Donnie Darko (Director’s Cut), 2003

Interesting that a film can come out in re-release within four years of its initial distribution and have an impressive following, based largely on a growth of viewers through its video shop sales and rentals after it had failed largely in theaters. This resurgence of interest is noticeable in two locales in the Northwest, in Seattle and Tacoma, where the film is being tested in art-film houses. It’s great to think word-of-mouth can still assist a film’s acceptance like that. It has been a young or youthful audience, in the main, that Donnie Darko lured into its illusion, youth who still gather in numbers, at school for instance, or at a funky coffee house, a dive with a beat or goth ambiance. Also, they gather obviously in small circles of friends to watch a DVD or VHS tape of some sort. It is a gratifying image, that young people in groups together will view films and I presume talk about them, and spread the word if there’s a must-see at Stadium Video or somewhere.

The film was created by 29-year-old Richard Kelly, with an experienced cast of knowns, Mary McDonnell, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, even Katherine Ross. The little knowns are the young actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone, and they carry the film quite handily. The style of the film is complex; it has a distinctive postmodern composition to it, a pastiche of diverse illusions that keep the mind alert. By "postmodern" I’m thinking of a main intention of this art style; namely, to show how the old myths or traditional narratives no longer prevail. To bolster the suspicions of the skeptical youth, it shows how the laws of the older generation are passé and unenforceable. Set in 1988, the film depicts the voices of authority--of droll, rationalistic Michael Dukakis or of duplicitous George Bush Sr. as bland voices of weary campaigners; the older sister of Donnie still chooses the underdog Dukakis, uncharismatic as he was, over the old war-horse Bush. Nearly all the voices of outmoded domestic systems--of family, school, church, etc.--are debunked as phony. Original, new voices are telling the stories from particular points of view. In Donnie Darko’s society, civil values have faded; civility is hard to find. People are stressed and it will obviously take much time to straighten out the chaos of people’s lives. Through Darko’s limited point of view, the characters expose many grim realities of our era, complete with horrific ironies and Catch-22s. The perspective reveals life’s daily sham; it shows up hypocrisy left and right. The many tricks and Alice-in-Wonderland realities of the storytelling kept me alert, watchful, working on the puzzle of the many insights, clues, symbols, and revelations. The clues were there in abundance.

The protagonist’s name has a Johnny Ringo heroic ring to it. He is indeed a hero, but of a short dark epic, something on the order of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, as many critics have referenced a similarity. But there is a tragic twist such that one might title it "The Short, Happy Life of Donnie Darko." In Donnie Darko’s manipulation of the small town world he inhabits, his imaginative efforts to correct the paths of people’s lives make him quite admirable, even if nature will still influence their lives in accordance with their fates.

Time is truly stretched to the limit in telling the tale. Film has in spades this quality of time manipulation. It is the one medium, in its modern history, that can really stretch out or shorten time, quickening things up or slowing an action way down. It can stop time in a fixed still. Nowadays special effects have enhanced the ways of manipulating time. Richard Kelly, in screenplay and direction, had a mysterious myth in his head, a story set in a once-upon-a-time and a happily-ever-after frame, and he presents it through an interesting mosaic of scenes and episodes. No doubt, Kelly and his technical assistants had an ecstatic time working in the SFX and editing the story line this way and that. The techniques test the audience to go along with the illusion in a highly entertaining way. If you want to get at Kelly’s full intentions, then you will most likely have to do some discussion, explaining your grasp of the story, listening to that of others, rather like critiquing a myth. Between the first 2001 cut and the recent director’s cut, one can discover many give-away symbols. In characters’ development or stages of arrest one can argue for various motives and psychological states. One can spend quite a good bit of time obsessing over details in energetic conversation, which can be a happy expansion and enhancement of the movie-going experience. I spent several hours enjoyably haggling with film-loving people about the qualities good and bad in this innovative sci-fi film.

The director’s cut presents the audience who have seen the original film version with several expanded scenes. One expansion is in the use of scenes of classroom literary discussion: the first cut had one major allusion in commentary about Graham Greene’s "The Destructors"; the 2004 cut added another class scene alluding to the story and film of Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down. The Greene one is apt, illustrative of the story’s theme and characters. The Adams’ allegory, in my view, does not it so well, does not do the same degree of work. The role of the high school literature teacher, played by Drew Barrymore, an executive producer of the movie, seems to attract much more attention in the Director’s Cut, although the classroom scenes themselves are dramatically quite repetitive and therefore redundant.

Curiously, a good few minutes were added through stills of tawny pages of Ms Sparrow’s writings on time travel. The stills are held up for a score of seconds, just long enough that you realize after two or three other pages in close sequence that you’re not ever going to scan the third paragraph and you’re not supposed to read it thoughtfully anyway--unless you’re a clever speed-reader. No time for digestion, in a few sentences you might get the gist. The text one catches has the feel of a scripture with seemingly vital meanings of a temporal, spiritual passage. It’s a magical mystery tour guide.

As implied above, there is a good bit of social criticism throughout the film in which most of the authority figures have their masks stripped. The current generation of viewers will be delighted by the socio-political bias of Kelly’s or Donnie Darko’s satirical wit. Those of Darko’s generation perhaps will relish the feelings of getting even, righting injustices, in the main comeuppances, just as I savored Michael Moore’s biased-my-way Fahrenheit 9/11, which is so iconoclastic of the political power figures whom I’d like to see crash and burn. Like many pissed-off teens, Donnie Darko wears a determined, sardonic grin or grimace. The film harshly satirizes mundane experience and offers a few gentle lifts out of the postmodern inferno young people suffer. It is mostly that fascinating stage of the Divine Comedy which appeals in Kelly’s visions.

The mythic story-line about a rescuing hero has great malleability for further episodic adventures or representations. Going by my take of it, Kelly can make many movies out of the film he shot. And he can add onto it, syncopating new shots into it. The myth of Donnie Darko could be resurrected, i.e. re-cut, re-told, re-elaborated in another version to keep our hero alive and active, in constant strung-out transformation, in some kind of this-here-time that is all too much for us. For many young viewers, Donnie probably reflects some wishful thinking, especially dreams of saving people one likes and loves, even though he is thought a mixed-up kid by some and totally dysfunctional by others. He’s definitely not the kind of heroic figure most people would want to have crash and burn.

I gave this film a rating of 3 for film, 4 for generating conversation.


David Gilmour