Donnie Darko Movie Review: Still Well Worth Watching

In 2001, writer-director Richard Kelly created Donnie Darko, a film that is (among many other things) a nostalgic trip back to 1988. Now 15 years later, the film is itself viewed through its own sort of nostalgic lens. Released just over a month after 9/11, its specific brand of dark weirdness didn’t sit well with viewers at first. It bombed at the box office to put it mildly. It did well with critics and grew a cult following on VHS and DVD. It is now considered one of the better movies released that year.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled boy. He’s not getting along at school, he sleepwalks, and he’s started having strange visions including a six-foot-tall bunny who tells him the world is going to end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 6 seconds. One morning he awakes to find that he has rode his bike several miles away from his home and crashed on the side of the highway. When he makes it back, he discovers that a plane engine has crashed into his bedroom, landing right on top of his bed. Had he not sleepwalked he would have been dead.

The bunny begins telling him to do destructive things like flood his school.

He meets a new girl at school, Gretchen (Jena Malone), and immediately falls for her. One of the few decent teachers at school, Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore, who also produced the film) gets into trouble because she made the students read a book that the more conservative teachers and administration believe is not appropriate for the school. A motivational speaker, Jim Cunningham (a marvelously swarmy Patrick Swayze), is called into the school to teach the students about attitude and healthy living.

Donnie begins seeing strange, translucent forms flowing out of and moving ahead of people’s bodies. His science teacher (Noah Wyle) gives him some books on time travel and Donnie begins to believe he may have special powers.

Richard Kelly’s debut film is so utterly weird and self assured that it’s both an incredible achievement and completely indescribable. It’s a film that was born for the internet age and its endless theories on message boards about what it all means. What does it all mean? God and Richard Kelly only know and neither of them are talking.

Is Donnie Darko completely crazy? Does he possess strange new powers? Did anything we see in the movie actually happen. The film doesn’t provide any answers, but it sure is fun watching it present the questions.

It’s an enigma of a film. A mystery wrapped in a riddle. But it feels like it has the answers. The writing, directing, and casting are so good it seems like the answers are all there waiting to be solved if only you had just paid a little more attention. Gyllenhaal is especially good. He was not yet a movie star when this came out but you can see all the making of one. He’s got a hunger, a screen presence that doesn’t let you look away. His Donnie is troubled, but assured. Intense, but aloof.

Kelly’s direction is so capable that it leaves me with a sense of disappointment that he’s never managed to make another good film (he’s only directed two others – Southland Tales which was just terrible, and The Box which received lousy reviews). Sometimes, I guess, when your dealing in the weird, it’s hard to strike twice.

In 2004, a new Director’s Cut was released to theaters adding about 20 minutes to the film. Previous scenes that had to be edited out of the original theatrical cut were added back in adding in some extra character detail between Donnie and his family, amongst other things. Richard Kelly also added in some inserts from the in-film time travel book that reduced some of the film’s ambiguity over whether Donnie Darko is just hallucinating everything. It does give some answers (though certainly not all of them), but the original film’s uncertainty was part of its charm.

The film has received a new 4K restoration with a limited run in theaters and will be getting an incredible 4-disk Blu-ray release from Arrow Video. The film was shot on anamorphic widescreen using a special high-speed film stock which gave the movie an interesting look and feel. This new transfer looks terrific. Grain is ever present (especially in the beautiful vista shots over the mountains) but never too distracting. Colors look great (they are intentionally subdued) and the detail is wonderful. Richard Kelly took the opportunity to remix the film with his director’s cut. He added in and rearranged some of the songs and played around with some of the soundscapes. While the audio is different both of them sound quite good.

Donnie Darko is an intentionally strange film. It puts forth a mystery that may be supernatural or psychosis and has a lot of fun playing with the audience over which is correct. I loved it when I first saw it over a decade ago. This viewing was less interesting. Perhaps its weirdness has been tamed over the year. Or perhaps I’ve just seen so many other strange films since that nothing is all that shocking anymore. It’s still well worth watching.

Both the theatrical cut and the director’s cut of Donnie Darko will be screening and locations will vary. It is currently playing in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily, in New York at Metrograph, and for weeklong runs in Denver, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Phoenix and San Francisco, and in El Paso and Detroit on April 7. Special screenings also include Jacksonville, Austin, Dallas, Honolulu, Lubbock, Baton Rouge, Sioux Falls, Oklahoma City, Tucson, Durham, and Stamford.

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Mat Brewster

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