Did you stop and think that maybe infants need darkness? That maybe darkness is part of their natural development.

We’ve had a number of requests to review Donnie Darko, the first hit cult film of the twenty-first century. I’m reviewing the Director’s Cut, which can be purchased here and here.

Title: Donnie Darko

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Director/writer: Richard Kelly

Cast:

Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie Darko
Holmes Osborne as Eddie Darko
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Maggie Darko
Daveigh Chase as Samanatha Darko
Mary McDonnell as Rosalyn… I mean, Rose Darko
James Duvall as Frank
Katherine Ross as Dr. Thurman
Patrick Swayze as Jim Cunningham
Beth Grant as Kitty Farmer
Jena Malone as Gretchen Ross
Drew Berrymore as Karen Pomeroy
Noah Wyle as Prof. Monnitoff
Patience Cleveland as Roberta Sparrow/Grandma Death
Other Actors as Various Characters

Premise:

After a mysterious jet engine hits his family home, a schizophrenic teenager believes that he must prevent the imminent destruction of the world.

High Point:

Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!

1. The scene where Donnie tells off slick pop motivational guru Cunningham, and gives some arguably better advice to several students, should resonate with anyone who has even a fraction of the contempt that Kelly obviously has for the type. This scene receives a better build-up in the director’s cut.

2.The creepy, Twilight Zone cinematography, first very evident on the night the engine strikes the house. The shot of the chandelier, and the various encounters between Donnie and Frank create a memorable darkness.

3. The film boasts many Easter Eggs, including a wry tribute to E.T..

Low Points:

1. While the added material generally helps define characters and their relationships, less should have been added to the final third of the movie. These scenes adversely affect the pacing. Given the film’s following, I suspect we will eventually see a version which will give us choices regarding which scenes to include.

2. The overlayed passages from the book, added to the Director’s Cut, toy with the line that separates “darkly quirky” from “freakin’ pretentious.”

The Scores:

Originality: 6/6 Sure, we’ve seen films about schizophrenic kids, dark takes on high school, people who believe they have to save the world, and even imaginary talking bunnies before, but this somehow manages to be a wholly different dark high school film about a schizophrenic kid with an imaginary bunny friend who believes he’s out to save the world.

Effects: 5/6.

Story: 5/6. Good, but necessarily confusing. In the case of the Director’s Cut, the pacing suffers somewhat towards the end. Other added and expanded scenes, however, flesh out the secondary characters and Donnie’s relationship to them.

Acting: 5/6: Overall, very well cast. Gyllenhaal does remarkably well in the difficult role of Donnie, at turns endearing and creepy. However, despite his relatively young age at the time (21), I never entirely believed he was a teenager. The supporting cast give us a number of memorable moments, and the Director’s Cut allows us to see more of these.

Production: 6/6

Emotional Response: 5/6.

Overall: 5/6.

In total, Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut receives 37/42.

Additional Comments

The film has gained a cult following and multiple interpretations. If you have not seen it and intend to, please do not read the following comments until you have.

What on earth happens in this film? The Director’s Cut remains ambiguous, but it points the viewer more clearly in the direction of the “time travel” interpretation. Here are a few possible ways of interpreting the final scenes:

1. Time travel really exists, and something really is sending messages to Donnie. The jet engine fell from the future into a flaw in time creating an alternate timeline/”tangent universe,” and Donnie’s mission either prevents (1) the actual end of the world or (2) the end of his world– that is, the death of his beloved Gretchen and other disasters. The heightened focus on the Time Travel book in the Director’s Cut suggests that this is so, and even the odd cause of Donnie’s death suggests that something really strange transpires. The Donnie Darko website also tilts in that direction, although the director has stated that he intended the film to be open to interpretation.

2. Donnie is a schizophrenic who, in the final moments of his life, concocts a story/dream that gives his existence meaning. The fantasy includes some obvious wish-fulfilment: he wins the love of an attractive girl, his parents treat him better, he exposes the shallow self-help guru that his health teacher keeps cramming down his throat, his older sister gets accepted at Harvard, and his younger sister goes on Star Search. Other elements he constructs from bits and pieces of his life. In his mind, at least, he does not die stupidly as the result of capricious fate, but sacrifices himself to save Gretchen and prevent the end of the world.

3. Only the very beginning of the film, and the moment where Donnie is lying in the bed, is real. The rest of the film consists of the stories he spins about the world around him. With reference to these last two interpretations, it’s worth noting that the Director’s Cut includes an extended classroom scene in which Donnie, Gretchen, and their teacher discuss the power of storytelling.

4.

Right. Special Features.

The special features include commentary by Richard Kelly and Kevin Smith, a production diary, a “Storyboard-to-Screen” featurette, a theatrical trailer and two longer features.

“They Made Me Do It: The Cult Donnie Darko” profiles British fans and their responses to the film. The film had a more successful first run in the UK than in North America.

“#1 Fan: A Darkomentary” is an original, contest-winning short film by obsessive fan Darryl Donaldson, who I hope intended the piece to be at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek. This, however, remains uncertain, and Donaldson manages to make the people in Trekkies seem well-adjusted.