J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Donnie Darko: The 15th Anniversary Restored Director’s Cut

It was a box office flop that inspired a non-canonical sequel. For obvious reasons, the late fall of 2001 was not a great time to release a film about a jet engine mysteriously falling out of the sky into the protagonist’s bedroom, but it would find its audience through midnight screenings and home video (including VHS). Now the apocalyptic high school angst is back in the 4K restored director’s cut and the original theatrical edit of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (trailer here), both of which open in select cities starting this Friday.

Much to his family’s consternation, Donnie Darko has gone off his meds. However, he will consider taking them again when strange things start happening around him. For one thing, he is sleepwalking again. During his latest bout of somnambulism, he encounters “Frank,” presumably a dude in a bunny suit or possibly a cosmic rabbit over six feet tall (not even counting the ears), who tells him the world will end inn twenty-six days.

When Darko finally returns home, he finds it cordoned off by the FAA. Evidently, his rendezvous with Frank saved him from the aforementioned jet engine. Much to the investigators’ bewilderment, there are no aircraft in the vicinity missing any hardware. However, Darko will figure out what it is and how it is significant thanks to Frank’s subsequent cryptic messages and The Philosophy of Time Travel, a theoretical treatise written by Roberta Sparrow, a.k.a. “Grandma Death,” an addled old lady in the neighborhood obsessed with her mailbox.

Apparently, there was also a Millennial generation of genre film fans who were obsessed with Donnie Darko. To paraphrase Pacino, they knew the film so well, he was “Don Darko” to them. It seems some prefer the twenty-minute-shorter theatrical version to the director’s cut, because it is more ambiguous and open to interpretation. However, those who start with Kelly’s cut will be struck by the passages from Sparrow’s book that give context to the strange events of Darko’s life. Essentially, they make the nun turned science teacher into a prophet in her own time and dimension.

Jake Gyllenhaal is weirdly compelling as Darko, a rather strange, not especially well-socialized teen, who could indeed be the younger alter-ego of Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler character, Louis Bloom. Arguably, Darko is the film that made the Gyllenhaals the Gyllenhaals, convincingly casting his sister Maggie as Darko’s sister Elizabeth.

Yet, it is a number of the supporting performances that really make indelible impressions. Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne have terrific bantering chemistry together, but they are ultimately quite touching as Darko’s parents. Executive producer Drew Barrymore is subversively sly and witty as Karen Pomery, the only decent teacher at Darko’s progressive prep school. Patrick Swayze willingly blows up his big screen image as sleazy self-help guru Jim Cunningham, while the Katharine Ross totally sells some intense hypnosis sessions, as Darko’s shrink, Dr. Thurman.

Without a doubt, Darko’s creepy look and spot-on 1980s soundtrack contributed immeasurably to its cult success. There is still something about it that gets under your skin (in a good way), perhaps now more than ever. Highly recommended in its director’s cut, Donnie Darko opens this Friday (3/31) in New York, at the Metrograph (theatrical cut) and in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily (both versions).

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