Saturday, September 11, 2004

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

As glad as I am to have seen Richard Kelly's new/old cut of Donnie Darko, I don't see myself retiring my current DVD anytime soon. Though the director's cut fills in some of the gaps, it does so at a cost.

A little Internet archeology allows me to locate what I wrote about the original cut on 28 January 2002, when I caught one of the eight screenings it had in Cambridge before running midnights at the Coolidge for something like a year:

Ironically, when Donnie Darko screened at Sundance last year, it was pegged as "not indie enough", with its digital effects and high-profile actors like Drew Barrymore, Noah Wylie, Patrick Swayze, etc. I guess that's how it fell through the cracks - too expensive for the likes of Lion's Gate, too offbeat for the majors - and wound up with Newmarket, the company created to distribute Memento, though they haven't done as well getting Darko into theaters.

Which is too bad, because it's worth seeing. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a great performance as the title character, and writer/director Richard Kelly bears watching after this debut.

The first thing you'll notice is that this movie is funny. Explosively funny. A dinner-table argument that starts between Donnie's older sister Elizabeth (Jake's real-life sister Maggie) and their parents over the upcoming 1988 election somehow shifts to Elizabeth and Donnie, quickly getting personal and profane. The director has this fall into a good rhythm, and always keeps 10-year-old sister Samantha just in frame, and allows just the right amount of time to pass before having her innocently ask "what's a f***mouth?" That kind of comic timing, use of reaction shots and gleeful vulgarity runs throughout the movie - check the look on Darko Sr.'s face after finding out what Donnie said to his gym teacher and under what circumstances, or how Donnie corrects his friends' mistaken beliefs vis-a-vis Smurf orgies. That doesn't even include the bizarre Halloween double feature at the local theater, or the mileage gotten from the phrase "kiddie porn dungeon".

What gives the humor its edge, though, is how worrisome some of it is coming from Donnie; the boy is not well in the head. He's seeing a therapist and on medication, but despite that still sleepwalks and has begun to hallucinate a demonic six-foot bunny named Frank. When Donnie lashes out, no matter how deserving the target or how funny the result, there's the unnerving sense that someone could get hurt.

It's the science-fictional elements that really elevate this film into the realm of the strange and may ultimately prove to be its undoing. Donnie escapes death in the beginning because his sleepwalking (at Frank's behest) results in his being out of his room when a jet engine falls through the roof. Over the course of the rest of the film, Donnie becomes obsessed with time travel, and while this provides one of the film's most intriguing visuals (Abyss-style FX are used to show people as four-dimensional events in spacetime), it ultimately undermines the story, shifting attention away from Donnie's mental problems to a more gimmicky paradox story. Or not. Like Happy Accidents, the director doesn't tip his hand to what's real and what's delusional; unforunately, Happy Accidents has a much stronger finish; I don't think Darko ever really suggests a satisfying way for its puzzle pieces to fit together.

The unfortunate thing about the director's cut is that it tends to emphasize the science-fictional elements even more. While it's nice that writer/director Richard Kelly has worked out a whole mythology for how the time-travel elements in this movie work, that mythology seems very arbitrary, too obviously created specifically to describe this movie. I'm also not sure what to make of Donnie's "visions", which are mostly new and are somewhat meta-amusing for how they look like genuine 1980s sequences.

The tone of the movie has also shifted; I don't recall quite so much ominious underscore in the original cut - at some point, I'm going to have to break out the DVD and see whether I'm remembering some things correctly. I don't recall the student assembly scene being quite so sinister as it is here, for example. The increased emphasis on the time travel makes Donnie a less compelling character. Where before, Donnie Darko was something of a wild card - he may be just crazy, or he may be part of some paradox, and at times we as the audience just didn't know what was going on in his head, making him unpredictable - here he seems to more obviously be fate's tool, and less active a participant.

The changes aren't all bad - we do get a few more scenes with the Darko parents (I had forgotten how much I loved Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell in this movie), and Drew Barrymore's character is fleshed out a little more. Underneath the sci-fi stuff, which is shoveled on even more in this edition, the bits about Donnie and his family and friends are still gold.

I'm glad to see this cut available, and to have seen it once. It doesn't replace the original theatrical cut for me, but the extra information is now in my brain to be called upon whenever I watch the old version.

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