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We can't take a step these days without tripping over yet another bizarro fantasy that reinvents the universe in one way or another; straight dramas are for the Fall Oscar sweepstakes race. Action movies, kiddie movies and most genre pictures now require a time-tripping hero, a fabulous curse or a warrior's creed, so as to jam Asian kickboxing, ten-cent philosophy and horror chills into every movie made .. even Batman comes from a Tibetan monastery, now.
Donnie Darko may at first seem the teen weird-fest of 2001, but it's different from the ground up. It's fairly common to see movies trying to duplicate the eccentric vibes of filmmakers David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, but Richard Kelly's "dark fantasy" is in a much more original vein. It's twisted take on the coming of age fantasy interprets teen mood swings & psychic disturbances as symptoms of growing up amid a jungle of oppressive values. Donnie Darko is too heartfelt and sincere to be an anything-for-effect satire. As science fiction, it can be described as a Luis Borges / Ambrose Bierce "alternate universe" tale. But it could also be a page from the diary of an alienated, despairing American teen.
1988. Suffering from disturbing mood swings, good student Donald Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is in therapy with the caring Dr. Lilian Thurman (Katharine Ross). His parents Eddie and Rose (Holmes Osborne & Mary McDonnell) hope for the best, but don't know what to think when Donnie sleepwalks at night, sometimes awakening miles from home. But Donnie's sleepwalking saves him from a freak accident, when a jet engine falls from the sky and demolishes his bedroom. At that point Donnie's mental disturbances become stronger. His new girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone) is a positive influence, but Donnie experiences visitations by Frank, a hideously grinning six-foot rabbit whose voice wills him to commit destructive acts, like flood his school. Donnie watches as his teachers allow the sleazy self-help guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) to proselytize, while encouraging shallow dance competitions. Challenging teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) is let go for being too controversial. Donnie's visions include the ability to see personal projections of will or desire that appear to determine people's paths. Most frighteningly, Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in just a few days, and that to save it Donnie must follow Frank's instructions precisely.
At one point in Donnie Darko Gretchen tells Donnie that his name reminds her a bit of a superhero. Donnie's reply is,"What makes you think I'm not?" Richard Kelly's vision of cosmic disturbances in suburbia ushers forth a great deal of dangerous content. Donnie indulges the notion that he's on a mission to save the world, obeying a voice that wants him to wield an axe and set fires. Donnie's alienation from adult values seems justified in the presence of deluded or exploitative adult authority figures: "Rose, sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!"
Donnie does not have the requisite dysfunctional family, quite the opposite. His father dispenses sane advice and his mother loves him dearly. Donnie adores his sisters Samantha and Elizabeth (Daviegh Chase & Maggie Gyllenhaal). But insanity rages around him. His new girlfriend comes from a family torn apart by divorce and violence. The insolence of school bullies threatens to verge on murder and rape, and even the class victim Cherita Chen (Jolene Purdy) has been warped into a hateful person. A thoughtful science teacher (Noah Wylie) must back away from Donnie's questions about metaphysics, knowing that he could lose his job for "encouraging" disturbing thoughts. The proud Miss Pomeroy is considered a dangerous influence for teaching creative writing through Graham Greene and Watership Down.
Director Kelly places Donnie squarely at the center of a paranoid paradox. The bunny-man Frank is more than a demonic alter ego; he's fashioned vaguely after the old James Stewart film Harvey, a comedy with the whimsical theme that we should all be blissfully crazy. Donnie sometimes seems demonically possessed, dropping his chin and staring at the camera as if channeling the spirit of Norman Bates. He's overwhelmed by coincidences and symbolic events involving rabbits, a Cassandra-like senile old woman and a pitiless fate. Donnie Darko faces the darkness head on, and transcends the usual exploitation of teen fantasies about power and potency.
Donnie sees himself as a doomed wacko undertaking a noble quest, but he's also an ordinary mixed-up kid. When alone with friends he debates the sexuality of Smurfs; under hypnosis, he defines bliss as getting Hungry Hungry Hippos for Christmas. Donnie Darko is both entertaining and mentally challenging. It's also a humanistic antidote to all those Matrix- like empowerment fantasies.
Donnie Darko's cast can't be improved upon. Jake Gyllenhaal is super as Donnie, and may be cursed to play confused teens until he's 40. Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell are complex parental figures; dad helps Donnie cope while Mom sometimes looks on the verge of an emotional implosion. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a marvel who deserves great roles and isn't getting them, while Jena Malone (Into the Wild, Saved!) is both intelligent and captivating. All are relaxed and in synch with Kelly's fantasy. Patrick Swayze nails his motivational leech character, eclipsing Tom Cruise's appalling freak in Magnolia. Beth Grant's portrait of Kitty Farmer, the tormented Fanatic Next Door deserves a review of its own.
Naturally, something so original cannot become a blockbuster success. Donnie Darko enjoys a status much higher than the cult film ghetto but still doesn't get the respect it deserves. For readers curious about the pleasingly civilized career of writer-director Richard Kelly, Savant recommends a nice unofficial fan site. I haven't seen Kelly's Southland Tales but will be looking for it.
We suspect that Fox Home Video's Donnie Darko has come to Blu-ray at this particular point in time to help promote S. Darko, a direct sequel to be released on April 28. Neither written nor directed by Kelly, it stars Daveigh Chase repeating her role as Samantha Darko.
The new two-disc Blu-ray of the original has both the theatrical and director's cut; I recommend going straight to the Director's cut as its extra content is a big improvement and the additional 21 minutes are no burden whatsoever. The HD image looks fine, with the film's inexpensive digital effects coming off especially well; this is one movie unspoiled by showoff CGI images. The horrid "Frank Rabbit" looks like a guy in a disturbing Halloween costume, and for good reason. The exceptional audio makes good use of tracks by Duran Duran, Echo and the Bunnymen and particularly Tears for Fears.
The two versions carry three commentaries. The cast and crew cut up and reminisce on the Theatrical cut; Richard Kelly is on the Director's Cut with Kevin Smith and the Theatrical with Jake Gyllenhaal. Kelly is immediately likeable. He's comfortable with his work and keeps the jokester Gyllenhaal tamped down a bit. He appears to have a healthy perspective on his artistic aims, and at one point ribs Gyllenhaal for interrupting one of his self-described "pompous" explanations.
The second disc is a standard DVD. A lengthy (54 min. BTS Production Diary bears an optional commentary by Steven Poster, the film's cinematographer. We hear Kelly's voice describing shots exactly as he will film them later. They Made Me Do It Too is a pro featurette centering on the film's status as a cult item in England. #1 Fan: A Darkomentary is an amateur fan video by a young superfan. It's the more honest of the two. A storyboard comparison and a trailer are also included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
R2 DVD review of Donnie Darko
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.