[box cover]

Donnie Darko

20th Century Fox Home Video

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Written and directed by Richard Kelly

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Review by Mark Bourne                   

"Maybe it's the story of Holden Caulfield, resurrected in 1988 by the spirit of Philip K. Dick, who was always spinning yarns about schizophrenia and drug abuse breaking the barriers of space and time. Or it's a black comedy foreshadowing the impact of the 1988 presidential election, which is really the best way to explain it. But first and foremost, I wanted the film to be a piece of social satire that needs to be experienced and digested several times."

— Writer-director Richard Kelly

If ours was a universe that operated on rational, reliable rules of moral fairness, of good work always rewarded and poor work always dismissed, Variety magazine's cinema box office tallies would look very different from what they actually are. Hell, each year's Academy Award nominations would be barely recognizable. If we lived in such a universe, the indie film Donnie Darko — a touching and audacious and blackly comic salad bowl of science fiction, teen romance, and (admittedly limp) '80s-satire — would stand among the box office hits of 2001-2002, and Newmarket Films would have newfound millions to spend on pre-Oscar buzz. Now, I won't go so far as to suggest that Donnie Darko is "Oscar material," whatever that is this year. But somehow a greater, perhaps too-subtle good might be served if this little curio had found a place among the, oh, Best Offbeat Picture or Best Youthfully Precocious First-Time Director category contenders.

But we don't live in that universe, as testified by Donnie Darko's status as a near-unknown, box-office invisible "sleeper" (and, let's face it, as testified also by yet another year's Oscar nominations). The good news is that if we did live in such a topsy-turvy spacetime continuum, writer-director Richard Kelly wouldn't have made Donnie Darko in the first place, because there would have been no need. Donnie Darko is a product of, and a reaction to, a universe that doesn't always play fair, where the virtuous innocent are as vulnerable to nonjudgmental Fate as anyone else, and where genuine human quality rarely trumps popular banalities.

In other words, Donnie Darko is one of the best fantasy films of the past decade. It's up there with Memento as an ambitious and intriguing non-studio movie that came out of nowhere. Kelly, a 1997 graduate of USC's film school, was only 26 when he wrote and directed Donnie Darko. Although flawed, it's one of the more interesting debuts from a first-time filmmaker in a decade that also sports M. Night Shyamalan, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Alice in Magnolialand

I said Donnie Darko is a fantasy film. That's fair enough for a movie with time-travel and modern superhero comic book sensibilities and a sullen teenager who receives apocalyptic warnings from a nightmarish, six-foot, metal-faced bunny rabbit from the future. (And if Drew Barrymore's presence as a strong actress in a grownup role is your idea of a fantastical element, here you go.) But simply classifying it as Fantasy doesn't work, at least not in a genre that's so conservative and so associated with, say, Lord of the Rings or with benign but factory-processed cupcakes like Harry Potter. Indeed, a theme Bible-thumped in Donnie Darko is that life is too complex to be reduced to simplistic labels.

When confronted with a movie that doesn't pigeonhole easily beneath a handy Blockbuster aisle sign, you can't help but hold it against the light of other movies it brings to mind. For a teen-angst black comic romance where Reagan-era suburban superficiality is skewered on the same spit as New Age feel-good simple-mindedness, imagine the product of a late-night bull session between John Hughes and David Lynch after they've just screened Rushmore, Magnolia, and Harvey while polishing off a bottle of Bombay Sapphire. For a metaphysical poke into the nature of time, God, and responsibility to one's thread in the cosmic tapestry, consider Donnie Darko the lesser cousin of Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys and Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. Think way back to when Tim Burton was a good director, and consider this the best science fiction movie he never made. And while we're at it, let's nod to Richard Kelly for making the movie that American Beauty wanted to be, without the self-congratulatory obviousness and shallow histrionics of that Best Picture Oscar-winner.

Kelly isn't coy about displaying his film school wonk fan-geek credentials and pointing to his inspiration from scene to scene. You see him tipping his hat to the nostalgic high school dramas of Hughes, and to the freakish-among-the-banal chords of Lynch. (Like Mulholland Drive, this movie may inspire your speculations and explanations, all valid and all contradictory, for days.) Donnie Darko is a Thank You card to 12 Monkeys's Escher-like meditations on predestination, time, and memory. When broody, emotionally troubled high-schooler Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal, October Sky) tilts his head down and looks up into the camera, there's Norman Bates in the final shot from Psycho. A child of the '80s, Kelly offers clear nods to Back to the Future and even E.T., and scores the movie with '80s atmospherics such as "Head Over Heels" by Tears for Fears, "The Killing Moon" by Echo & The Bunnymen, and, hauntingly, Tears for Fears' "Mad World" covered by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules.

Yet somehow Kelly still managed to create something that's original, wholly his own, and a pleasure to experience. Befitting a production made outside the modern Hollywood machine, Kelly took his characters and his audience seriously without (and this makes all the difference) making the whole thing painfully, "artfully" serious.

"Once upon a emit"

It's October 2nd, 1988 in Middlesex, Virginia, a model of affluent, green-lawned suburbia. The days of Ronald Reagan are winding down with Michael Dukakis and George Bush pere debating on television during the Darko family dinner. Reflexively conservative, Mom and Dad (Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne) prickle at their elder daughter's (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake's real-life sister) bold announcement that she's voting for Dukakis. Late in the night, 16-year-old Donnie, intelligent and awkward and a chronic sleepwalker on medication for "emotional problems," is summoned out of his bed and onto a golf course, where a demonic being in a bug-like, metallic rabbit mask tells him that the end of the world is only 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 16 seconds away.

Then comes the accident (or is it?) — a jet engine drops from the sky and crashes through the roof of Donnie's bedroom. If Donnie hadn't fallen back asleep on that golf course, he'd be dead. Never mind that the FAA says no aircraft reported losing an engine in the night. What's important is that the rabbit — named Frank — saved Donnie's life. Therefore, either Donnie must explore the cosmic significance of the event and the prophecies of an onrushing Doomsday, or he's utterly delusional. Either way, Frank cannot be ignored as he returns again and again to utter cryptic commands that only Donnie experiences.

Of course, neither Donnie's parents nor his psychiatrist (Katharine Ross) believe that Frank is anything other than a hallucination, so he's now even more alienated while possibly carrying the weight of the world on his head. As he follows Frank's increasingly destructive orders (Donnie has a history of anti-social behavior that includes arson) and takes an interest in the possibilities of time travel, it's clear that seemingly disparate events in the present and the past are connecting to some approaching cataclysm, and somehow Donnie is a key component in the cosmic machinery. Perhaps he's being manipulated, or perhaps he can do the manipulating. If he discovers what it means to be in love while exploring the secrets of wormholes, time portals, and the power to alter time and manipulate destiny, then that's all in a day's work for the modern messiah figure. "Donnie Darko?" says Gretchen (Jena Malone), the girl who touches the heart beneath Donnie's troubled, brainy exterior. "What the hell kind of name is that? It's like a superhero or something." He replies, "What makes you think I'm not?"

Other components are an integral part of the mix. At the Catholic school Donnie attends (religion is never explicit here but it's sure quivering beneath the surface), a picked-on fat girl (Jolene Purdy) dares to express herself artfully in a Star Search talent contest, but a glitzy preteen cheese-pop dance group takes the applause and the prize. A New Age self-help guru with a nasty secret (Patrick Swayze) holds the school's faculty in the thrall of facile pop-psych clichés. Two teachers immune to easy answers are Donnie's sympathetic English teacher (Drew Barrymore, terrific in the type of role she desperately needs to play more often) and his science teacher (Noah Wyle), who offers Donnie the clue to unlocking what's going on — a book about time travel written years before by Donnie's neighbor, a possibly deranged 101-year-old recluse nicknamed Grandma Death.

There's also a deconstruction of the sex life of Smurfs. Frank opens a "portal" through a movie screen during a double-feature of Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ (yeah, young Mr. Kelly isn't always what you'd call subtle). As Donnie becomes more detached from reality, he sees blobby, possibly living, "spears" or "channels" ballooning out of people's chests, even his own, presaging their future actions. Repeated shots of Donnie or his younger sister jumping on a rubber-sheet trampoline play off the Physics 101 model of Einsteinian gravitation and wormholes. The true nature of Frank is a fine, albeit inconclusive, surprise.

At its ample heart, Donnie Darko is a simple, oft-told story — a defiant, bright teenage boy trying to make his place in an unsympathetic world run by rules he struggles to comprehend, and on his journey he finds strength through the tragic love of the only girl who understands him. Under Kelly's hand, these centuries-old elements have been super-sized. What Donnie chooses to do (or not) may be of literally history-making importance, and when his moment of clarity arrives he sees that a single action, preordained by a confluence of people and events that snap together like Zeus's personal Lego blocks, involves giving a rebellious "fuck you" to the rules of Time and Fate. Every teen thinks about suicide at one time or another. Kelly flips that adolescent indulgence into an act of a savior, one that by its very nature can never be known to anyone on Earth.

By intention or accident, Kelly plucks a string that resonates well — whether or not a teenager's, any teenager's, actions bear world-bending significance, that teenager almost certainly feels that they do. While searching for God's or Frank's "master plan," Donnie may be supernaturally gifted with the ability to put a crimp in time's arrow, or he may be completely psychotic. Because Kelly and actor Gyllenhaal make Donnie a convincing teen, it's hard to know for sure either way. (Gyllenhaal delivers lovely, nuanced work that makes up for any bad stuff people said about him after Bubble Boy.)

Holes in the continuum

From time to time Kelly reveals his youth by being too obvious (the entire Patrick Swayze subplot is way too easy a target) and by spooning up some heavy-handed symbolism. The potentially '80s-dissecting "social satire" is so far in the background that it's virtually superfluous. What's more telling is that Kelly was 13 in 1988, making Donnie Darko more a personal diary entry than another youthfully dogmatic indictment of middle-class Amurrica.

Worse, because some seemingly important things go unexplained, Donnie Darko risks frustrating even its savvy Gen X audience. Claiming that they explain everything that needs to be explained, Kelly posted his own chapters from The Philosophy of Time Travel, a fictitious book central to the movie, to the impenetrable — I mean, challengingwww.donniedarko.com, and the book also makes an appearance as an extra on this DVD. As fan-geek fun as that is, it strikes against a prime dictum of a filmmaker's craft — if it ain't on the screen it doesn't exist. No fair hiding important stuff somewhere else.

Whether or not all of Donnie Darko's dots completely connect or whether its fuzzy-logic climax works as strongly as it should are questions with wobbly answers. Like Fight Club, Donnie Darko benefits from a second viewing, so Kelly has either engineered fodder for stimulating and lively interpretation or else befuddles by being a bit too enthusiastic about his own ingenuity. His DVD commentary track with Jake Gyllenhaal fills in some gaps and illuminates some of his intentions, but still doesn't fully satisfy anyone hoping to be told What It's All About. Kelly's interpretation may not, in fact, be as good as yours, and that's okay.

(Addendum, Feb. 15, 2005: In the subsequent DVD edition, Donnie Darko: Director's Cut, Kelly tweaks and clarifies key points in the film's narrative and provides a new commentary track that further details the screenplay's mechanics and annotates the film's visual and aural clues.)

Donnie Darko's flaws, though, are those of a young, talented filmmaker reaching beyond his current grasp. That's a more forgivable sin than soulless excess or hubris-fueled incompetence. The movie's stumbles are outnumbered by its successes. Kelly's script would probably have been helped by one more draft, or perhaps it went through one draft too many. But his directorial hand is confident, mature, and self-assured. Better still, he told his tale and directed his actors with laudable restraint. As revealed on this disc's "Deleted Scenes" supplement, Kelly was reluctant to club the audience with his film's spiritual themes. Likewise, it's to his credit that Donnie's family, while not molded from anything new, aren't written or played as cartoonish caricatures. (In a movie full of fine performances, Mary McConnell deserves a special nod for underplaying Mrs. Darko to make the potentially stereotyped role believable and potent.) This Typical American Family has problems, sure, but no more than most, and the parents genuinely love each other and their "wacko" son. So Kelly avoids the trap of overbaked mawkishness (e.g., American Beauty).

A story of an increasingly chilly and superficial society barreling toward apocalypse could so easily drip with toothless nihilism or fashionably hip condescension. As a goth-clad fright film or a sci-fi fable about a teen hero who upturns the world, Donnie Darko would have been a surer sell if it played down to conventional expectations. Instead, it's more touching than cynical, and its dark raiments don't conceal a heart that acknowledges beauty's existence in the world and speaks optimistically of each individual's potential to impact the future.

Technically, the movie makes startlingly effective use of its $4.5 million budget and 28-day shooting schedule. The special effects, particularly key visuals reminiscent of the "water snake" in The Abyss, are as good as they come and, like other elements, are more mindfully employed than in godawful mother-gooseries such as Phantom Menace or Planet of the Apes or A.I..

Displaying more emotional substance and directorial skill than any number of "bigger" films out there, Donnie Darko is an auspicious debut of a director to watch. Joining the ranks of Shyamalan, Aronofsky, Fincher, and Anderson, Kelly's contribution to the current indie wave may enlarge a movement that could be every bit as influential and freeing as the New Hollywood surge of the 1970s.

We can only imagine how many USC film school applications will be inspired by this DVD.

X man

Richard Kelly wrote the script soon after his USC graduation. It passed from hand to hand at Creative Artists Agency, and when the enthusiastic agents asked if he wanted to sign, Kelly agreed on the spot. Nonetheless, some doubters considered the script an unfilmable writing exercise, demanded changes ("set it in the present day," "make it more like a normal horror movie," etc.), and fought Kelly's taking the director's chair. Kelly stood his ground, defended his creative decisions, and against the odds kept his hold on the reins of his own work.

When Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman accepted the title role, financing materialized. When a scheduling conflict forced Schwartzman to leave the project, Jake Gyllenhaal — who may be a long-lost brother of Tobey Maguire — stepped in. Drew Barrymore, bless her, enthusiastically signed on as executive producer via her Flower Films group. (On the DVD's first commentary track, Kelly praises her as "the godmother of the project.") Cameras rolled.

When Donnie Darko premiered at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, it arrived with a thunderous buzz of advance hype. After its screening, the perplexed viewers made it one of the most talked-about entries. To say that reviews were mixed understates it. Some reviewers praised it. The Village Voice's Amy Taubin called it her favorite of the festival. Others turned up their noses or expressed profound puzzlement. The hype had diminished, but the movie still received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. It found a buyer in Newmarket, who had taken in 2001's biggest indie hit, Memento. The events of September 11 delayed its theatrical release, and when it finally appeared it fell victim to that mixed Sundance reception and to a marketing department that didn't know how to sell such an oddity. Naturally, it failed to build the audience it deserves and now is all but a direct-to-video release.

This DVD

Donnie Darko may have been shortchanged in the theaters, but it got a pretty fine DVD from 20th Century Fox. The abundant supplements are low on needless fluff (not completely free of it, but low), featuring enough good material in two commentary tracks and a meatier-than-average Deleted Scenes segment that begs for a slightly extended "Director's Cut" release in the future.

The image

Let's get the trouble spot out of the way first. Donnie Darko looks quite fine, but it's not as "pristine" as you might expect a new disc of a recent movie to be. Indeed, there are times when the print looks too much like a multi-generation copy. It turns out that the fault lies not with the DVD or the transfer, but with the way the movie was shot at the outset.

Generally this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks very good, no problems. Generally. However, now and then the colors appear flat or a little faded and the darker scenes can have a low-contrast, washed-out look. It's not crisp, and at times alarmingly grainy. The look is so pervasive that you'd be forgiven for assuming that you're seeing somebody's deliberate but misguided choice of "style." And you'd be close to right. Although an experienced cinematographer, Ridley Scott-veteran Steven Poster chose a "look" achieved by shooting the entire movie with a new type of film stock typically reserved for low-light scenes. While it's an experiment worth trying in a film that depends so much on visually set mood, it yielded an image that falls short on color saturation and richness of contrast. That and the amount of grain, plus a small but noticeable sprinkling of dirt and scratches, will cause Donnie Darko's more digitally hawkeyed fans to twitch. The transfer itself reveals a not uncommon amount of artifacting and edge enhancement here and there, with no showstoppers evident.

The audio

On the other hand, holy cow, this audio is superb. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is as clear and natural and strong as you could ask for. Its directional soundstage is wide and deep, with dynamic range all the way down to round, proud LFE low tones. The surround channels are used often and effectively but never gratuitously. The masterful musical score by Michael Andrews, supported by mindful use of '80s familiars such as Echo & The Bunnymen and Tears For Fears, is blessed with a strong presence lovingly delivered. (Options include a Dolby 2.0 Surround mix for both English and French language tracks.)

The supplements

Two scene-specific audio commentary tracks: The first is with Kelly and Gyllenhaal. It's lively and fun, and it's obvious that both participants had a good time recording the session. There's no dead air, plus enough worthwhile information about Kelly's understanding of what he was striving for, the production choices, the story and characters, and any "meaning" to be found that listeners hoping for a track of (increasingly rare, it seems) substance won't be disappointed. (And Gyllenhaal goes on record as being a fine impersonator of Christopher Walken.)

The second track is a less informative but certainly more free-for-all reunion with Kelly, producers Sean McKittrick and Nancy Juvonen, and actors Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Katherine Ross, Jena Malone, Holmes Osborne, Beth Grant, and James Duval. Everyone gets ample opportunity to recall the making of the production from scene to scene, tell tales out of school, and have a fun time in each other's camaraderie. Barrymore is the grownup in the playground here, and through her we learn just how much the project's fresh material and spiritual touchstones attracted her enough to devote her time, passion, and support. Although her Flower Films took a bath on Donnie Darko, she sure conveys a sense that it was all worth it.

Deleted & Extended Scenes: Kelly cut away quite a bit of material to bring his film under two hours, so here are twenty excised clips with textual descriptions and Kelly's optional commentary. Some are merely very short trims, but the more substantial clips — clarifying characterization or plot points — crippled the body of the film when they were removed, so much so that they support a call for a slightly expanded future edition with a few enhancing tweaks added here and there.

"Mad World" Music Video (3m:21s): A fine music video built on Donnie Darko's most inspired musical choice. Supporting clips from the movie, Gary Jules covers the Tears For Fears song under Richard Kelly's direction. It's in DD 2.0 and 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen.

The Website Gallery: 40 click-through pages of photos, faux Middlesex newspaper clippings, and other images showing off the official www.donniedarko.com site, which is something of a neo-hip production all by itself. As mentioned earlier, this sort of thing shouldn't be necessary to fill in the blanks a movie leaves open, plus it smacks too much of Blair Witch puffery, but this is nonetheless a welcome addition if you ignore those needless shots of the site's eye-roll-inducing navigation pages.

The Philosophy of Time Travel: A few click-through pages from "Grandma Death's" plot-crucial book. It's difficult to read — you'd better have a zoom function at your fingertips — but the effort rewards with a wonkish peek into the movie's homemade metaphysics.

An Art Gallery offers four dozen production stills and more than two dozen pre-production graphics. The development of freaky Frank is a highlight.

The Soundtrack: On his commentary track, Kelly says that licensing costs prevented the release of a Donnie Darko soundtrack CD (it would probably cost as much as the entire film). So there isn't one. But if there were, the liner notes would read a lot like this pair of click-through pages on Michael Andrews's haunting score, with focus on the cover of "Mad World."

"Cunning Visions" Infomercials: 5 minutes 41 seconds of fluff. When motivational speaker Jim Cunningham (Swayze) comes to the school at the request of the gym teacher and other faculty members, he comes sporting cheesy "inspirational" videos produced to sell his facile self-help seminars built on bumper-sticker philosophies. Here they are. There's plenty of redundancy here, but one of the four options comes with "commentary by Cunning Visions CEO Linda Connie and director Fabian van Patten," a spoof of self-help personalities and commentary tracks in general. It's funny, but although short it wears out its welcome and ultimately it's all just a pointless throw-away gag.

Cast and Crew Information: C.V's for a generous assortment of eleven actors and nine crew members.

Theatrical Trailer / TV Spots: Just what it says. One trailer, five spots. They come in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen and DD 2.0.

—Mark Bourne

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