Donnie Darko [DVD]
Screenplay : Richard Kelly
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), Jena Malone (Gretchen Ross), Holmes Osborne (Eddie Darko), Mary McDonnell (Rose Darko), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Elizabeth Darko), Daveigh Chase (Samantha Darko), Beth Grant (Kitty Farmer), Drew Barrymore (Karen Pomeroy), Patrick Swayze (Jim Cunningham), Noah Wyle (Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff), Katherine Ross (Dr. Lillian Thurman)
The titular character of 26-year-old Richard Kelly's feature debut Donnie Darko is a fascinating enigma—a troubled suburban teen with dark eyes and a morbid sense of humor who may or may not be schizophrenic. Haunted by strange visions of a six-foot rabbit with a twisted metallic face and obsessed with questions about time travel and the ability to see one's future, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is not your average high school student.
"Donnie Darko? What the hell kind of name is that? It's like, some kind of superhero or something," says Gretchen (Jena Malone), the new girl in town who will eventually become Donnie's girlfriend because, on some level, they understand each other (he has emotional problems, and she and her mother have had to change their names because her step-father stabbed her mother in the chest four times). Donnie does turn out to be a superhero of sorts; that is, by the end of the film, he will be faced with an enormous decision that will have life-and-death ramifications for many of those around him, as well as himself. In its own way, Donnie Darko is an existentialist parable wrapped up in a darkly humorous teen fantasy and suburban satire.
The story is set in October 1988. The temporal setting aligns the film with the John Hughes cycle of late-'80s teen dramas (Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful), of which Donnie Darko is a happily perverse version (what if one of Hughes' brooding male leads was truly psychotic?). There are references to the Bush-Dukakis election and Star Search '88, and the soundtrack is replete with '80s tunes, including several songs by Tears for Fears.
The physical setting is the picture-perfect Hughes-like suburban world of Middlesex, where all the houses are large, the lawns are well manicured, and the housewives powerwalk each morning (Kelly gives everything a slightly ominous, unnatural appearance with slow and sped-up motion, shooting with the camera close to the ground, and canted angles). All the kids go to an expensive private school, the kind where hysterical parents complain with righteous anger when a young English teacher (Drew Barrymore) dares to teach Graham Greene's The Destructors. At the same time, they applaud the saccharine proclamations of the local self-help guru, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who "motivates" by attributing everything in the world to the two ends of the "lifeline," fear and love. When Donnie dares to challenge such simplistic, dichotomist thinking, he naturally gets into trouble.
Interestingly, despite the overtly satiric tone Kelly takes with the community and especially the school, he is gentle in his view of Donnie's family. Donnie's mother (Mary McDonnell) and father (Holmes Osbourne) are by no means perfect, but they're decent, caring people who truly want the best for their troubled son. Donnie fights with his older sister, Elizabeth (Jake's real-life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal), but you get the sense that there is no deep-seated animosity between them. Kelly is wise to ground the film here in this vision of the Darkos—they're not sitcom caricatures, but rather a realistic family coping as best they can.
Donnie regularly attends therapy sessions with a $200-an-hour psychologist (Katherine Ross) who tries to help him through his issues, but Donnie's problems may be deeper than she can fathom. "I made a new friend," Donnie tells her at one point, to which she replies without hesitation, "Real or imaginary?" He has to think before answering that question, because the "new friend" is the demonic rabbit named Frank, who tells Donnie to commit acts of vandalism and also alludes explicitly to an imminent doom lurking at the end of the month. Donnie sees Frank at night when he sleepwalks, but as the film progresses, Frank begins to invade Donnie's consciousness more and more, at one point appearing next to him and Gretchen at a movie theater (whose marquee advertises a double bill of The Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ).
There are further plot complications, including an old woman who Donnie refers to as "Grandma Death" because of her penchant for walking out in front of cars and a mysterious book titled The Philosophy of Time Travel. Because of all this, for most of its running time, it's difficult to tell where Donnie Darko is headed. We know that Donnie is on a straight trajectory toward meeting his fate, and the film underscores this with title cards giving us the specific date and how much time is left until that fate is met. Of course, we have no idea what his fate will be, and on first viewing the film, you may not entirely understand the implications of what finally happens. Donnie Darko turns out to be a puzzle film, one that rewards a second and third viewing because many early scenes contain crucial information that is understandable only when you know how it ends. It is a strange prism of a film, refracting back on itself and full of sudden and seemingly inexplicable events, such as when the jet engine of a 747 falls of the sky and crashes through the Darkos' house.
Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky, Bubble Boy) is impressive in the lead role—he broods as well as any teen actor I've seen, and he is able to project a vulnerability and a frightening sense of repressed power at the same time. It was also amusing to see '80s matinee idol Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing) playing the despicably pretentious motivational guru, especially once his true interests are startlingly revealed.
In the end, though, it is writer/director Richard Kelly who will benefit the most from this film, as it surely announces a significant new talent. For a feature debut, Donnie Darko is impressively assured, even if its strange atmospheric brew of satirical '80s nostalgia and paranoid horror-movie conventions are ultimately more effective than the sum of its parts.
|Donnie Darko DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 surround|
Dolby 2.0 surround
|Languages||English (5.1, 2.0), French (2.0)|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by writer/director Richard Kelly and actor Jake Gyllenhaal|
Audio commentary by Richard Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick, and actors Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Beth Grant, and Katharine Ross
20 deleted and extended scenes
Cunning Visions infomercials
Original theatrical trailer
5 TV spots
"Mad World" music video
Cast and crew biographies
Donnie Darko web site gallery
Production stills gallery
Concept art gallery
Excerpts from The Philosophy of Time Travel
Soundtrack liner notes
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||March 19, 2002|
|The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer on this DVD is good, but not great. Colors and flesh tones look solid and natural, and shadow detail is quite good, which is particularly important given the number of scenes that take place at night. However, the overall image seemed just slightly too soft. It is by no means distracting and is possibly the intended look of the film, but it stands out slightly from what is generally expected from an anamorphic transfer of a recent film.|
|The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is, in a word, outstanding. The opening moments set the stage, as the distant, swelling sounds of thunder fill the room via seamless imaging and directionality. The use of music throughout is crisp and clear, with a good low-frequency channel and effective use of the surrounds.|
| This DVD boasts two separate screen-specific audio commentaries. The first, by writer/director Richard Kelly and star Jake Gyllenhaal, is a comfortable, laid-back affair that is still informative and often intriguing (Gyllenhaal really cuts loose at times, breaking into various vocal imitations—including Groundskeeper Willy from The Simpsons—that are pretty funny). That Kelly is an impressive new talent is obvious from the film itself, but listening to him explain his ideas in the commentary only added to my respect for him. The second commentary keeps Kelly and also includes a host of others, including producer Sean McKittrick and stars Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Beth Grant, and Katharine Ross. While it's nice to have so many involved in the commentary, it often devolves into chaos and laughter without much substantial input. It sounds like they had a lot of fun recording it, but your time is better spent with Kelly and Gyllenhaal's commentary. |
At one point during the first commentary, Kelly mentions that he hopes there is enough budgeted for the DVD to include deleted scenes. Thankfully, there was, as this disc includes a substantial section of extra material left on the cutting room floor—20 deleted or extended scenes, to be precise, each with optional commentary by Kelly. Most of these scenes flesh out and expand on material already in the film, and some are only a few seconds long. Others, however, are more substantial and might have had a noticeable impact on the narrative had they been included. These scenes are presented in nonanamorphic widescreen and, judging by the image quality, were transferred from video masters, rather than from film elements.
Another notable supplement on the disc is the inclusion of the Cunning Visions infomercial, so you get to see the entirety of the Jim Cunningham video that was only glimpsed in fragments in the film (this also includes an amusing commentary by the fictional Linda Connie, CEO of Cunning Visions, and Fabian Van Patten, the infomercial's director. Also included in this section are still images of Jim Cunningham's two self-help books, the images used in the "His Name is Frank" presentation at the high school, and parts of the fictional company's web site.
The disc includes several still image galleries. The first contains 48 production stills; a second contains 27 images of concept art, ranging from the designs for Frank's rabbit costume, to advertising art for the film itself, to designs for the Middlesex High School logo; a third gallery contains 41 images from the film's original web site. There is also a fascinating gallery of sample pages from the fictional The Philosophy of Time Travel.
Also included is the original theatrical trailer and five TV spots, all presented in nonanamorphic widescreen. There is an extensive section of information on the cast and crew, although it is oddly divided so that the crew members are given brief biographical sketches, whereas the actors only get filmographies. The music video for Gary Jules' cover of Tears for Fears' "Mad World" is also included, as are Richard Kelly's liner notes for the soundtrack, which I found quite interesting as Kelly discusses the uniqueness of the music and how it was created.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick