October is the weirdest month 

Expanded 'Darko' is still a head trip, even with the extra info

Although the film did a lot to increase the Hollywood standing of its writer and director Richard Kelly and its sibling co-stars Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, not a lot of people actually saw Donnie Darko in theaters. If the anecdotal evidence can be trusted, most of the movie's fans came to it by word of mouth after it was released on home video. A couple of years later, it's something of a cult film, which may be why Newmarket Films has decided it deserves a re-release, this time with its creator's editing-room wishes respected.

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Jake Gyllenhaal made his mark as the tormented teenager Donnie Darko. The recently released Director's Cut adds a few more details to the apocalyptic mystery.

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut is approximately 20 minutes longer than its predecessor, and it feels it: The pacing is more deliberate, which may be appropriate for a film whose protagonist is a sleepwalker on mood-altering medication. Few of the scenes that have been re-inserted are crucial to the plot, although some resonate nicely with other elements in the film. More importantly, however, a little string of moments does a great deal to explain what the hell is going on in the film.

On the most obvious level, Kelly's film is about male teenage alienation. Instead of putting Catcher in the Rye through the old indie sausage-grinder, though, he invented a new way in; he approaches Salinger's turf via science fiction, incorporating time travel and a 6-foot-tall malicious rabbit-man into his story. Kelly drops in numerous references to other sci-fi movies in which boys are asked to deal with adult challenges: a nocturnal bike ride right out of E.T., a bit of dinner-table dialogue reminiscent of the introduction of Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, and an admiring reference to Back to the Future not only tip a hat to the filmmaker's inspirations, but anchor the movie's 1988 setting.

During the day, Donnie Darko is your typical smart high school malcontent. It's painful for him to meet another's gaze. He's above his surroundings but incapable of apathy, as we see in scenes where he deliberately courts trouble by acknowledging the stupidity and simple-mindedness of classroom activities instead of quietly bearing them. Gyllenhaal catches the confusion perfectly: His face is three-fifths ironic amusement, one-fifth outrage, and one-fifth fear of the punishment his behavior is going to bring on. We can't help but be pleased when a cute new girl in class finds Donnie's weirdness appealing, and we hope her presence might curb his succeptibility to his nighttime demons. It doesn't.

Donnie's mixed emotions carry over into long bouts of sleepwalking, where his face betrays a menacing delight in destruction amid expressions of sleepy confusion. Donnie is being visited by a mysterious man in a rabbit suit that isn't cute at all; the visitor, Frank, encourages him to see himself as different from, maybe even more important than, his family and schoolmates. Frank puts violent ideas in Donnie's mind, and we get the impression that these acts of vandalism are leading up to something more catastrophic at the end of the month.

Donnie Darko:
The Director's Cut

Dir. and writ. Richard Kelly; feat. Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Holmes Osborne, Mary McDonnell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daveigh Chase, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, Patrick Swayze, Katherine Ross (R)
Then there's time travel. Donnie is given a book on the subject, and at first its main selling point is that it was written by the town's resident crazy old lady. But the director's cut makes a much bigger deal of the book, superimposing key pages of text over scenes in which Donnie is grappling with what's going on. (We know from the outset that Donnie has some psychological problems, but the script never completely decides for us whether what's happening to him is all in his mind.) The amplified role of this book does a lot to help the viewer make sense of the movie's sometimes cryptic action; if we don't know quite what's going on, we at least have a better idea of how Donnie interprets it.

There's such a portentuous build-up here, so many little mysteries and warnings, that we're expecting quite a revelation at the film's end. Kelly doesn't quite deliver; you can make sense of the ending, and it works on an emotional level, but it feels anti-climactic and a little cheap. The stuff leading up to it is ample compensation, however. Donnie Darko invents a unique tone to convey the weird gloom of adolescence - and the tiny, irrational hopefulness that peppers that gloom - and remains true to its characters, even when they're not quite sure what's true and what's not. •

By John DeFore


A rabbit revival

A flop post-9/11, 'Donnie Darko' re-emerges as one of the 21st-century's first stars

By Kiko Martinez

Released in the United States 45 days after the 9/11 tragedy, Donnie Darko, a film by first-time writer/director Richard Kelly, made a whimper at the box office before disappearing into its own cultish shadow.

"When this film was released in 2001 it wasn't a time when people were really excited about going to the movies at all," Kelly told the Current via phone while in Austin. "This kind of film wasn't what theater owners or distributors wanted to aggressively push into the marketplace. It was a very sensitive time."

Now, through a director's cut re-release - an indulgence generally reserved for films of mythic status, such as Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now - Donnie Darko has been resurrected as the film Kelly wanted audiences to see.

"If you are interested in real science fiction mechanics and delving into comic book mythology, the director's cut is for you," Kelly said. "This cut really gets you a lot deeper into the mystery."

An early version of the re-edited film, which includes an extra 20 minutes, was seen by patrons in January 2001 during the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. After the festival, however, studio executives felt that something was wrong with the film. Sitting on the cutting room floor, Kelly had to make some wrenching editing decisions. "It's always very painful when you have to cut things out of your film," Kelly said. "As a first-time director you're under a lot of pressure and there are people trying to push you around. You have to listen to a certain extent, otherwise `the film company` is going to take the film away from you. You try to stand your ground as much as possible but you have to make some concessions."

Three years later, Donnie Darko is a cult classic - a designation Kelly has no problem accepting. "I think that it's a compliment to call it a cult film," Kelly said. "I think it needed to be a film that had a slow build and that found its audience on its own in kind of a grassroots way."

Finding an audience is exactly what it did. On the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), Donnie Darko is listed as the 92nd best film of all-time, and is one of only 10 American films from the 21st century in the Top 100. "See ... it doesn't mean that it can't push its way into the mainstream," Kelly notes. "I think that anytime something counter-culture goes into the mainstream it's better for everyone."

Although the director's cut gives audiences "another interpretation of the film," Kelly knows the theatrical cut will always be around. He's simply amazed he was given the chance to release it again in theaters.

"This new version is like an extended remix," Kelly said. "I got to finish the film exactly the way I wanted." •

By Kiko Martinez


More by John DeFore

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