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Donnie Darko: Director's Cut

In 2001, director Richard Kelly's weird and smart, yet perplexing, Donnie Darko fell victim to poor marketing that couldn't pigeonhole Kelly's genre-snapping study of teenage angst and time travel, and to the events of 9/11, after which a movie featuring a jet engine plummeting into an American home made for an iffy prospect in skittish times. Since then, a bona fide "cult" status has built up around it, thanks in large measure to the 2002 DVD release, which found a new worldwide audience who could finally see it, appreciate it, and ponder its intricacies and metaphysics until the morning light filtered into the dorm room. Donnie Darko captured, with a skill surprising for Kelly's then-26 years, the loneliness of high school, that darkest of alternate universes where everyone is a troubled antihero. It did so through a story, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, that blended horror-film and Phlip K. Dick science-fictiony elements (without ever becoming "sci fi"), John Hughes sensibilities, and some intangible style that spliced into the wires in our brains that remember what being 17 years old feels like. The film didn't wrap its story tightly, leaving us with questions that (whether by accident or design) give the film an aura of something deep and ambiguously meaningful.

Now, in revisiting Donnie Darko for a second release, Kelly has re-inserted some 20 minutes of previously deleted footage, tweaked the audio mix (its '80s music is a big part of Donnie Darko's appeal), and added new visuals. His goal was to finally deliver the film as he originally envisioned it, and to lessen the ambiguities in its twisty, moody narrative. He succeeded, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't have left well enough alone. On the plus side of the ledger, the film, now at two hours and thirteen minutes, feels like a more complete whole. All the main characters get more screen time, and none of it feels gratuitous or padded. Newly added visuals bring Grandma Death's book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, to the foreground, and they go a long way toward connecting the script's dots of tangent universes and "the manipulated living" and why that jet engine must crash through the house. However, other additions — most egregiously at the climax — are just intrusive and reduce our interpretive choices by replacing them with one choice, purely science-fictional in a George Lucas "midichlorians" sense, that's a diminishment, not an illumination.

The net result is a wash. Fans of the original aren't likely to replace their 2001 disc with this one, but both versions co-exist comfortably side by side on the DVD shelf. In his commentary track here, Kelly assures us that he in no way intends this Director's Cut to replace the original theatrical version, so we can't slam him for "pulling a Lucas." Donnie Darko: Director's Cut isn't better than the theatrical version, nor is it an hubristic assault on those who consider the original a consciousness-expanding experience. It still contains signs and symbols to probe for meaning. But it's not as elegantly unsettling as the first version. Sometimes less really is more.

*          *          *

All that said, Fox's edition of Donnie Darko: Director's Cut is everything a DVD should be. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is excellent, though the slight photographic murkiness, a product of the DP's choice of film stock, remains on the source-print. The DD 5.1 audio is first-rate, making expansive use of the 5.1 spread without being gimmicky about it.

Abundant extras begin with the commentary track by Kelly and Kevin Smith (yes, that Kevin Smith). Smith proves to be a good choice as a pal/colleague to prod Kelly into lively, relaxed dialogue about the production, Kelly's intentions with both versions, and his scene-specific annotations to the story's visual and aural clues. Kelly tells us outright that this "extended remix" aims for a straight science-fiction interpretation of the story, drawing from comic-book rules and imagery. He's refreshingly self-deprecating. (On the newly inserted, and regrettable, screen-filling eyeball that seems to be watching over Donnie's destiny, Kelly says, "While we're getting the pretension of our youth out of our system, it's time to blow it all out.") Smith is a generous interviewer, and lobs Kelly questions from the film's fans. While Smith praises Kelly for "swinging for the fucking fences," Kelly just sounds glad to "finally put this sucker to bed permanently."

A well-made making-of chronicle, Donnie Darko Production Diary (52 minutes), serves up behind-the-scenes footage, and it comes with optional commentary by Director of Photography Steven Poster. They Made Me Do It Too: The Cult of Donnie Darko (28 mins.) is a British production introducing us to London fans, film critics, cultural observers, and even graffiti artists who present their personal interps of what the film is "about," its influence, and its "life-changing" impact. Delicately sensitive American viewers are forewarned about moments of smugness from the hipper-than-us U.K. fans.

Storyboard to Screen peels back the layers from an eight-minute sequence. #1 Fan: A Darkumentary (13 mins.) offers a funny spoof of the obsessive fan/stalker. It's shot with such a straight face that pathetic fanboygeek Darryl Donaldson's identification with Donnie ("we're both on medication") and encounter with Kelly at the San Diego Comic Con would be damn near frightening if it wasn't obviously a put-on.

Finally, of course, we get the theatrical trailer for this version's limited big-screen run. Keep-case in paperboard sleeve.

—Mark Bourne

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