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Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut
2004 - R - 133 Mins.
Director: Richard Kelly
Producer: Drew Barrymore, Adam Fields
Written By: Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Noah Wylie, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Katherine Ross
Review by: Harrison Cheung
Official Site:
The toast of the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, ‘Donnie Darko’ was theatrically released in the U.S. in October 2001, ostensibly to take advantage of Halloween. Indie distributor, Newmarket Films, originally saw ‘Donnie Darko’ as a sophisticated teen horror flick but its complex themes of time travel, God and morality defied conventional marketing and the film bombed at the theaters. But a strange thing happened to ‘Donnie Darko’. It launched the career of its charismatic star, Jake Gyllenhaal, and it became a cult hit on video thanks to strong word-of-mouth, midnight screenings at repertoire theaters, and Gyllenhaal’s sizable Internet following. With its post-9/11 release, the film became therapy with its intelligent analysis of fate and misfortune. By 2004, the film had grossed over $14 million in video sales and rentals – enough for Newmarket and writer/director Richard Kelly to release a new and expanded version of the film 3 years later - not on DVD but boldy back in the theaters.

Boasting 24 extra minutes, enhanced special effects and sound design as well as re-editing, ‘Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut” is still very much a Gen Y homage to Kubrick, Lynch and Raimi. But now, with key new scenes of Roberta Sparrow (aka Grandma Death) and “chapter headings” to correspond to the fictional textbook in the movie (The Philosophy of Time Travel), 'Donnie Darko' is organized in such a way that new and old audiences can get a better idea as to what’s happening in this rich tale of a young man and his personal search for God. I liked the original cut better as it left more open to interpretation. The pacing of the Director's Cut is slower. And some of the chapter headings felt like “Time Travel for Dummies” but it does give the film a lot more structure and definition.

The philosopher’s maxim that a watch is proof of a watchmaker takes shape in ‘Donnie Darko’ – but here, it’s time travel. If time travel exists, then time must follow a path, and a time traveler would be traveling in God’s channel. Therefore God exists. Heady stuff but this is what Donnie tries to discover as he is guided through time by a grotesque six-foot rabbit named Frank.

First time writer/director Kelly assembled a great cast which includes Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore, James Duvall, Patrick Swayze and Katharine Ross. On one level, ‘Donnie Darko’ is as darkly humorous as ‘Heathers’ or ‘Mean Girls’, taking direct aim at cliques, racism, hypocrisy and teenage angst in high school. But the sci-fi/horror layer of time travel and paradoxes is what elevates the film into cult legend.

Kelly sets the film in October 1988 during the Bush vs. Dukakis election. For a film about time travel and fate, it’s a sly choice because this is the beginning of the Bush dynasty - how different would America be if Dukakis had won. Jake Gyllenhaal, stars as Donnie, ambling good-naturedly through the film with wide-eyed wonder and a face that looks like he has a permanent milk moustache. He channels a combination of a Joaquin Phoenix/Tobey Maguire acting dexterity along with moments of Nicholson from ‘The Shining’ - the new Director's Cut poster features Donnie with an axe! He is both terrifying and endearing to watch. Donnie is seeing a psychiatrist (Ross) because his parents think he is disturbed. Real-life sister, Maggie, plays his sister, a burgeoning feminist rooting for Dukakis.

Donnie is indeed having problems. He keeps having hallucinations of an imaginary friend named Frank who happens to be a six-foot rabbit. Frank tells Donnie to do certain things, commit various crimes, which trigger other events and revelations. Frank warns him that the world will end in 21 days and Donnie has to figure out if Frank is a real entity from the future or if he’s going insane. While strange acts of vandalism happen around town, his psychiatrist begins to suspect Donnie's involvement as she attempts to unravel his seemingly twisted mind with the help of hypnotherapy.

Fascinating characters inhabit Donnie’s world. He meets Gretchen (Jena Malone), his new girlfriend who is in the Witness Protection Program, hiding from a homicidal stepfather. His gym teacher, Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant) is single-mindedly focused on a New Age self-help program authored by the town’s newest local celebrity, Jim Cunningham (Swayze) who may have ulterior motives playing with the school kids.

It’s a rarity for a first-time writer/director to achieve such a polished film and ‘Donnie Darko’ thrives in its richly written characters and unusual plot line. Kelly clearly loves movies – in the film’s most cinematic moment, a time portal opens up on the big screen of a repertoire theater during Sam Raimi’s ‘The Evil Dead’. There are homages to Spielberg and Lynch throughout the film making it a movie buff’s dream to hunt for those Easter eggs. The eerie soundtrack by Michael Andrews is highlighted with careful selections of 80’s tunes – in fact, the ‘Donnie Darko’ soundtrack yielded a huge hit in the U.K. – Gary Jules’ somber cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World”.

If you didn’t get the chance to see ‘Donnie Darko’ before, the Director’s Cut will dazzle and perplex. For its legions of fans, this new film will be an epiphany. With his incredible debut, what will Richard Kelly's second film be like?
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

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