RICHARD KELLY’S now-legendary debut, Donnie Darko (2001), forged a bittersweet, nutty-poignant idiom from the pop-culture overload of the writer-director’s late 1980s suburban Virginia youth. (It feels as if Kelly was possessed by Donnie instead of merely being his creator.) Most impudently, the film juxtaposes the grinning title teen (Jake Gyllenhaal, exhibiting a quirky Travis Bickle–as–Boy Scout air) below a movie marquee featuring the dream Halloween team of The Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ.
That combination sums up Donnie Darko as well as anything: a comic-book Passion Play haunted by malevolent supernatural forces. (And that jet engine dropping out of the sky.) Donnie receives otherworldly instructions from Frank, a holy ghost in a gnarly rabbit costume (picture the Easter Bunny with a Heavy Metal makeover), through a rent in the space-time continuum. When Donnie meets his troubled soul mate, Gretchen (Jena Malone), she teases that his goofy name makes him sound like a superhero. “What makes you think I’m not?”
Kelly’s film is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma inside a valentine. Out of long-lost weekend Blockbuster Video rentals (E.T., Blue Velvet, Poltergeist, Heathers, Time Bandits, Watership Down), Stephen King novels, shimmery post–New Wave records (Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, INXS), Escher prints, motivational infomercials, The Smurfs, and Stephen Hawking came a lyric, mid-Halloween night’s world all its own. It’s the cult film as supercollider physics experiment: What would happen if, for example, particles of the Buffyverse would be “smushed” up with the gravitational tangents of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia? Darko’s “Mad World” montage is a partial answer.
On its most immediate level, the film’s a shrewdly absurd exploration of waking dream states—or teenage schizophrenia. Donnie isn’t the only character who appears to follow strange, preordained paths: The people he encounters all seem to double as messengers, prompting him, provoking him. They’re semisentient pieces on a cosmic chessboard, and the sense of dual, or dueling, realities being communicated is entertaining and suggestive. But it’s grounded in something more acute about adolescence: those moments of discovery when something deeper, more dangerous, and more insightful breaks through the routines and clichés of cloistered life.
When his troublemaking young English teacher, Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), assigns the Graham Greene story “The Destructors,” it’s a roadmap. The clock is ticking down to the end of the world, according to Frank: Donnie will have to perform a series of disruptive acts and decipher ambiguous clues to save it. First, by flooding his high school and somehow embedding an axe in the bronze head of its giant mascot statue, the Mongrel. (Which itself has the wonderfully bulbous look of a comic-book character: It could be the Incredible Hulk’s pet.)
Later, Donnie is directed to burn down the mansion of the self-help guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who has gotten too deeply involved with the school curriculum. That this already creepy, gung-ho motivational speaker (pitching a program halfway between Tony Robbins and Scientology) turns out to be a secret pedophile doubles the implications of his campus recruitment efforts. Most telling in the film’s narrative terms is that when Donnie and Gretchen walk past the as-yet-unidentified Cunningham house, a couple schoolgirls run by and, in the background, go into it. Another Alice in Jeopardy motif is the school’s serenely exploitive Sparkle Motion dance troupe, which includes Donnie’s sister: They’re all prepubescent, so even if it were a joint middle and high school, they’re awfully young to be thrown in with horny older boys (including Seth Rogen!) for whom harassment and hazing are sport.
Donnie Darko is all about the blending of head-on blatancy with a raft of undertones, sense-making non sequiturs, and lysergic aperçus. Raw sincerity meets ironic self-awareness, with these different levels of sophistication coexisting and ricocheting off one another. If art doesn’t encroach on life and alter it, as Kelly implies with Darko, why bother? The movie’s an elaboration of how personal and artistic associations can bleed together and cross-fertilize inside your consciousness. The casting of iconic actors Barrymore, Swayze, and Katherine Ross (as Dr. Thurman, Donnie’s therapist) also blurs the lines: Their recognition factor feeds into the film’s convoluted sense of the familiar wrenched out of shape.
Both Ms. Pomeroy and Dr. Thurman have extremely curious relationships with Donnie—not overtly inappropriate, but Pomeroy verges on taunting him when she says in class, “Maybe your friend Frank can help you.” And Dr. Thurman, who hypnotizes Donnie, seems to helicopter between sternly professional, openly maternal, and embarrassingly overexposed. Gyllenhaal’s acting is a fascinating medley of registers and approaches—under hypnosis, doing a broad, childlike shtick, dialing it back in various boyish degrees, shifting from Method angst to repeating Minimalist notes, none more effective than his Darko smile, one of those gnostic flashes that capture a movie’s essence in a single shot.
“They made me do it” announces the graffiti he leaves after vandalizing the school. But while Donnie’s the center of contention, “they”—in this case, the tremendous ensemble of not only actors but the production’s crew and craftspeople—are what allow the center to hold. For all the distinctiveness of Kelly’s vision, exploring the making of the film through the prism of the newly and beautifully remastered limited-edition box set (with its multiple commentaries and a highly instructive making-of documentary), you realize it was openness to collaboration that made Donnie Darko what it is.
The box set includes the theatrical cut of the movie (which initially bombed), the director’s cut released in 2004 (after the film caught on in Great Britain), and the new ninety-minute documentary, The Philosophy of Donnie Darko. This, along with the commentary tracks, walks you step by step through the film’s making. There’s also a ninety-page book that includes a very detailed (albeit old) interview with Kelly, some solid features on the movie, and a particularly helpful piece by Anton Bitel on Kelly’s star-crossed post-Darko career. For the truly fanatical, the set includes the hilarious “Cunning Vision” infomercial, and a commentary on it as well—I can’t pin down the hinky male voice on the track, but I am pretty sure the punctilious female’s belongs to Kristen Wiig.
Getting back to the film itself: It looks wonderful in both versions. Especially gratifying is the preservation of gradations and alterations in Steven Poster’s cinematography, which doesn’t aim for a cookie-cutter look but lights and frames each scene as a specific, individual milieu. The theatrical cut remains more abrupt and more jarringly weird—its elisions invite a more cultish response, with less ordinary, humane life intruding on the uncanny and bizarre. The director’s cut restores twenty minutes and original song cues, plus adding some intertitles and special effects to lend the time-travel ploy a patina of plausibility.
Crucially, it has a more intricate family dynamic, more range and counterintuitive texture and sheer empathy. The Darkos make for an extraordinary tight, prickly screen family: Holmes Osborne as the “wiseacre” dad (like father, like son), big sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), little Samantha (Daveigh Chase), and the mother of all moms, Rose (Mary McDonnell). Even though the roles are small and mostly underwritten, the actors flesh them out so well you can vividly see them living out their own parallel movies. Especially Rose. McDonnell’s performance is a wonder of conflicted emotions bubbling just below a slightly soused surface, eyes like scalpels and her smiles laced with an ever-changing assortment of anger, amusement, contempt, sadness, resignation, and love.
Everyone on set seems to have caught that commitment bug—they bought into the premise even if they didn’t understand it and collectively hopped on Kelly’s wavelength. (Unlike in his follow-up, Southland Tales, where nobody seems to be on the same page or frequency or drugs.) His approach here wasn’t to autocratically impose himself on the frame, but to draw everybody in as coconspirators who felt they were all meant to contribute something—everyone was there for a purpose.
Which sounds like Donnie stuttering, but something about the production surely was charmed, lucky, fated, or whatever you want to call it. Like Barrymore stepping in as a guardian angel to coproduce and act in the film for scale, instantly doubling the budget and bringing a lot of other people on board. With Poster’s contribution, not only as an ace cinematographer but as the facilitator who got Panavision to let them use Anamorphic lenses and who procured a fabulous new high-speed film stock. With Michael Andrews’s serendipitous score. Getting the rights to use Evil Dead was a stroke of luck rather than design, making the portal scene in the theater perhaps the trippiest movie-within-a-movie coup in film history. Like that jet engine, in the end everything just fell into place.
A new four-disk set of Donnie Darko is now available from Arrow Video.