A bona fide cult classic and champion of the home video era after a disastrous post 9-11 limited theatrical run, Donnie Darko is well worth revisiting. Known for its mysterious qualities and inscrutability that’s driven plenty of passionate theories and explanations on Internet forums, it’s been a go-to mind-blower for the last decade.
It’d been a few years since I’d seen Donnie Darko — the 2004 director’s cut — and I opted for the theatrical cut for this viewing. Whereas the director’s cut amps up the mindfuck sensibility with interludes that further explain the internal logic of fictional diegetic book The Philosophy of Time Travel, the theatrical cut is a much purer cinematic experience. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz nails it on the head when he calls the theatrical version “maybe the greatest movie David Lynch never made.”
Because in truth, the alternate universe mythology and time travel plot mechanics are not what make Donnie Darko such an interesting film, even if they’re chiefly what people remember. Instead, it’s the eerie mood, the underlying sense of menace and the sideways humor that make Richard Kelly’s film a singular experience. The director’s cut additions destroy the mood, and obfuscate just how funny and odd the film is — and I’m not talking about the reality-bending scenes with a giant bunny.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Donnie, an emotionally troubled high schooler in therapy for his problems. He narrowly avoids death when he’s summoned away from his house in the middle of the night by a six-foot-tall rabbit named Frank who tells him the world is ending in less than a month. Meanwhile, a jet engine falls on Donnie’s room while he’s away.
While tentatively pursuing a relationship with new girl Gretchen (Jena Malone), Donnie continues to have visions of Frank and receives instructions from him to perpetrate a number of violent acts.
The film is populated with memorable characters, especially Patrick Swayze as a smarmy motivational speaker with a rotten secret, Beth Grant as a shrill family-values-promoting teacher, and Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle as a pair of teachers with a more enlightened approach to educating.
Kelly imbues the whole film with a dreamlike quality that constantly teeters toward nightmare territory. He has a knack for creating utterly bewitching moments out of the ordinary, like the film’s slow-motion establishing school scene, scored to Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels.”
There’s a natural tendency to want to immediately find all the explanations for the film’s events immediately after it ends, and there certainly are options, from a packed IMDb board to Kelly’s own detailed clarifications on the film’s website. Fortunately, Donnie Darko is more than just a puzzle box in the vein of much of Christopher Nolan’s work. Better to leave the ambiguities intact and ignore Kelly’s attempts to elucidate, especially in the director’s cut and its attendant commentary.
The Blu-ray Disc
Donnie Darko is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Now, before you get too excited, this is the exact same disc as the 2009 Blu-ray of the film, tarted up in a new 10th anniversary packaging. Both the theatrical and the director’s cuts are included on the disc, but are not seamlessly branched, allowing for a measly 18 MBPS bit rate. That’s possibly part of the reason for the underwhelming visual presentation, although the low-budget production of the film also likely plays a factor.
Colors are excessively muddy and poorly defined in most scenes, with fine detail getting washed out in all but a few isolated instances, mostly close-ups of faces. While image sharpness is better than the DVD, there’s still a pervasive softness that plagues the transfer. Dirt and scratches are thankfully rare, but this is a pretty modest bump in picture quality. It’s a shame Fox didn’t see fit to redo the transfers (on separate discs if necessary) for this release.
In sampling the director’s cut, it appeared image clarity was slightly better, but it mostly looked very similar.
Audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that is mostly acceptable, with good fidelity for songs, reasonably immersive use of surrounds and fairly consistent dialogue levels, although there are points where dialogue seems a little quiet in the mix.
Almost everything here has been available previously, but not all packaged together. The one new feature is a digital copy disc, which is about as inessential as it gets. The other three discs are all previously pressed and available discs, with the Blu-ray being from the first Blu-ray release, disc two being the second disc of the original director’s cut DVD set and disc three being the original DVD release of the theatrical cut.
The Blu-ray features a director’s cut commentary from Kelly and Kevin Smith and two commentaries for the theatrical cut, one with Kelly and Gyllenhaal and one with a bigger group of cast and crew.
Disc two features a production diary, a making-of featurette, a featurette on fans of the film, a storyboard-to-screen piece and the trailer for the director’s cut.
Disc three includes the original cut of the film alongside the original cast and crew commentary track, deleted scenes, faux infomercials, a look at the fictional Time Travel book, a music video, galleries, stills, trailers and cast and crew info. All the goodness you’d expect from a DVD first released in the early 2000s.
Disc four holds the digital copy alone, which is PC- and Mac-compatible.
The Bottom Line
Comprehensively collecting all available material, this is the edition to own if you haven’t picked Donnie Darko up yet, but let’s hope for a better transfer of this somewhere down the line.