Welcome back to one of the most uniquely visionary and justifiably adored features of this millennium -- an '80s period piece that transcends trendy retro-hipsterism, a suburban American satire par excellence, and a gloomy horror-romance wrapped in sci-fi trappings so ticklishly warped that they might please Kurt Vonnegut. This is Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut, and it's definitely a cut above most new features this year, or even most since American cinema reached its previous creative zenith about thirty years ago.
While it would be insanely overambitious to sort through every possible story of youthful angst from sea to shining sea, writer and director Richard Kelly does a terrific job of amalgamating, under the peculiar name of Darko, the plights of millions of hapless tragic dreamers trapped in the boring-ass 'burbs. As such, Donnie Darko is essentially the unofficial sequel to Heathers, or a very unique reconsideration of Caddyshack as imbued with the dark hopelessness and bitterness of The Crow. Returning to this film -- which is now significantly retooled after three years of cult success have been very, very kind to its first theatrical incarnation -- is indeed an epiphany. Perhaps there's not a single novel element to the whole project -- even star Jake Gyllenhaal is basically an improved Tobey Maguire; think The Ice Storm Redux -- but Kelly's grab-bag is literally the stuff of Middle American dreams ... and nightmares. As years scream by for its target generations (X and Y), Donnie Darko's value will only increase.
For those who do not dine in hipster eateries, where this movie is discussed more often than how to calculate 15 percent, a quick refresher: Donnie (Gyllenhaal) is a lonely, confused teenager with a detached, jeering attitude toward his life and surroundings. He lives in an Anywhere, SoCal suburb à la The Brady Bunch or ET with his concerned parents (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne, both superb) and snarky sisters (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daveigh Chase). When Donnie is visited by a huge, anthropomorphized rabbit named Frank (James Duval), who sports a monstrous, metallic head and terrifying, wolf-like teeth, his world begins to change a bit. It's hardly a wonder that he's in therapy, and prompted to take his pills like a good boy.
That would be weird enough for many, but Kelly challenges us and his own narrative skills by wrapping this basic scenario in layers of meaning and mood, explored to significantly greater depth in this new version. As before, we learn that Donnie's problems include nocturnal wandering -- apparently in his favor when a jet engine detaches from a passing plane and crash-lands in his vacant bedroom. But there's much more strangeness afoot, as the boy's lapses of reality intertwine with his discovery of a book on time travel by a disturbed old woman (spellbinding Patience Cleveland) whom he and his snotty buddies call "Grandma Death." This new cut is bold enough to mix extended passages of her book on the "Tangent Universe" with the narrative chapter-stops of Frank's prescient countdown to doomsday -- a bizarre convention, to say the least, but it pays off grandly.
The musky tang of dread hangs over the proceedings as before, with great kudos to cinematographer Steven Poster and especially sound maestros Michael Payne and Victoria Rose Sampson for bringing forth a frightfully sensuous palette of eerie hues and menacing tones -- an assured antidote to the fake happiness Hollywood more often hawks. Combined with a remastered, delightfully creepy score by Michael Andrews (imagine Danny Elfman with subtlety), the movie now feels complete. It was cut primarily for run-time issues before, but now twenty minutes longer at 133 minutes, it breathes and sighs, and characters are allowed to finish scenes previously left as DVD extras. Some creepy visual effects have been enhanced as well.
One may quibble a bit with this new cut. The darkly romantic pop songs now feel even more randomly distributed, particularly INXS' astounding "Never Tear Us Apart" now pasted incongruously over the opening sequence. (And Echo and the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" on a car radio? This must be a fantasy.) Since there exists a gruesome outtake of a character grotesquely skewered, it seems a shame not to use it here. But overall, the more one considers the performances, niggling doubts are banished. It's wonderful to see the ever-brilliant Katharine Ross given more screen time as Donnie's shrink (though she could have had more). Patrick Swayze's self-help guru and his insanely obsessive follower played by Beth Grant are characters destined for cinematic immortality. And Drew Barrymore, who as executive producer very wisely shepherded this project into existence, is now afforded more screen time to reveal what is obviously a sensitive and literate heart beneath her usual glitzy trappings.
Donnie Darko is about the magic a young man can summon before the world ruins him -- or the ignorance a young man spews before the world enlightens him, depending on your perspective. That it was made by a young man only enhances and validates its themes, and this new cut is definitely richer and most welcome. Friends and neighbors, this is a Great American Movie.
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