So you’ve probably heard of the cult classic Donnie Darko. Released in 2001, Darko was Jake Gyllenhaal’s first major starring role; a film that blended elements of dark fantasy, science fiction, horror and metaphor, its meaning and story have been debated since the movie came out. The film tells the story of a high school student who escapes his own demise as the jet-engine of a passenger plane falls from the sky and lands on the bed he would normally be sleeping in thanks to his new habit of sleep walking further and further from his house. Enter a talking, demonic-looking, bunny man named Frank, premonitions of the end of the world, what looks like the water snake-thing from The Abyss and Patrick Swayze and you have a small idea of what Donnie Darko is about. With the “Director’s Cut,” a lot of missing pieces are put back in the puzzle box, but is it good?
Director Richard Kelly has put about 20 minutes of extra footage into this cut, many of it available before as deleted scenes on previous releases of the film. If you’ve seen the original and aren’t a hardcore fan, you might not be able to put your finger on what is new and what was there before. For comparison’s sake, there are plenty of fan blogs and comments on message boards that can break down exactly what is easily missed, such as certain scenes starting or stopping a few seconds earlier or focusing on a different character’s expression. The parts that do stand out are what I’d like to talk about, as they certainly change the movie and what you come away with at the end.
There are plenty of criticisms of old films getting the makeover treatment and most fans would rather you leave alone the thing they love. Darko is no exception. As the director’s version has been shown at theaters, fans have picked apart what they feel doesn’t work about the new version. The opening song, “The Killing Moon” by Echo & the Bunnymen, is replaced by “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS. That’s one of the details I would have missed, but apparently “ruined” the movie for enough people that the director’s credibility and talent was called into question. I found that ironic, since Kelly wanted to use “Never Tear Us Apart” originally but wasn’t able to for budgetary reasons. I mention this because I didn’t find the added details and explanations in this version to lessen my enjoyment of the film and was a little surprised by the reaction of fans and critics to the new, expanded material — so your mileage may vary according to what you liked about the film in the first place.
The ambiguity of the original, as a whole, didn’t turn me off, but I certainly couldn’t have given you a definitive summation of what it was all about. The most glaring addition to the director’s cut is the inclusion of pages of the movie’s fictional book, “The Philosophy of Time Travel,” which is only mentioned in the original cut as being written by Roberta Sparrow, the woman Donnie and his girlfriend Gretchen go to visit in the film’s climax. These pages have text that clearly spells out phenomenon that Donnie seems to be experiencing, in particular, the existence of a parallel “tangent” world, and its relationship and effects on the real one. They appear in the film as chapter breaks, much like reappearing screen that keeps counting down to the end of the world.
The other noticeable differences, to me anyway, are an extended scene with Drew Barrymore’s high school teacher character, where she orders her class copies of “Watership Down,” when told not to. The scene helps build a better case for why her character is fired later in the movie. An extended scene with Patrick Swayze’s motivational speaker should be mentioned also. In addition, the only other new element that stood out is a focus on Donnie’s eyeball as he is interacting with Frank the bunny. Flashes of Frank’s face also pop up almost subliminally, much like the demon face pop-up in The Exorcist.
Is It Good?
It’s different. In fact, I find it’s an excellent complement to the original, as I enjoyed the expanded plot that filled in holes I couldn’t. That being said, the underlying mystery of why and what is happening is a big reason Darko has had such a loyal following, and it’s certainly affected by the additional content. I can’t go back and unwatch the original, so I’m not sure if I would have liked Donnie Darko less if I had watched this cut first, but like I said before, I enjoyed filling in the blanks with the new material since I was already familiar with the plot. Some people may feel having concrete answers from the director (who also wrote the movie) ruins the conclusions and interpretations they had of the film; I disagree. I enjoyed what it added more than I would have with another viewing of the original and I don’t believe The Director’s Cut overwrites whatever conclusions fans have drawn about, either. You can always go back and watch that one. As author James M. Cain put it when asked if the movie versions of his his hardboiled crime fiction books ruined them: He responded: “They didn’t ruin my books. They’re fine. They’re still right there on the shelf.”