Where to even begin with Donnie Darko?
A directorial debut for Richard Kelly and the film that really cemented Jake Gyllenhaal as one of the hottest young talents in Hollywood it follows the story of a young teenager, Donnie Darko (played by Gyllenhaal) as he attempts to navigate his adolescence while also, you know, saving the world. Pretty par for the course right? Well the very brief synopsis I have provided doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this film.
Donnie Darko has trouble sleeping, sleep walking, or as we find him in the opening scene of the film, he even sleep cycles, an impressive feat for any human being. This opening scene perfectly sets up the strangeness of the film, which is great because its gonna get even stranger.
Donnie cycles back into town and we are introduced to the idyllic town of Middlesex, Kelly shoots it like the opening to David Lynchs Blue Velvet, every lawn manicured, every house perfectly painted, with power walking school mums lining the streets and warm colours to welcome the viewer. Its a perfect way to set establish one of the key settings in the film, we as the audience member’s quickly understand that everything is fine on the surface, but if we pick a little deeper, that may not be the case.
Donnies relationship with his family is quickly established in a great family dinner scene. He is hostile toward them and has a very clear sibling rivalry with his eldest sister Elizabeth (played by Gyllenhaals real life sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal). Despite the two sharing very few scenes together, the casting of the two really works and you can feel the chemistry as soon as the two are onscreen together.
Donnies relationship with his mother (played by Molly McDonnell who gives a really well rounded performance) is especially uneasy he calls her a “bitch” and rarely has anything to do with her, there is not much love shared between the two of them as the film begins. On top of this, his Mother and Father have “requested” Donnie also see a psychiatrist, reluctantly of course. This perfectly establishes (and captured in Gyllenhaals performance) the character of Donnie Darko because we can empathise with him, he is a forward thinking and bright young man who is clearly misunderstood, Kelly perfectly captures the feeling of adolescence in our hero.
Then comes along Frank, hes a bunny, a creepy bunny, hes also not really a bunny, just an inter-dimensional being dressed as a bunny, he tells Donnie that he has exactly 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds before the world ends, so you know, no biggie.
Its from this point onwards in the story that Richard Kelly manages to introduce complex themes and narrative devices such as time travel that would normally be completely out of place, but here meld so perfectly with what has been established before it. The film plays out like a beautifully realised watch (not least because it deals with the theme of time), all the pieces moving in conjunction with eachother, complex and difficult to understand, but working in tangent and once complete, tell us exactly why we looked at the watch in the first place.
Kellys writing has clearly, again, took inspiration from David Lynch, characters have conversations about the sexuality of Smurfs and how Smurfette operates with the male memebers of the Smurf spieces, I love this kind of dialogue, it really helps introduce and give character to the peculiar residents of Middlesex. in another more famous example Donnie asks why Frank wears the stupid bunny suit, to which Frank replies “Why do you wear that stupid man suit?” its the kind of bizzaro dialogue that not many directors can make work, but here Kelly implements it so naturally.
Kelly unfortunately has never lived up to his triumphant directorial debut, which is a genuine shame, he navigates his way through this story like an absolute pro and his hold on the narrative is the glue that holds the entire film together. If the film was handed to a lesser director, the story would become a confusing mess. He also has no problem with smaller details like mise en scene and its implementation to give clues to future twists, note the cinema scene (more than a few lovely subtle moments there) and the red car that passes Donnie on his way into Middlesex. Kelly is clearly even at home directing veteran actors such as Patrick Swayze and Drew Barrymore (who also produces the movie with her production company), the implementation of these actors lend a nice weight to a supporting cast and provide some recognisable faces.
The performers in Donnie Darko are fascinating, its a really strange collection of actors that Kelly managed to assemble for his film and the casting adds to the even stranger story.
Gyllenhaal our protagonist absolutely owns this role, while not his first, it is definitely his breakthrough act. Jake Gyllenhaal has always been one of my favorite actors and this demonstrates that even from a young age he was really capable of digging deep for this performance. Donnie’s discussion with his psychiatrist about the search for god being futile if “everything dies alone” is very poignant and is delivered perfectly by Gyllenhaal who doesn’t make it sound overly mature, rather a young man who while above his peers, still doesn’t understand the world.
Playing Gretchen Ross we have Jane Malone, a relatively unfamiliar actress by 2001, she had small roles in films such as the science fiction film Contact (1997) but never as significant as this. Gretchen is a new girl to Middlesex having moved there with her mum after her dad tried to murder them. Malone has a real despondency about her that really makes her standout, she bares a striking resemblance to a young Kristen Stewart and this makes her perfect for the role. While she could be described as Donnie’s love interest she is her own character, who plays off of Gyllenhaal really well, in one hilarious scene Donnie asks about Gretchen’s dad, she responds:
“He has emotional problems”
A little too enthusiastically he replies with “I have those too! What type does your dad have?”
(Gretchen completely straight faced) “He stabbed my mum four times in the chest”
(Donnie realising his foolishness) “Oh”
Their relationship really helps the two of them find happiness in one another, especially Gretchen who even refuses to kiss Donnie until she is in a moment that “reminds me of how beautiful the world can be”.
Another notable performance is the inclusion of Patrick Swayze playing Jim Cunnigham. Patrick Swayze was in a strange period in his career which he states as the time he was actively trying not to be pigeonholed, he of course was a Hollywood heartthrob (who didn’t swoon when they saw that dirty dancing lift) but wanted to explore contrasting roles to the ones he had taken on previously. Well he really got it with Donnie Darko. Here he plays a cheesy self help guru who teaches people how to control “fear” and is visiting Middlesex to promote his latest videos and books. Cunnigham however is not all that he seems and Swayze really sells it, acting perfectly in all the corny videos that Donnie and his classmates have to endure, he adds layers to what could have been a throwaway role in the wrong hands.
Another interesting point to note on the film, production wise, is the budget, Kelly was working with a very limited budget, only $4.5 million dollars which is not a lot. To the films credit however this is never really noticed, the only thing in the film that looks dated is some of the special effects shots of Donnies “liquid spear”, luckily most of it is caught within camera and the stuff that isn’t is quite inventive. The cinematography is also very atmospheric in the film, contrasting the bright and warm colours of Donnie’s neighborhood with the tone darkening when we enter the creepier moments with Frank in the film. Steven Poster the director of photography also incorporates some lovely long takes, especially the one that introduces us to Donnie’s school which establishes so much character in just a few minutes.
The soundtrack is infamous for being really well executed in the film (atleast on the theatrical cut, more on that later) and features not only some great songs from the likes of Joy Division and Echo and the bunnymen, but also a great score for the film (of which I own but it STILL doesn’t contain the “For whom the bells toll” which is used in one of the best scenes in the film!) composed by Michael Andrews. However the standout “song” and the one which everyone is familiar with is “Mad World” feat Gary Jules, its a truly great song that has been used really effectively in other forms of media (such as the Gears of War trailer) but never to the heartbreaking effect it has in the context of the film. I`ll cover the different soundtracks used on both cuts of the film in more detail below as I will discuss the pros and cons of them.
Ultimately given Kelly`s track record after Donnie Darko its is impossible to say whether Donnie Darko is an accidental masterpiece, a coming together of the right mismatched talent, or sheer luck. What I can say with complete certainty is that Kelly has created one of the most bizarre, infamous, fascinating stories put to film and it truly is a triumph of cinema.
As for the home release of the film I own the absolutely magnificent Arrow video collectors edition. The film has been beautifully restored by these guys on Blu-ray and has some great special features (too many to list here) and some cool collectibles such as a recreation of the letter Donnie sends to Miss Sparrow and a gorgeous hardback book that contains essays, beautiful stills from the film and even a really lovely piece on the late Patrick Swayze. I always love it when collectors editions like this are released for a film as it just helps your enjoyment of the film that much more, especially with the essays that people have written talking so passionately about the film. The set from Arrow Video comes with two cuts of the film (the only two that exist) the Theatrical cut and the Directors cut.
The Directors cut is the longest version and the one that die-hard fans of the film despise. Its also worth noting that this is closer to the cut of the film that premiered at Cannes film festival in 2001. I however do not agree that this cut ruins the film, before you crucify me, here me out. While the Directors cut is far to long (it clocks in at around 134 minutes) it does have its appeal, while many fans hate the directors cut for over explaining the plot I do think it is a good cut to watch first, especially for people who struggle to keep up with narratives of film in general. This cut holds your hand and actually explains everything that is going on around Donnie, especially with the quite complex time travel elements. The directors cut also changes the music, I believe the music used in the directors cut is more fitting with Kellys vision, as he has stated numerous times that when he first made the film he simply couldn’t afford the rights to music he wanted to use, however in my opinion the tracks on the theatrical are superior. Interestingly its rare when a studio interferes with the editing of a film that it turns out for the better, and I hate to say an artists vision should be stifled, but here the studio has cut the film down to incorporate a more comfortable running time and either through great care or great luck, they created a better film in the theatrical run.
Having covered the Directors cut there is not much to talk about for the Theatrical one, it is a trimmer leaner film that has a better soundtrack and leaves more up to the viewers interpretation, it doesn’t drag as much and also leaves in what I feel is a key line in the film and that is the “I’m sorry line”, fans of the film will understand.
Unfortunately the collectors edition is sold out (atleast at its original price) which is a shame, I picked it up for a bargain price of £20.99 (I had it on pre-order) but it can still be purchased from independent retailers (I`ll list them below) but only at a hefty price. The standard edition from Arrow video is now available and you can pick it up here: