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Friday 17 September 2004

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut

a movie review by Lawrence Person



Directed by Richard Kelly

Written by Richard Kelly

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone,
Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell,
Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle



After an exceptionally short theatrical run back in 2001, Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko went on to become a DVD cult hit and midnight movie favorite, despite (or perhaps because) no one could quite understand exactly what happened. Now Donnie Darko is back in movie theaters in the form of a director's cut that attempts to clarify some of the original's most puzzling points.

Since I have already written at great length on the original version released on DVD, I'm going to refrain from rehashing points already made and concentrate on the primary differences between that and the director's cut, and how they affect the overall impact of the film.

Most, but not all, of the deleted scenes available on the DVD have been incorporated. More importantly, passages from Roberta Sparrow's The Philosophy of Time Travel have been inserted or overlaid throughout the movie. The result is that an exceptionally astute viewer might possibly deduce Kelly's conception of what the movie is about. The downside is that this version isn't as taut and tightly-paced as the original.

The excerpts from The Philosophy of Time Travel finally reveal the metaphysical mechanisms underpinning the story (Living Receiver, Manipulated Dead, etc.). Since the book was already an integral part of the original movie (even if the contents were unseen), these passages do not seem alien to the movie's flow. Given the existing film, and the constraints Kelly was working on (i.e., not being George Lucas, he couldnít shoot entirely new scenes using the principle actors or digital simulacra thereof), these overlays and intertitles are probably the best way of introducing this information into the movie proper.

All of the extra scenes involving English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) have been restored. On the whole these are a plus. This includes the restoration of Donnie's poem, read aloud in class:

"A storm is coming, Frank says
a storm that will swallow the children
and I will deliver them from the kingdom of pain
I will deliver the children back the their doorsteps
And send the monsters back to the underground
I'll send them back to a place where no-one else can see them
Except for me
Because I am Donnie Darko"
A touch heavy-handed, but still effective. (And if you can't write awful, portentous poetry when you're a teenager, when can you?) Pomroy's new scenes also restore the subtext relating to Richard Adams' Watership Down (a replacement for Graham Greene's banned The Destructors), which, in addition to extending the rabbit motif, provides a nifty bit of foreshadowing of Frank's apocalyptic prophecy in the impending doom foreseen for the burrow, as well as explicitly mentioning "Deus Ex Machina." (This version also make it clear that "Deus Ex Machina" is what Donnie mutters as he's being held at knifepoint near the climax.) They also heighten the mutual dislike between Pomroy and Kitty Farmer, unnecessarily, as those tensions were already amply clear.

Many additional scenes, all of which were on the DVD outtakes, flesh out Donnie's relationship with his family. The scene of Donnie hugging his mother goodbye before she flies off packs enough emotional impact to be well worth the screen time, while also proving, yet again, what an exceptionally good actress Mary McDonnell is. The pumpkin carving scene with Donnie and his sister clears up one puzzle, namely why there's a carved image of Frank in kitchen just before the Halloween party. There's an extra scene shooting the breeze with his dad, and a brief scene with mom and dad in a restaurant which is short and funny enough to merit its inclusion. (Mom: "I just donít think that telling any woman to shove something up her anus should go without consequence." Dad: "I say we buy him a moped.")

This version also solves some smaller problems in the original film: Donnie and Gretchen do try to visit Sparrow once before the climax of the movie, making their subsequent visit seem like far less of an idiot plot device. The hokey beckoning finger at the end of the liquid sphere which summons Donnie to the gun in his parent's closet has been removed entirely, a definite change for the better. And Roberta Sparrow's final words to Donnie ("There's a storm coming. You have to hurry.") make her pivotal role seem more clearly volitional.

There are other small changes whose effect is harder to gauge. Cherita Chen (Jolene Purdy) receives more abuse early and less later. There are music and sound mix changes which seem, to my ear, to be slightly for the worse (perhaps due to the original sounding "right" solely for familiarity). Frank's voice is heard in voiceover on a few scenes, providing Donnie clues, probably unnecessarily.

Alas, there are also changes which actually make the film weaker. We see more of Jim Cunningham 's Cunning Visions infomercial, and more of his motivational talk at the high school. Since it was already obvious that Cunningham was a flaming sphincter, these merely slow the film without providing sufficient payoff. There are more scenes with Dr. Ross, which again slow the film (and their final scene feels static and artificial). And there's a weird, rapid-fire, computer-grid overlay to some of Donnie's visions, including the climax where the flashing word "purge" is visible in the bottom right corner. This is a huge misstep on Kelly's part, suggesting that Donnie's pocket universe is some sort of Matrix-esque artificial environment, something never hinted at and completely incongruous with the original film. (A similar new devices, glimpses of things (Frank, fire, etc.) in Donnie's retina is less annoying and more thematically defensible, as eyes (the Escher poster, Frank's wound) were already an important motif.)

There are still deleted scenes that exist only on the DVD, but all are well cut, either being entirely unnecessary (more Christina Applegate worship, Donnie impaled after the engine crash), or else explicate Kelly's religious subtext far too bluntly.

For good or ill (primarily good), the Director's Cut doesn't fundamentally alter the film; both its strengths and weaknesses remain. The brilliant parts are still brilliant, and the bungled climax is still bungled, but the film's what has become a little clearer, if not the why. I think I slightly prefer the tautness and mystery of the original, but first-time viewers may very well find the Director's Cut a bit more comprehensible. Anyone previously fascinated by the film should make an effort to see the Director's Cut, and anyone who hasn't seen any version should check it out while they have the opportunity. In either version, Donnie Darko's flawed, haunting vision is well worth your time.

(A nearly complete list of the differences between the two versions can be found at http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0246578/alternateversions.)


Lawrence Person's short fiction and poetry has appeared in Asimov's, Analog, Fear!, and the anthologies Alternate Presidents and Horrors! 365 Scary Stories. He edits the Hugo-nominated critical magazine Nova Express.

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