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Donnie Darko: Director's Cut

Fox // Unrated // February 15, 2005
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Aaron Beierle | posted February 24, 2005 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

(movie, video, audio reviews are mainly taken from the review of the prior DVD. New information to this "director's cut" has been added where applicable.)

"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.

Although "Donnie Darko" did not perform well at the box office when it was originally released in the Fall of 2001, the picture did get a lot of critical raves and a major cult following that only grew further once the DVD came out. As discussed in the commentary track, the picture was, for a lot of people, one of those movies where the viewer went out and told their friends about it. It got to the point where a re-release became a strong possibility, and the new "director's cut" had "Darko" revisiting theaters in 2004.

The director's cut of "Darko" extends the picture by about 20-25 minutes, adding in a lot more story beats and minor extensions. One of the notable bits added in are moments where pages from "The Philosophy of Time Travel" show up on-screen. As discussed in the audio commentary, this director's cut also adds more of a "superhero" feel to the story, and leans it more towards sci-fi. Beyond that, the new cut of the film also explains more about the story, whereas the original cut left more up to the imagination. Both the original and director's cuts have their pros and cons. I liked the slightly fuller story of the director's cut and enjoyed some of the explanations regarding the story, although I can also see where the mysterious aspects of the original cut were greatly appealing to many audiences. The director's cut isn't always effective, though - the pacing is not as strong with the new footage, for example. I very much like aspects of the director's cut, but the original cut is strong, as well. I'd like to be able to pick one cut over the other, but both have their own merits.


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.

The director's cut offers the same image quality as the original cut.

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.

The director's cut reportedly has some re-worked audio elements, but I am not familiar enough with the slight details of the film to tell. Overall, the audio gives off the same impression - the sound design is very solid for a low-budget picture.

EXTRAS: The original release offered two commentaries, but there were some negative aspects of both, as the director's commentary offered quite a few breaks of silence. This time around, writer/director Richard Kelly is joined by pal Kevin Smith, who has directed such films as "Clerks" and "Dogma". The commentary is a better effort than the one on the original disc, to be sure: Kelly is more talkative and Smith serves as a very good interviewer. We hear about the conception of the director's cut and learn more about the changes that were made from the original release, as well as why the bits were added. Those familiar with the commentaries that Smith has done will know the kind of humor that he can bring to the table, and he does so once again here, making some very funny and sarcastic cracks during the track.

The second disc starts off with "Donnie Darko - A Production Diary". This piece runs 52 minutes and is essentially a "fly-on-the-wall" look at the making of the movie. We watch as the production goes through location scouting and then heads into filming. The piece provides a fine look at the production, as we watch the actors work the scene and the cast/crew having some fun. Cinematographer Steven Poster offers an optional audio commentary for the piece.

"They Made Me Do It Too" is a 28-minute look at the cult following that "Darko" has gained in the years after its release. There's not a great deal of information here, as we simply see the history of the picture after its release, as well as learn more about how it fared outside of the US - there's a lot about how UK fans understood the film right away, and the piece acts like "US moviegoers wouldn't get a film like this."

"1 Fan: A Darkomentary" takes a look at one fan's attempt to win cult status as the biggest "Darko" fan. The guy is weirdly hilarious in his quest, even running into one of the actors from the film and the director, who are both puzzled by the wacky fan. The piece is creepy, bizarre and kinda funny at times.

Rounding out the disc are the film's theatrical trailer and a series of script-to-storyboard segments. None of the supplements from the prior DVD appear here.

Final Thoughts: I enjoyed aspects of the "Director's Cut" of "Darko", although the additional footage slowed the pacing up a bit. Fans of the film - and there are very many - should certainly take a look at the DVD. Those who haven't seen the film should also take a look at the DVD, at least as a rental. The DVD edition offers fine audio/video quality that are similar to the first release, along with a handful of enjoyable supplements.

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