When “Donnie Darko” was released in 2001, it was dismissed by some important mainstream reviewers and largely ignored by audiences. It was embraced by other critics and many of the viewers lucky enough to have seen it, though, and in the intervening three years it’s become a cult classic–a fixture at midnight screenings and a success on video and DVD. Now Newmarket, which rather bungled the original marketing of the picture, has allowed writer-director Richard Kelly to assemble a “director’s cut” of “Donnie Darko,” at 133 minutes nearly twenty longer than the original version.
In this expanded form it’s still an exceptionally challenging film, amazingly assured for a first feature–a haunting, hypnotic mixture of black comedy, domestic drama, coming-of-age story, mystical science fiction and psychological study. But it’s not quite the equal of the one some of us found so extraordinary in 2001. The added narrative footage consists of most of the deleted and expanded scenes already found on the DVD issue, now inserted within the picture rather than simply given as appendices; presumably many, if not all of them were present in the print shown at the Sundance Festival early in 2001, which was trimmed to get the picture under the two-hour mark for fall release. (Happily, not all of the material on the DVD has been used; the final shot of Donnie in his bedroom remains, wisely, unseen.) Some of the new footage is amusing, but none of it is really necessary, and it does make for slow going at times. Still, by itself that wouldn’t seriously impair the picture. The problem is that Kelly has also attempted to clarify the story by adding what amounts to explanatory linking matter, in the form of brief excerpts from the book on time travel penned years before by Rebecca Sparrow, the woman now known as Grandma Death, and repeated shots of a huge eye apparently reflected on some sort of computer screen and, in turn, reflecting other images. This is problematical, first of all, because it makes too explicit the secrets that remained marvelously ambiguous in the original release, turning a deeply enigmatic fable into something much more direct. But beyond that, the means Kelly has chosen are weak. The book excerpts, with their talk of tangent universes, receptors and manipulated dead, read exactly like the pseudo-scientific babble they are, and the computer-screen stuff is all too reminiscent of the repeated shots of Dave Bowman’s eye witnessing the journey beyond the infinite in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (and of HAL-9000’s gleaming red eye, too). Ordinarily I’m as much in favor of a Kubrick reference as anybody, but this one was a mistake.
Of course none of this diminishes the brilliance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Donnie, or the fine turns by Maggie McDonnell, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Katharine Ross, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle, Holmes Osborne, Patrick Swayze, Beth Grant and James Duval. (The last-named deserves special credit for playing a six-foot rabbit so well.) And the widescreen cinematography of Steven Poster, the score by Michael Andrews and the pop songs used to complement it remain stunningly effective. Even in this expanded form “Donnie Darko” stands head and shoulders above most other movies, and the opportunity to see in a theatre shouldn’t be missed. But like so many directors’ cuts, it’s not an improvement. (A clue: when such cuts are longer than the original–the usual case–it’s ordinarily a problem.) My advice? If you’re a afficionado of the film, or never had the opportunity to see it on the big screen, by all means check out this new version. But be sure to acquire a copy of the DVD with the original film as well; one never knows whether it will remain in circulation after a new one of the director’s cut is inevitably issued. Whatever Kelly might want you to believe, that’s still the true “Donnie Darko”–and a great film it is.