Director: Richard Kelly
Screenplay: Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, James Duval, Beth Grant, Patrick Swayze
Duration: 113/134 min
BBFC Certification: 15
*Please note that the technical error mentioned towards the end of the review turns out to be a widespread problem – namely that the Theatrical Cut 4K disc of Donnie Darko exhibits frame stuttering errors on some 4K players (Panasonic, Samsung, PS5s and Xboxs seem to be the most affected, but a few Sony 4K players are able to play the disc without a problem). Arrow are aware of the issue and are looking into it but it might be an idea to proceed with caution with your purchase until a disc replacement process is confirmed.*
Who is Donnie Darko? Is he a Superhero? A Messiah? Or just an Ordinary Boy? Perhaps more pertinently, what kind of film is Donnie Darko? A Sci-Fi? A Horror? A Teen Drama? The fact that both the titular character and the film itself can be described as all the above goes someway to explain the continuing endurance of Richard Kelly’s enigmatic 2001 masterpiece; a melting pot of genres and influences, it emerges as its own startlingly original beast that, like some of the very best stories, remains resoundingly amenable to whatever interpretations its myriad fans continue to throw at it. Donnie Darko doesn’t just tell its own story. It demands its audience to create their own in order to solve the melancholy mystery that lies at its heart.
And that is certainly something that fans and newcomers alike will be able to do with Arrow’s superlative new 4K edition of Donnie Darko. Containing both the Theatrical and the Director’s Cut of the film, as well as being packed to the gills with extras, there was certainly a lot to sink my teeth into with this review. I hadn’t seen the film in several years though, so the first thing I had to do was throw myself back into the world of 1980s Middlesex, Virginia to see how things held up.
To those coming to the film for the first time, the set-up of Donnie Darko is surprisingly rather simple. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a lonely, troubled teenager who frequently finds himself sleep walking and waking up in strange places. Narrowly escaping a bizarre accident where a jet engine falls onto his house, he is told by Frank, a mysterious figure dressed up as a Rabbit, that he has only twenty eight days to save the world. From there, the film takes you on a mysterious journey that will either make you feel profoundly moved or just beautifully confused. Or if you’re lucky, maybe both at the same time.
Perhaps the first thing that strikes you about Donnie Darko is just how stunningly well made it is. From its opening steadicam shot that finds Jake Gyllenhaal asleep on a mountain road all the way through to the drifting, dream-like pans over key characters that make up the film’s closing moments, it exhibits a technical control that only becomes shocking when you realise that not only was this director Richard Kelly’s first film, but that he was only twenty five years old when he made it. Helped by cinematographer Steven Poster (who shot Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me), Kelly displays a technical mastery (just watch the Tears for Fears scored school sequence) that constantly belies his years. Even if you end up hating the film’s enigmatic story, there is no denying that it is a beautiful film to watch.
Yet Kelly’s brilliance with Donnie Darko goes beyond his technical accomplishments. What struck me when viewing the film again was just how well its disparate elements all hold together. The film sways from horror, to sci-fi, to John Hughes teen movie (sometimes in the space of only a few minutes) and is all held together with a tone of elegant melancholia . This is a feat Kelly was unable to repeat with his schizophrenic sophomore effort Southland Tales but in Donnie Darko, his command over atmosphere and contrasting genres is frequently astounding. The scene set in the movie theatre alone, where Donnie meets Frank while watching The Evil Dead, makes the spine tingle.
But of course Kelly didn’t just direct Donnie Darko, he wrote it too; and it is through the writing in which the film has arguably made its most profound impact. Beguiling yet gripping, perplexing yet moving, Donnie Darko is a story that arguably reflects its viewers own preoccupations and interests back at them in their search for interpretation. Yet the film is an even rarer example of a plot that doesn’t require full understanding in order to reap enjoyment. Similar to the work of David Lynch, it is the mystery of the journey that provides just as much fulfilment as the conclusion. That is not to suggest that the film is impenetrable. Plenty have throughly enjoyed picking apart the threads of the plot and debating its merits in regards to the theoretical science of time travel, wormholes and divergent universes. One of Donnie Darko’s greatest assets is that it is simple enough to enjoy as a purely emotional experience yet deep enough of offer dozens of viable interpretations in terms of the complexities of its story. However you experience the film though, part of its cult success is that it always offers something different each time you watch it, like a revolving prism revealing different colours.
Yet all the talk of the film’s complexities and mixture of genres generally ignore a simple fact that may provide another clue to Donnie Darko’s endurance as a cult classic. Strip away the terrifying Bunny or the complexities of dimensions and time travel and what you are left with is a story of a teenager trying to make sense of the world and his place within it. This is a world that is full of confusion and fear, typified above all by a terror about the future and what it may bring. These are dark themes for sure, but they also tap into a universal teenage experience. Which teenager doesn’t worry about how they are going to end up? Which teenager doesn’t find the world to be a dark, scary and confusing place at times? Donnie Darko owes as much to John Hughes and the complexities and joys of becoming an adult as it does to Lynch and the darkly surreal subversion of the American Dream. Ultimately it’s a film about growing up and it charts that journey just as successfully and as truthfully as its more jovial peers.
Nonetheless, Donnie Darko also chooses to mine a deeper vein of darkness that most other teenage flicks. Its adult characters, for a start, are as broken, sad and frustrated as the teenagers surrounding them. They help to keep the world of the film grounded in something akin to a melancholy dream, trapped as they are by their own inhibitions, blindness and demons. Kelly and his cast work wonders to bring this amount of depth to the world he created.
For all the brilliance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s star making turn, the adult performers make just as much impact. Patrick Swayze, despite only appearing in a handful of scenes, plays chillingly against type while Beth Grant offers another of her darkly hilarious takes on neurotic cruelty. Drew Barrymore (who was instrumental in getting the film made) shines as well, showing off a quieter, more soulful side as Donnie’s English teacher. Despite the film focusing on its titular character, Donnie Darko at times feels very much like an ensemble piece. There is not a bad performance to be found here and it is again testament to Kelly’s talent that he was able to elicit such great work from his cast under such a punishing three week schedule (a cast that includes an incredibly young looking Seth Rogan making his cinematic debut, trivia fans).
All this eulogising about Donnie Darko’s brilliance perhaps begs the question as to why a Director’s Cut of the film was ever necessary (watching the extras, you feel it was a decision Richard Kelly was forced into doing rather sooner than he would have liked). Does it improve upon the original Theatrical Cut? Thankfully, Arrow’s new 4K edition includes both versions of the film for you to make up your own mind but it’s fair to say that the general online consensus is that it doesn’t.
I found myself watching the Director’s Cut for the first time with this new 4K release and, to be absolutely fair, it is not anywhere near as bad as its detractors make out. To its benefit, it also feels like a genuine attempt to re-imagine and change the film in numerous key ways rather than just bolting on some additional scenes to boost the running time. Music cues change, additional scenes are added, extra sound effects are included, as well as several CGI flourishes that hint more clearly at what Kelly’s mysterious story is all about. That, unfortunately, turns out to be its greatest sin.
If the theatrical cut was an enigmatic dream waiting to be pulled apart and explored, the Director’s Cut is the equivalent of your psychiatrist explaining what everything means. The Philosophy of Time Travel, the mysterious book at the heart of the Theatrical Cut, is fully revealed here, with Kelly using it to explain each stage of his story step by step.
While on the one hand it is great to finally clear some things up and some fans would certainly welcome some clarity, there is no arguing with the fact that the Director’s Cut looses a significant amount of what made the original so special – that sense of mystery and otherworldliness, where you were forced to draw your own conclusions. Like a magician revealing his secrets, Kelly’s Director’s Cut looses some…well, magic. This doesn’t ruin the film at all and the Director’s Cut is certainly a viable, some would even say preferable, alternative to what was released in cinemas in 2001. Yet perhaps Donnie Darko in its theatrical form asked too much of a commitment from its initial audience. Once you used your own interpretation of the mystery in order to make sense of it all, alternative answers and theories could never hope to match something that felt so uniquely personal, even if those answers came from the writer and director himself.
Thankfully the Director’s Cut doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the original and it’s fantastic that Arrow continue to offer both in this new edition. Donnie Darko remains one of the greatest cult hits of this century and has proven to be a film so startlingly unique its director has genuinely struggled to move out of its shadow. Capturing the feeling of dread and general anxiety that hung over the world post 9/11, the film’s imagery and music (I haven’t even found the time to mention the phenomenal soundtrack!) penetrated the zeitgeist like an arrow and swiftly became iconic. Perhaps Kelly was a bit like Donnie himself, finding himself in a unique moment in time with the ability and knowledge to do something truly special. Only time will tell whether he ever goes on to make another film as good or as iconic as this one (and I truly hope he does – I would love to see his version of Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers!) or whether he simply captured lighting in a bottle.
One thing is for sure though. His next film won’t be anything like Donnie Darko. There has never been anything else quite like it and it is doubtful that there ever will be.
Donnie Darko is re-released by Arrow films on the 26th April in a new 4K UHD Limited Edition set. It is worth noting right off the bat that this new release is practically identical to the old Blu Ray limited edition apart from the new 4K presentations of the film.
So how do the new 4K versions look compared to the older Blu Ray? The first thing to note is that these new 4K versions of the film use the same 4K restoration that was previously used on the Blu Ray, so the difference was never going to be night and day. Saying that, the new 4K versions do look great (please note that the above pictures ARE NOT representative of the 4K edition). There is the obvious resolution increase across the board but perhaps the biggest benefit is the addition of HDR, which comes in both Dolby Vision and HDR 10. I watched the Dolby Vision version and the stage lights during Sparkle Motion’s dance burn off the screen while the sinister blue light that hovers around Frank and Donnie in the bathroom pops and shines like never before. Donnie Darko’s grading certainly pushes towards the more muted side of things and the 4K version looks even a tad darker than the older Blu Ray release (to my eyes at least). Is the picture quality worth the upgrade? If you are a huge fan of the film, I’d say yes. While it’s not going to make your eyes pop out of your head, with its increased resolution and careful use of HDR, this new 4K version of the film offers the most authentic home video presentation Donnie Darko has ever received and for that reason alone it should be an essential purchase for megafans with a 4K set up. (For full disclosure, due to a technical error on one of my review discs, I was only able to watch the Director’s Cut in 4K. However, since both films come from the same restoration of the OCN, then my comments can be applied to both versions of the film).
The original DTS 5.1 audio is as good as it was before, making great use of the rear channels, especially with Frank’s voice that hovers uncomfortably behind you quite a lot of the time!
In terms of the extras, this release appears to be identical to the previous Blu Ray Edition:
DISC 1 – THE THEATRICAL CUT [4K UHD BLU-RAY]
- Audio commentary by writer-director Richard Kelly and actor Jake Gyllenhaal
- Audio commentary by Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick and actors Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katharine Ross and James Duval
- Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko, a documentary by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures on the making of Donnie Darko, containing interviews with writer-director Richard Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick, cinematographer Steven Poster, editor Sam Bauer, composer Michael Edwards, costume designer April Ferry, production designer Alec Hammond and actor James Duval
- The Goodbye Place, Kelly’s 1996 short film, which anticipates some of the themes and ideas of his feature films
- 20 deleted and alternate scenes with optional commentary by Kelly
DISC 2 – THE DIRECTOR’S CUT [4K UHD BLU-RAY]
- Audio commentary by Kelly and filmmaker Kevin Smith
- The Donnie Darko Production Diary, an archival documentary charting the film’s production, with optional commentary by cinematographer Steven Poster
- Archive interviews with Kelly, actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, James Duval, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wyle and Katharine Ross, producers Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Hunt Lowry and Casey La Scala, and cinematographer Steven Poster
- Three archive featurettes: They Made Me Do It, They Made Me Do It Too and #1 Fan: A Darkomentary
- Storyboard comparisons
- B-roll footage
- Cunning Visions infomercials
- Music video: Mad World by Gary Jules
- Director’s Cut trailer
- TV spots
Commentaries: There are three commentaries included, two for the Theatrical Cut and one for the Director’s Cut. All the commentaries have been included before on older DVD releases, so fans may have already heard them. The first, with Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal, offers a great mix of background info and trivia, reveals some interesting cinematic techniques Kelly used and allows the director to more fully explain his interpretation of the story. The second commentary is a far more rambunctious affair with several cast and crew members talking and laughing over each other. Refreshingly, they all seem to be talking together in one room rather than being recored separately and then edited together afterwards. Everyone has a deep love and admiration for the film and this commentary offers loads of different perspectives and information that thankfully doesn’t rake over too much old ground. The third and last commentary is reserved for the Director’s Cut, where Richard Kelly talks over the differences between the two versions of the film with Kevin Smith, who acts partly as host and partly as interested fan, asking Kelly all manner of interesting questions about both the story and his filming and writing style. All the commentaries are essential listens for fans of the film.
Deus ex Machina: This is a feature length documentary in the old Laurent Bouzereau style. Moving episodically through the film from the writing of the screenplay all the way through to the films difficult reception at Sundance and beyond, this is a great and thoroughly informative watch. You only wish it had more input from the cast (only James Duval features).
The Goodbye Place: This is Richard Kelly’s graduation film from 1996 about a young boy who is followed around by a mysterious stranger (sound familiar?) Shot in B&W and feeling very much like a student film, it nevertheless has a good atmosphere and wears Kelly’s love for David Lynch firmly on its sleeve.
Deleted Scenes: This is a 30 minute collection of deleted and extended scenes played out in DVD quality. A significant amount of these ended up in the Director’s Cut so perhaps this only worth watching with Kelly’s optional commentary as he explains why each scene was cut from the theatrical release.
Donnie Darko Production Diary: This is a wonderful hour long collection of ‘fly on the wall’ footage captured during the film’s production. While only showing brief snippets, it covers almost every day of the shoot so it feels remarkably thorough. It’s fascinating to see how the film was shot and constructed – any budding filmmakers out there would do well to give this one a watch and certainly to listen along to cinematographer Steven Poster optional commentary.
Archive Interviews: This contains a huge amount of on set interviews with the cast shot during the film’s production. Be aware that you are not getting the full interviews here, just brief snippets.
They Made Me Do It I & II: These are two short films focusing on Donnie Darko’s U.K. fandom, featuring interviews with some superfans, film critics and artists who have all been inspired by the film. The U.K. fans come across as very arrogant in that they ‘got’ the film compared to their U.S. counterparts (it was only the film’s success in the U.K. that allowed it to find a similar success Stateside). If you can get past the self- consciously awkward student production flourishes, this is a heartfelt tribute to the film that also contains contributions from Kelly himself via a phone call.
The rest of the extras are made up of trailers, music videos (for Gary Jules’ Mad World), image galleries, storyboard comparisons, a jokey fan film, some short B-Roll footage and the full videos for Cunning Visions, the cheesy Jim Cunningham training videos (complete with an optional jokey commentary by two of his ‘followers’).
The Limited Edition set also comes with postcards, a poster and a 100 page book. I didn’t get to see any of these for this review, but I’m guessing that the book is the same that came with the previous Blu Ray Edition.
So, is this new version of Donnie Darko worth getting? If you don’t own the film at all and either have at 4K set-up, or are planning on upgrading soon, then this is an absolutely essential purchase. If you already own any of Arrow’s previous editions on Blu Ray, then it is slightly harder to recommend. The release (even down to the menus) is identical apart from the new 4K presentations. It is up to you to decide if that alone is worth the price of the upgrade. If you already own the old release perhaps knock a star off. Otherwise this is a stunningly definitive package.