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I missed Donnie Darko during its theatrical run, and it wasn’t until around a year ago that I decided to check it out as a rental. The film had generated a lot of positive feeling on Usenet and was already being heralded as an undiscovered masterpiece, so I felt sure that it would at least provide a couple of hour’s entertainment. I was immediately taken with the film, which struck me as one of the most interesting pieces of work I’d seen in quite some time.

Donnie Darko: Director's Cut
Of course a full DVD purchase followed, which allowed me to delve into the deleted scenes and extras to try and make some sense of it all. Unfortunately the original Metrodome release went out of print shortly after that, with the rights passing to Prism who decided to release a bare-bones version of the film at a budget price. Happily for Prism this release coincided with the chart success of Michael Andrews’ and Gary Jules’ cover of the Tears for Fears track, ‘Mad World’, which helped to shift a fair number of units if the ‘buzz’ at my local shops was anything to go by. Thankfully the passage of time has seen the title return to Metrodome, who have taken the opportunity to release Richard Kelly’s definitive vision of Donnie Darko courtesy of a feature-packed two-disc set.

Feature


Films involving time travel are notoriously difficult to summarise without completely ruining the plot, so please bear with me while I attempt to make sense of it all. It’s worth noting that this review will contain discussion on some of the more involved plot elements, so those of you who want to remain completely ‘spoiler free’ may want to skip this section and head for the technical appraisal.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhall) lives with his family in the town of Middlesex, an archetypal middle-class neighbourhood in which existence borders on the mundane. During a typical family dinner we discover that all is not well with young Donnie. Aside from undergoing regular sessions of therapy, he has also been prescribed a form of medication to control his more ‘eccentric’ personality traits. You see Donnie is plagued by unsettling dreams and visions, in which a six-foot tall bunny rabbit named Frank prophesises the end of the world.

The first sign that all is not well in the universe comes when a jet engine inexplicably lands in Donnie’s bedroom. Thankfully Donnie is absent from the house, having sleepwalked his way to the local golf course after one of his ‘talks’ with Frank. What makes this bizarre event even more fantastic is that the authorities have absolutely no idea where the engine came from. For all intents and purposes, it simply should not be.

From then on in things get even more bizarre, as Donnie’s strange dreams intensify and he is encouraged to commit seemingly random acts of vandalism against his school and the local community. After a chance meeting with a strange old lady nicknamed ‘Grandma Death’, Donnie is introduced to the book ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’, which describes many of the events befalling him in alarming detail.

As those surrounding Donnie fall prone to increasingly irrational behaviour, Donnie tries to rationalise his strange visions with aid from the new girl in town, Gretchen Ross (Jenna Malone). As the film hurtles toward its climax the viewer is forced to ask themselves some questions: is there a higher power guiding Donnie’s actions, or is he merely a young schizophrenic trying to come to terms with his feelings of isolation and loneliness?

The greatest thing about the original release of Donnie Darko was that it essentially allowed the viewer to make their own decision as to whether the events in the film actually transpired, or were merely the product of Donnie’s delusional mind. In Richard Kelly’s director’s cut much of the ambiguity has been removed by the inclusion of new scenes and dialogue that go a long way towards supporting the first option.

Donnie Darko: Director's Cut
Although the director’s cut includes a number of entirely new scenes, the bulk of the additional material comes in the form of small extensions to existing scenes. Richard Kelly has also chosen to introduce a number of new CGI elements for the director’s cut, such as the reflection of Frank the rabbit in Donnie’s eye immediately preceding the dream sequence in which he is warned of the impending apocalypse. Pages from ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’ have also been inserted at regular intervals throughout the film, appearing during the scene transitions that used to be accompanied by black title cards relaying the time until the end of the world. These pages explain the concepts of the Tangent Universe, the Living Receiver, the Manipulated Living and Dead, the Artifact of the Living, the Ensurance Trap and more. These pages were previously available only to those with the patience to sift through the Donnie Darko website, or through the features on the previous DVD, but that was part of what made the whole viewing experience so rewarding.

Perhaps the biggest changes, at least visually, occur towards the end of the film. The images here would seem to remove all doubt that Richard Kelly intended for there to be some ‘alien’ power orchestrating events from far off in the future, and this is something that he discusses in greater detail on the commentary track. In addition to these visual changes, certain audio cues have also been added. There are many subtle additions to the soundtrack, such as an eerie, dreamy rendition of the US National Anthem while Eddie Darko slumbers in front of the static-ridden TV, and  Frank’s voice pops up from time to time to remind both Donnie and the audience to ‘Watch closely’. These are the additions that, for my mind, go a little too far. Sure the theatrical cut was a head-scratcher, but it made me want to learn more about the characters and events in the film. This led to exploration of the website, which in turn led to much thought on the meaning of the film. There are some who would argue that a film has not succeeded if it requires you to scour a website in order to fully appreciate it, but as far as I’m concerned any film that encourages the viewer to formulate their own opinions is a cut above the usual mindless dross.

Unfortunately this is where the biggest failing of this director’s cut lies—it simply divulges too much information. I also felt that the film sagged under the weight of the additional material, and I was genuinely baffled by the restoration of certain scenes. However, all of this is in danger of sounding entirely too negative. Even with these minor niggles, the director’s cut of Donnie Darko is still head and shoulders above most films that land on my doormat.

Video


Presented in its theatrical ratio of 2.35:1, complete with anamorphic enhancement, this release of Donnie Darko is comparable to the previous Metrodome effort in the quality stakes. On the whole the image is perfectly acceptable, with only the occasional white fleck visible on an otherwise clean print. Overall I found the image slightly too soft for my liking, but detail levels remain acceptable throughout. Thankfully colour rendition is very good for the most part; the lush greens of the suburban lawns and golf courses are especially pleasing, and flesh tones are accurate. Although the transfer handles blacks well for the most part, I felt that the contrast let the side down on occasion. At times, areas of shadow aren’t as inky black as they should be, and on other occasions shots appear slightly too dark (I’ve actually had to bump up the brightness on a couple of the screen caps). Still, none of this is serious enough to warrant any real complaints, although it would have been nice to have a new transfer to go with the spiffy new audio mix.

Donnie Darko: Director's Cut

Audio


For this release of Donnie Darko Metrodome has elected to include both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks. I decided to go for the latter for the bulk of the film, although after sampling snatches of the Dolby track I couldn’t discern any huge differences.

As some of you may be aware, the director’s cut has had a major audio overhaul. Director Richard Kelly has chosen to replace certain musical numbers with those he originally wanted but was unable to obtain clearance for, as well as augmenting certain scenes with additional effects. The biggest musical change comes right at the beginning of the film, as Donnie now cycles home to the tune of INXS rather than Echo & the Bunnymen. This opening scene has also been enhanced with the sound of chirping crickets and the like, while the liquid spears also have a more identifiable acoustic accompaniment. The soundtrack is more involving than that of the previous release, with more ambient effects and more aggressive use of the surround channels. The LFE channel also throws out some powerful bass when needed (such as the final moments of the film), yet dialogue remains perfectly clear for the most part. Fans of 80s music will be delighted with the soundtrack, which features some of the decade’s most memorable tunes.

Extras


When I first read the specs for this new set I was intrigued by the decision to include Kevin Smith on the new commentary track. I know Smith and Kelly are friends, but I couldn’t quite understand what the ‘Clerks dude’ would bring to the table. However, Richard Kelly answers that question inside the first minute of the commentary, when he states that Smith is there to ensure that the track isn’t full of uncomfortably long silences. Unfortunately this doesn’t work out quite as well as they might have hoped. Now I enjoy Smith’s commentaries for the ViewAskew films, primarily because he never seems to run out of things to say about his movies, but this is not the case here. There are frequent, lengthy periods of ‘dead air’, and I also found that Smith’s inclusion led to all manner of irrelevant discussion, often resulting in important on-screen events going unmentioned. However, there are some good things to come out of the marrying of these writer/directors, most notably the discussions on the film’s comic book themes.

They Made Me Do It is one of the extras that was present on Metrodome’s original release of the film. A team of fourteen of the UK’s leading graffiti artists was given six hours, forty two minutes and twelve seconds to come up with artwork inspired by the film, with the results exhibited in London over a twenty-eight day period.  Running for a little under five minutes, this featurette showcases the work, all to the tune of Gary Jules’ cover of ‘Mad World’.

They Made Me Do It Too is a thirty minute retrospective featuring fans, critics and even Richard Kelly himself (by way of the telephone). This is an interesting take of the whole Donnie Darko phenomenon that explores the reasons behind the film’s popularity with UK audiences, the central themes running throughout the movies, the impact it had on people’s lives, Metrodome’s marketing campaign, the huge success of the ‘Mad Word’ cover, and much more.

The They Made Me Do It Gallery is a series of still images from the first featurette, showing the completed artwork as exhibited in London. As usual you navigate through the gallery by using the buttons on your remote, and this is an easier way to get a look at the artwork featured in the earlier video segment.
 
Donnie Darko: Director's Cut
A forty minute Production Diary, with optional commentary by director of photography Stephen Poster, follows. This takes us behind the scenes for a look at location shooting, and features appearances from most of the cast and crew (who are often seen clowning around together). The featurette is divided into sections, with title cards reminiscent of those in the film counting down the days left before the completion of principal photography (an interesting bit of trivia is that the film was shot over the same time span as the events depicted in the completed movie).

B-Roll Footage follows, and is little more than a condensed version of the production diary feature. Once again we go behind the scenes with the cast and crew, but at just over four minutes in length you’re not going to get too much from this. However, it was on the original release, so it’s nice that it’s been included.

Fifteen minutes of Cast and Crew Interviews follow, featuring everyone from director Richard Kelly to the principal cast and crew. Again, these interviews were included on the original release, so those of you with that disc may be left feeling short changed. However, I’m glad that they were included if only to give the uninitiated a little more insight into the production. The interviews are followed by several pages of Cast and Crew Filmographies, which are pretty standard stuff.

The penultimate section of the disc features two Trailers, five TV Spots, a ‘Mad World’ Music Video and two Cunning Visions Infomercials. Of these the most interesting, at least to those not sick of the song, is undoubtedly the music video (although those of you with sensitive ears will pick up on the PAL speed-up). The infomercials are pretty amusing, especially the second one which features commentary by Cunning Visions CEO Linda Connie, and infomercial director, Fabian Van Patten.

The final section on the disc includes the Additional Scenes, as found on the original release. There are twenty scenes in total, all with optional commentary from Richard Kelly. The director’s cut of the film actually reinstates a most, if not all of these scenes (or at least bits of them), so their inclusion in this set isn’t quite as worthy as one might expect.

Overall


Perhaps it’s because of my love for the theatrical release, but I was initially unsure of some of the changes made for this edition of the film. Echo & the Bunnymen’s ‘The Killing Moon’ was such a fantastic opener to the original that I just didn’t take to INXS’ ‘Never Tear Us Apart’, even if it is the preferred choice of music. I also felt that this new version tried to ‘clarify’ certain points that were best left open to interpretation. What I found so refreshing about the original release was the way in which it refused to follow the Hollywood archetypes, instead forcing the viewer to do a little thinking rather than sitting back while the answers are spoon fed to them.

With that said, I do appreciate what Richard Kelly was trying to accomplish with this release. Unfortunately, although the director’s cut clears up some of the ambiguity surrounding certain elements of the theatrical release, it poses just as many questions as it provides answers. Is there something else at work here; some fourth dimensional intelligence guiding Donnie? Kelly strongly hints towards this in both the climatic scenes of the film and the commentary.

Donnie Darko: Director's Cut
This release represents another sound technical effort from Metrodome, although it would have been nice if the video had been given an overhaul to remove some of the artefacts and address the contrast issues. Still, these problems aren’t deal-breakers, and the improved audio mix and generous helping of extras go a long way towards compensating for any shortfalls in the transfer. While owners of the previous release may feel slightly aggrieved that much of the bonus material is replicated, I’m glad that Metrodome thought to include the deleted scenes and documentaries. They form an integral part of the Donnie Darko experience, and their presence would have been missed. If pressed I would probably have to say that I still favour the theatrical cut of the film, but even with that said I strongly urge fans of the original to purchase this set as a companion piece.


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