Director Richard Kelly's film never had impressive box-office sales, but it captured critical support and a large audience on DVD and video. The film's surreal, often inexplicable story line and Kelly's accurate rendition of the 1980s endeared him to younger viewers weaned on Reagan-era platitudes masking a darker undercurrent of religious fanaticism and cynicism.
Hoping to capitalize on the film's growing cult following, Kelly's story of teenager Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has apocalyptic visions of the future, is being re-released theatrically. Kelly's Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut features additional '80s pop tunes and 20 more minutes of footage meant to clarify some of the story's loose ends.
Awakening on a hillside, the sleepwalking Donnie ambles home (to the strains of INXS, which replaces the original cut's Echo and the Bunnymen) to find a sunny suburban normalcy quickly disrupted by the crash of an airplane engine through his family's roof and directly into Donnie's bedroom.
But the sky litter seems minor compared to Donnie's waking nightmares of a demonic, bug-eyed 6-foot bunny who commands him to commit violent acts in an escalating litany of dread that culminates on the favorite teenage holiday of Halloween. The scary rabbit's visions of the future begin to come true as Kelly, to his credit, creates a real sense of inescapable doom. Are Donnie's visions, as his therapist (Katharine Ross) claims, just outcroppings of his paranoid schizophrenia? Evidence of a fragile boy crushed by the weight of his own corrupt, hypocritical age? A search for God? Despite additional footage, many mysteries linger, to the frustration of some viewers and the delight of others.
Kelly's director's cut gives more emotional coherence to the story and several good reasons not to mess with destiny, but it will hardly lure in skeptical viewers. There is also the possibility that the film's newer clarity may actually alienate those fans who loved the original's maddening ambiguity and dreamlike incoherence. Some of the additions are just unnecessary fiddling, like pages from the manual Donnie adopts as his personal manifesto, The Philosophy of Time Travel, that try to "explain" Donnie's out-of-time feelings. The introduction of such sci-fi spiritual gobbledygook only proves that Kelly remains a director unable to pare away the fat from the meat.
Despite its spiritual gloom, Darko's '80s setting and mix of humor and pathos give it the feel of a John Hughes teen comedy crossed with the macabre sensibilities of Stephen King. As in Hughes' world, the teen archetypes are all neatly in a row: There are Donnie's stupid male buddies, perpetually rapping about pussy and beer; the repressed Christian gym teacher; the clueless principal; the soulful English teacher; and the slightly surreal, sardonic parents who seem more like overgrown peers than role models. More than anything, Donnie Darko is a fever dream of high school, a film that strives to capture the intensity of that time by ornamenting it with sci-fi touches.
Three years after its release, Donnie Darko's flaws are still intact, although certain aspects of the film have more resonance in our present election year. Kelly's Instamatic nostalgia for the recent '80s has become an even bigger feature of a VH1 "I Love the 80s" culture whose sense of history is becoming increasingly myopic. And the convoluted spiritual quest undertaken by Donnie -- to find some antidote to the soulless grind of creepy New Age gurus (played by '80s relic Patrick Swayze) and adult hypocrisy -- echoes a building crisis of faith in the wake of Sept. 11 and the Iraq War.
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