mothman from this year's "Mothman Prophecies".) Newmarket (who also released "Memento") should have built up a wider release, but did not. The film soon dissapeared from theaters, snapped up by Fox Home Video for a DVD release.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie, said troubled teen who, as the movie begins, has just started taking his medication again. Shortly after, the visions begin to appear. Frank, a six-foot-tall individual who wears a bunny suit and an insect-ish face, casually informs Donnie that the world will end just under a month. If Donnie had not ventured into the outdoors to hear more, he would have been in his room, which is demolished by a jet engine that falls out of the sky while he'd taken the stroll.
"Donnie Darko", with its blend of the conventional (Donnie awkardly asks out a new girl in school, nicely played by Jena Malone) and the surreal, could have ended up being a messy mixture of genres, but ends up being similar to director David Lynch's films while taking on a fascinating feel and tone of its own. We are kept unsure of whether or not Donnie is an intelligent psychotic or if he is really seeing the things that he is seeing. Director Richard Kelly gains the interest by providing a remarkable sense of atmosphere and adds rich, unexpected twists throughout the film that successfully engage the audience further. Title cards let the audience know the days remaining until what Frank noted would be the last.
The performances are also terrific. Gyllenhaal, whose recent "Bubble Boy" was horrendously terrible, returns to the kind of performance he showed he was capable of with "October Sky". With equal parts intense calm and fascinating menace, Gyllenhaal is riveting. Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osbourne are terrific as Donnie's parents, unusual characters in a situation like this, as these characters would usually be baffled and angered in their inability to understand what's going on with their son. McDonnell and Osbourne convincingly portray the parents as people who don't have all the answers, but genuinely care about their son and are saddened at the idea thrown out by their son's psychologist (Katherine Ross) that more medication is needed. Noah Wyle and producer Drew Barrymore give fine performances as two teachers who believe in Donnie, even if the usually cheery Barrymore doesn't portray glum entirely well. Even 80's icon Patrick Swayze appears as a motivational speaker.
What should also be mentioned in discussion about "Donnie Darko" is the film's special effects. While certainly not an effects-heavy picture, there are several sequences with impressive visual effects that, considering this is a low-budget film, are remarkably well-done. In terms of non-computer generated visuals, the film does a very solid job portraying 80's suburbia.
"Donnie Darko" bounces between so many genres and events that it's amazing that debut director Kelly can piece them all together and not have the film seem to be either too strange or too all-over-the-place or too grounded. The puzzle ending is clear enough to basically understand, but not quite put together enough to conclude the exploration - after the end of "Donnie Darko", I started it up once again and found it as enjoyable and realized new aspects of the story, although I think I'm still missing a couple of parts of the greater picture about the finale.
VIDEO: "Donnie Darko" is presented by 20th Century Fox in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The intended look of the picture is one that will likely not match with expectations of what a newer film should look like. The look of the film is soft and occasionally, even hazy. Apparently, this was intentional.
While the softness isn't of huge concern, there are a few other problems on display throughout. The print used seems less-than-pristine, as some minor marks and a scratch or two are on display a bit more frequently than I'd expect for a recent picture. Some sequences also displayed slight-to-mild grain.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is certainly not demo material, but it's very enjoyable considering its mainly dialogue-driven nature. Surrounds often creep in with some pleasant ambience, but also come in more agressively on occasion, with the voice of the Bunny and other sound effects. The score sounded terrific, as did dialogue. While this certainly isn't the most thrilling sound experience, it's still better than I expected.
MENUS: Very enjoyable film-themed animated main menu, along with solid transitions between menus.
Commentaries: "Donnie Darko"'s DVD contains two feature-length commentaries, one by director Richard Kelly and actor Gyllenhaal, wile the other is a very crowded affair that includes Kelly, producer/actor Drew Barrymore, actress Malone as well as producers Sean McKittrick and Nancy Juvonen, along with most of the remaining primary cast members: Mary McDonnell, Beth Grant, Holmes Osborne, Katherine Ross, and James Duvall. All of these folks have been recorded together and, although Barrymore and Kelly do dominate the proceedings, all of the rest of the folks to chime in from the background. Sometimes things do go off track or people talk over one another, but there's some good information and insight occasionally thrown out as well as a few jokes about the making of the film.
The other commentary with director Richard Kelly and actor Gyllenhaal isn't quite as interesting. As with his commentary for "Bubble Boy", Gyllenhaal says a lot, but doesn't really end up offering that much substancial information. Kelly is informative, but he proves to be more interesting on the second track, where some of the other folks occasionally act as interviewers and get more information.
Deleted Scenes: Director Richard Kelly offers commentary for no less than 20 scenes, which are a mixture of deleted and extended material.
Trailer/TV: The trailer for the film is included, as are 5 TV spots. I don't think I ever saw any of the TV spots - and I watch a lot of TV.
Cunning Visions: The infomercial from the picture, complete with joke commentary. Also included in this section are book covers featured in the film as well as a "His Name Is Frank" gallery, a feature which locked up my player once, then didn't the second time around. Odd.
Also: Filmographies, a gallery of images from the film's website, a music video, art gallery, liner notes for the soundtrack and pages from the "Philosophy Of Time Travel" book (which are difficult to read) featured in the film.
Final Thoughts: "Donnie Darko" is a whole lot of genres and other elements put together in a way that could have become unglued, but instead is able to present surprises, terrific performances and tie almost all of its loose threads together. It's a wonderful, original debut that I thought was very enjoyable. While this film likely isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, Fox's excellent DVD edition of the film is worth checking out, at least as a rental.